Friday, November 30, 2012

W: Penn State 0 at Mercyhurst 5

The fact is, when Penn State (5-9-1, 1-7-1 CHA) is ready to compete on even terms with Mercyhurst (13-1-1, 5-0-0 CHA), the Nittany Lions will also be ready to compete for a national championship.

PSU simply isn't at that point in the development curve yet, as the fourth-ranked Lakers showed their pedigree in a suffocating win Friday night that saw an 60-10 shot count in favor of the hosts.

There's really no point in rehashing much detail. The game was played almost entirely in Penn State's zone, and other than maybe one Shannon Yoxheimer special - a quick-release shot off of a rare offensive faceoff won to her - the Nittany Lions didn't pose much of a threat to Amanda Makela in the Mercyhurst cage. On the other end, Shelby Bram's goal to finish a nice feed from Christine Bestland in front set the match's tone just one minute after puck drop. Bestland, the third leading scorer in the country, found Stephanie DeSutter charging the back post on a power play in the second period, then scored one herself on the advantage with less than one tick remaining in the frame. Kelsey Welch also scored in the second, while a Vaila Higson blast closed the game's scoring early in the third.

Nicole Paniccia and Celine Whitlinger shared the abuse in net, with the California freshman taking over for the final period and making 26 saves after Paniccia made 29 in the first 40 minutes. The Lakers, on the other hand, extended a shutout streak that now sits at 294:35 and dates back to November 2nd.

As the stats indicate, there wasn't a lot of beauty to take away from a Nittany Lions perspective. Still, there's something about this young team that keeps me engaged and excited, on a level much greater than I planned at the outset of the season. In fact, I can't wait to get back to the rink on Saturday and do it all over again.

Maybe it's the way Tess Weaver hustled down the ice in the first period in an attempt to beat out an icing call. She didn't on that occasion, but the entire bench still took notice of her effort and shouted encouragement. Maybe it's the undoubtedly purple hue of Paige Jahnke's skin after the blueliner blocked what seemed like 300 shot attempts (we didn't get official stats on blocks, so let's go with 300). Maybe its the relentless defending of forwards like Micayla Catanzariti, Birdie Shaw and Jill Holdcroft. Maybe it's the way Jordin Pardoski was still knocking people over with 11 seconds remaining in a long-decided game (yes, body checking is still illegal in women's hockey - not the point). Maybe it's the way Josh Brandwene thanked me for making the trip, even though I like watching this team and it's hardly a chore to do so. I don't know.

What I do know: I'm watching a program with the type of culture that, a couple recruiting classes down the line, could very easily be the difference in beating a program like Mercyhurst.

The Hunter and the Hunted

The Hunted

Once upon a time, Penn State hockey used to measure itself against opponents with "(NCAA)" following their names on the schedule. The reason, of course, is obvious. For all of the Icers' ACHA success, we always aspired to what we have now gained. For individual players, NCAA competition was a chance to show that yes, they were good enough for that level. For the program, and even the ACHA as a whole, it was a chance to - if only temporarily - shed the "club hockey" stereotypes and gain the respect of the hockey community.

The Icers upended Jason Durbin and Wayne State in their first year of DI play.

Division III opponents were more common, but Division I opponents were more memorable, and the Icers managed to chip off two wins over teams in transition to the top flight of college hockey in recent history. On November 27, 1999 PSU rode two goals each from Neal Price and Rob Shaner, as well as 36 Mark Scally saves, to a 5-2 win over Wayne State at the University of Findlay. Six years later, Lukas DeLorenzo and Michael McMullen each had three-point nights and Paul Mammola was the goaltending hero with 41 saves in a 3-2 win at Robert Morris.

Sound vaguely familiar? The hunter is now the hunted, with ACHA big dog Arizona State looking to make their own history Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Pavilion.

It's different, you say? Penn State is better than 1999-2000 Wayne State and 2005-2006 Robert Morris? The Nittany Lions have guys from the USHL?

Well, Arizona State has that too. Freshmen forward Stephen Collins and freshman defenseman Jordan Young spent a combined five seasons in the league, most recently with the Youngstown Phantoms.

PSU has Canadian Jr. A players?

So do the Sun Devils. Seven ASU players spent significant time in one of the leagues, including forwards Faiz Khan, Kale Dolinski, Connor Buchanan, Kory Chisholm, Ben Findlay and Liam Norris, along with goaltender Joseph D'Elia.

PSU has NCAA Division I transfers?

ASU even has one of those, in the form of forward Brian McGinty, who was a member of the Canisius Golden Griffins for two seasons.

Arizona State coach Greg Powers understands that he has a stacked roster for an ACHA team.
“We have a high caliber group of guys that I think, at one point or another, really believed that they would be at [the NCAA Division I] level. This is a great opportunity for them to prove to people at that level that they passed on our guys.”
Goaltender Joe D'Elia (left) and forward Colin Hekle will be vital to ASU's hopes for competitive games.

None of this is to suggest that the Nittany Lions and Sun Devils are equally talented. Penn State runs much deeper, and generally, the PSU players performed better in the prior common leagues. But I would give ASU the nod over, say, NCAA Division III Buffalo State, which beat PSU on October 19th. In fact, Arizona State - 18-0-0 and ranked No. 1 - just might be the best team the ACHA has ever seen (at their current rate, and provided they end the season with the Murdoch Cup). They haven't earned that mark against dusty programs either - five of the wins were against ACHA top ten teams Oklahoma (a future PSU opponent as well), Lindenwood and Oakland. An additional seven came over Arizona, Iowa State and Central Oklahoma, all ranked between 11th and 20th in the ACHA.

Within the mass Sun Devil name drop above, one particularly important player considering the expectations of most for this series is D'Elia. The Davenport transfer has a 12-0-0 record with a goals against average of 1.73 and a save percentage of .929. Dolinski, himself a transfer from Minot State, McGinty, Collins, and Colin Hekle lead a balanced offensive attack. Perhaps most concerning of all is that it's evident that the Arizona State side sees this as a program-defining weekend. Is Penn State, which dismissively labels these games as exhibitions wherever possible, going to be ready for that intensity? Stack the Pads' Derek Meluzio believes so.
I can honestly say I feel Coach Gadowsky will have his players more then up to the challenge and they will come out playing hard. Why might you ask? Lessons learned from the past. Just prior to defeating RIT in the huge upset I talked about earlier, I failed to mention that Penn State was shut out 3-0 by Buffalo State which is an NCAA D3 team.

Coach Gadowsky will remind his team of that game and how if they do not come to play the goals won't get scored on their own. In fact, he probably won't even have to remind them. They will know it on their own and they will want to avoid it from happening again.
Here's hoping.

The greater point to be made in all of this is that there are more good hockey players out there than roster spots on the 59 NCAA Division I hockey teams. We used to know that an awful lot of talent ended up in the ACHA as a result, and I hope we still do. Otherwise...

For a preview on ASU with much more depth than I'm able to provide in a single post, including plenty of discussion on this weekend's series from the opposing perspective, check out the latest edition of Hell Frozen Over, a weekly show on Sun Devils hockey.

The Hunter

While the Nittany Lion men will hunted by a motivated ACHA program, the women will take the opposite position for a two-game set in Erie, against No. 4 Mercyhurst.

It's tough to know where to begin in describing this series, which will be played Friday night at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Maybe that's because it's unlike anything Penn State will face all season, or perhaps - given PSU's status as a first-year NCAA program with 17 freshmen - ever.

Where Robert Morris, probably the Lions' toughest challenge so far, is a great College Hockey America program, Mercyhurst is a great national program. Other than the Colonials' upset win over MU in last year's CHA tournament final, the Lakers have won every single regular season and tournament championship in league history, dating back to the 2002-2003 season, and have appeared in the last eight NCAA tournaments. Mercyhurst was a Frozen Four team in 2009 and 2010, including a national championship game appearance in 2009 (a loss to Wisconsin). In the past, the program has boasted a Patty Kazmaier Award winner in Vicki Bendus (2010), a two-time Olympic gold medalist in Meghan Agosta (Team Canada, 2006 and 2010), and numerous other superstars of the women's game like Bailey Bram and Hillary Pattenden. Mike Sisti, the only coach in Lakers history, has a career record of 346-93-30 (.770).


Mercyhurst's Christine Bestland is third in the nation in scoring.

This is hardly a program resting on its laurels, either.
The Lakers have a seven-game winning streak and have shutout their opponents three times in the last four games, outshooting them 204 to 69. Nine different Lakers scored a point in a two-game sweep at Yale November 16 and 17. Junior Christine Bestland, sophomore Vaila Higson and freshman Emily Janiga all scored three points in the twin 4-0 victories.

Mercyhurst is 12-1-1 so far [4-0-0 in CHA]. Bestland and Janiga lead the Lakers in points with 34 and 22 respectively.

Goaltenders Stephanie Ciampa and Amanda Makela have shared time this season. Ciampa, 8-0-0, has played in over 478 minutes and sports a 1.00 goals against average. She is fourth in the nation with a .951 save percentage. Makela is 4-1-1, has played in over 364 minutes, has posted a .906 save percentage and a 2.14 goals against average.
Mercyhurst shares two opponents with Penn State so far, and the Lakers made short work of both RIT and Lindenwood by a combined 25-3 score over four games. The Nittany Lions lost to and tied RIT at home on October 25th and 26th, while earning a road split with Lindenwood on November 16th and 17th.

The brutally honest truth is that at this point, simply avoiding a fate quite as decisive as those suffered by the Tigers and Lions would be a massive show of progress from Josh Brandwene's young program, and expectations should be set accordingly. The coach, for his part, seems to have things in the proper context, in that the most important thing to be gained this weekend is the continued development of process and a culture, regardless of what the scoreboard ultimately says.
"The game is the game, and (Mercyhurst) is a terrific team," said Brandwene. "I have a lot of respect for Mike Sisti and the job he has done for that program. Our job is to do what we do well and do it to the best of our ability. (We have to) go out and play our game."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

PSU Lands Former Engineer Koudys

According to both Chris Heisenberg and Ken Schott, former RPI defenseman Patrick Koudys has committed to Penn State.

Patrick Koudys

Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL)
6'3", 198 pounds
Smithville, ON
DOB 11/15/1992

Season   Team                   Lge    GP    G    A  Pts  PIM

2009-10  Burlington Cougars     CCHL   50    5   28   33   42  
2010-11  Rensselaer             ECAC   31    1    2    3   14
2011-12  Rensselaer             ECAC   27    1    1    2   22
2012-13  Muskegon Lumberjacks   USHL   20    0    3    3   34

The headlining news with Koudys (pronounced COW-dice, by the way) is that he's an NHL draft pick, the second such player associated with Penn State, after Max Gardiner, of course. The Washington Capitals selected Koudys with their fifth round pick (147th overall) in 2011. Let's work a photo of him wearing a Caps jersey in, just because we're not used to this NHL thing yet.

Koudys left Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute after last season and joined the USHL for his sit-out year, where he presently plays with 2015 commit Conor Garland (and Matt Mendelson, the brother of women's team member Cara) on the Muskegon Lumberjacks. The Jacks are off to a great start at 12-7-1, with Koudys second on the team in plus-minus at +5.

Here's what RPI blog (and FoTYT) Without a Peer had to say upon his leaving their program in the spring.

Koudys came to RPI with a lot of upside potential, but did have a rough sophomore year defensively after a solid freshman campaign.

It doesn't do us much good to speculate about underlying reasons for the departure. [RPI coach] Seth Appert told the Troy Record that it was a decision that Koudys himself made in part because of a lack of playing time. Why Koudys was a healthy scratch down the stretch is unknown and will likely remain that way. He was not injured this season, which means he was a healthy scratch on 12 different occasions this year on a team with only seven defensemen.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that the Washington Capitals weren't satisfied with his development in Troy (or just his playing time) and wanted him elsewhere, but Koudys plans to return to juniors rather than sign with the Oshawa Generals, the OHL team that has his rights. That means he's looking to use his last two years of NCAA eligibility in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and in most cases an NHL team leaning on a player to leave school would result in a bee-line for major junior.

Where he ends up from here is a bit of a mystery, but given that he majored in civil engineering at RPI, that might narrow it down a bit if he maintains his field of study. It makes Clarkson and Yale likely potential landing points, and would put Union out of the running, though he does have a connection there in Josh Jooris, who he played Junior A hockey with in Ontario.

At any rate, it's tough to lose a guy with as much potential as Koudys, but hopefully he lands on his feet. He's a good kid and his father, Jim, is a great person. Unless we see him across the ice at any point down the road, best of luck to him in the future.

Before his apparent falling out of favor with the RPI coaching staff, Koudys - who describes himself as a big, physical defenseman who makes smart decisions with the puck - actually enjoyed a great deal of success as a freshman, in 2010-2011. That year, and with the Ontario blueliner regularly in the lineup, the Engineers went 20-13-5 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time since Ned Harkness' revival of the program in 1949 (I suppose it's worth a quick mention that Rensselaer split a pair with Guy Gadowsky's Princeton team that year, with Koudys registering a shot and a -2 rating over both games). Washington was pleased enough to nab him with their second pick (the Caps traded their picks in each of the first three rounds) following that season.

Photo: Sara Melikian/RPI Athletics

So why use his last two years of eligibility at Penn State?
“Penn State was the right choice for me because it was more than I expected when visiting the campus with the new state of the art facilities being built, and the coaching staff is dedicated to helping me develop my skills for the pro level,” said Koudys. “Penn State has everything to offer both on and off the ice for me because it is close to home and the engineering program they offer is second to none.”
The reference to PSU's engineering program is hardly fluff - Koudys was a dean's list student as a civil enginnering major at an institution recently rated behind only CalTech, MIT and Stanford among the world's engineering schools. Their athletic teams are even named the "Engineers," if you didn't know (or catch it above). So yeah, he's probably not dumb.

Prior to his time in Troy, NY, he skated for the CCHL's Burlington Cougars in 2009-2010, where he and PSU freshman Luke Juha were the two highest scoring defensemen on the team. Interestingly, from there, Koudys went to RPI and - after another year with the Cougars - Juha committed to rival Clarkson. Now in a bizarre way, the puck mover and the brick wall will bring things full circle as Nittany Lions. Burlington was 39-8-3 that year to take the West Division title, but was upset in the league semifinals by second-place Newmarket. Prior to his season in Junior A, Koudys played Junior B for the Welland Jr. Canadians in 2008-2009 and for the Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs organization from 2002 through 2008.

Koudys is the product of a true hockey family, as his father Jim was a former 12th-round pick of the New York Islanders in 1982, although he never made it to the NHL. Jim's brother Randy was a four-year player at RPI from 1980 through 1984. Randy's two sons also are playing or played college hockey, as one, Dan, is a senior forward at Bentley, while Joey is playing professionally in Germany following four years with Alabama-Huntsville.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

NCAA Elevation: Hard Truths and Luck

A confession: I'm naturally skeptical when people start discussing the prospects of schools presently without NCAA hockey adding the sport, regardless of the supporting arguments. If you're a Penn Stater, how could you not be? I mean, for years, decades, we supposedly did everything right, and... nothing. If it wasn't money for the Ice Pavilion drying up and ruining the plan, it was World War II. Yes, we eventually met a billionaire who helped clear all of the hurdles, but the struggle preceding that should never be forgotten.

Because of that struggle, I tend to get frustrated with people who casually throw candidates for NCAA promotion out there. Sometimes it's Illinois (where you at, Jimmy John?), sometimes it's the west coast, sometimes it's... uhhh... Buffalo, sometimes it's Rhode Island (even ten years ago). Now it's Maryland and Rutgers, thanks to their brand new Big Ten memberships.

URI's Boss Ice Arena meets the facility standards of Atlantic Hockey, but a Big Ten team will likely have to spend $50 million or more to construct an adequate arena.

Big Ten hockey can be a double-edged sword in that the revenue (potentially, at least) is greater, but so is the cost of entry. It would be one thing for Rhode Island to find some money for Atlantic Hockey's maximum of 12 scholarships - or not, Connecticut didn't even offer that prior to announcing its departure for Hockey East - and go NCAA out of their current rink, the completely-adequate-for-that-purpose Brad Boss Ice Arena, which would become the third largest facility in the AHA. The Big Ten is a whole 'nother thing. Big Arenas, Big Budgets, Big Life, Big Stage, Big Ten. Remember: Penn State, in its flush-with-cash pre-scandal days, got an $88 million donation specifically for hockey, then examined the situation and decided that still wasn't enough. Terry Pegula later added $14 million to to that number, and the university sought somewhere around $10 million from other sources.

Breaking PSU's $112 million down, $89 million was for the Pegula Ice Arena. So if you can get the building somewhere else, that number drops to a more reasonable $23 million, mostly to endow scholarships and alleviate future budget issues (or more than that, if retrofitting an existing arena with an ice plant, or something else along those lines). And that number also includes a women's team, which may or may not be necessary based on Title IX requirements.

Just to get that hurdle out of the way, Rutgers is 51.4 percent male and a rough count says that men take up 320 of 670 (47.8 percent) of the Scarlet Knights' varsity roster spots - obviously, even adding a hockey team to the men keeps the number just under 50 percent. Maryland (53.0 percent male) uses 288 of 508 (56.7 percent) roster spots on men. While there's certainly much more involved with Title IX compliance, on the surface, it would seem that RU is in okay shape, while Maryland is in a less flexible spot.

Facility-wise, and at least superficially, both Rutgers and Maryland have work to do. RU would likely need an entirely new rink. Maryland at least stands a chance of adding ice to the ten-year-old Comcast Center (their 17,950-seat basketball arena), but as Penn State has seen first-hand, it's often easier to just build a new rink. Either approach, regardless, is a significant expense. It should be noted that it's possible to construct an adequate facility for less than $89 million - RIT's 4,500-seat Gene Polisseni Center, scheduled for a 2014 opening, has an estimated price tag of $35 million, while Notre Dame's 5,022-seat Compton Family Ice Arena cost around $50 million.

It's conceivable, then, that a start-up needing a major-conference rink could enter the game for something around $60 million. But is that how you want to get at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan - by cutting corners right from the beginning? Penn State certainly didn't think that was a good idea.

In some ways, Brandon DeLibero's Rutgers program is a much more likely candidate for elevation than Maryland. But the hard reality is that it would be a very long road for either school.

The revenue potential with the new Big Ten additions is certainly vast, in both directions. While the conference is banking on lucrative access to television sets in the New York City and Washington-Baltimore markets, Maryland stands to make $100 million more in conference payouts by 2020 than it would have by remaining in the ACC. The ACC's television payout dwarfs that of the Big East, so while I couldn't find a breakdown specific to Rutgers, it's a safe assumption that RU stands to gain even more than Maryland.

So is it as simple as saving up the newfound riches from 2014 (when both schools officially join) until 2020, then having a nest egg as big as Penn State's? Well, not quite.
[Big Ten commissioner Jim] Delany found two desperate, cash-strapped members in Maryland, which had to drop seven sports last summer, and Rutgers, which spent more money than any public university in the country on athletics from a school budget that was $28 million in the red. Both schools jumped at the chance when offered a long-term financial bailout, and for the opportunity to be with what they consider better company.
Both schools have a financial mess of an athletic department right now, to the point where they had to shed part of their identities for the payday. And as mentioned in the quote, Maryland's situation is severe enough to force their chopping sports.
Men’s and women’s swimming; men’s tennis; women’s water polo; acrobatics and tumbling (formerly known as competitive cheer); and two men’s track programs, cross-country and indoor track and field, were eliminated. Those programs did not show enough progress toward raising eight years’ worth of total costs by June 30.

The announcement comes after Maryland President Wallace D. Loh accepted the recommendation of a 17-member panel last November that called for the school to eliminate eight athletic programs to offset a deficit that is projected to reach more than $4 million this fiscal year and could top $17 million by 2017.
Does that seem like a school that's even about to consider adding anything, let alone the notably expensive sport of hockey? Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey raises a counterpoint in the form of one prominent Terrapins booster.
What makes Maryland all the more intriguing, is the close relationship of Under Armour founder and Maryland alum Kevin Plank with the school’s athletic department. Now billionaires don’t just give away money, but Plank probably wouldn’t mind seeing a potential for a new revenue stream opening up for his alma mater’s athletic department.
The counterpoint to the counterpoint? Plank either allowed or could not prevent things from progressing to their current state, so...

Rutgers does seem like it scores a better on most counts than Maryland - including both the quality of their ACHA team and their conference exit fee of $10 million, compared to Maryland's $50 million. Still, RU has to overcome their current red ink, and...

The Bryce Jordan Center was PSU's last great near-miss with respect to NCAA hockey.

When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990, the university underwent a massive facilities upgrade to bring everything up to the conference's standard. The most visible and obvious example is the Bryce Jordan Center, which opened in 1996 and cost $78.2 million in 2012 dollars. Rutgers may have their very own Rec Hall in the form of the 8,000-seat Louis Brown Athletic Center, which is set to be the Big Ten's smallest basketball venue, and it's entirely possible that they'll want to upgrade too. Does that open the door for a multi-purpose arena which includes ice? I suppose, but as mentioned, that costs extra. The current sports will always take priority, so if Rutgers has to make a choice between an arena with ice and an ice-free arena with enhancements to their football stadium, they're going to choose the latter. When the BJC needed something cut, it was the ice.

So, to recap: high cost of entry, heavily struggling athletic departments, conference exit fees, priority on stabilization and getting existing sports teams up to snuff.

It's precisely for those reasons that I encourage people to forget about Maryland and Rutgers and look to schools already in the conference, particularly those examining or building new arenas. Illinois is looking to renovate Assembly Hall instead of building a new facility, a likely blow to their prospects of NCAA status. Indiana's trustees have already voted in favor of a new arena "when appropriate." Nebraska's Pinnacle Bank Arena, scheduled to open at the same time as the Pegula Ice Arena, will include the potential to serve as an ice facility (Huskers blog Corn Nation recently did an outstanding piece on this very issue relative to their school, with decidedly mixed opinions on the topic). Sure, there's always a chance that a school finds its own Pegula to make much of this discussion moot, but... really? That's what you're counting on?

If it was easy, everyone would do it. But it's a little less hard for the schools that have stable finances and are already in the Big Ten.

Three national championships. Nine Frozen Fours. Hockey state. Ryan Miller. Loses money.

In the event that a school - Rutgers or Maryland or anyone else - overcomes all of that, there's at least a chance of hockey serving a revenue producer, as USCHO's Todd Milewski points out in an excellent piece. Still, questions remain.

Michigan State (a very historic program) and Ohio State lose over one million dollars per year on men's hockey. Michigan turns about half a million in profit, but doesn't have to worry about supporting a women's NCAA program. Wisconsin also makes money on men's hockey, but loses money when counting the women. We don't yet know about Penn State. That leaves Minnesota, an outlier in just about every way when it comes to hockey. Will the formation of the Big Ten and the resulting BTN broadcasts enhance anyone's hockey-specific numbers or add anything to the pot? Honestly, I have my doubts. Even a more optimistic outlook must acknowledge that it's a giant unknown right now. It's often said that hockey can be a revenue sport, but it only seems to play out that way for the Gophers, North Dakota, and maybe Boston University and a select few others. For Big Football State U. to add the sport and expect it to turn a profit or even pay for itself is unrealistic in my opinion.

From purely a dollars and cents, risk-conscious standpoint, major-conference hockey really doesn't look like something worth pursuing unless someone shows up with a high eight- or nine-figure donation to get things rolling, address the facility expense (which exists and is significant in a vast majority of cases) endow scholarships (among the largest year-to-year expenses) and protect against future shortfalls. And the donor should probably be a big hockey fan and stand firm on the donation's purpose, because with a check that large, non-hockey people are going to try to get a bite at the apple.

Ultimately, my point is this: Penn State was lucky. Damn lucky. To expect that luck to magically reproduce itself at campuses all across the country simply because college hockey's conference structure is more amenable to adding teams is foolish.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Club Sandwich: November 27th

Freshman forward Mandy Mortach and her teammates are ranked fifth in ACHA WD2.

Both of University Park's ACHA teams were out of action last weekend and will remain so this weekend. However, both recently received top five recognition in their respective polls.


The first ACHA Women's Division 2 rankings of the year were released over the weekend, with Penn State placing fifth overall, fourth among teams in the East Region.

                        Pts.  E/W
1. California (PA)        7   (E)
2. West Chester           8   (E)
3T. Wisconsin-Stout      22   (W)
3T. Delaware             22   (E)
5. Penn State            26   (E)
6. North Dakota State    27   (W)
7. Minnesota-Duluth      38   (W)
8. Michigan State        42   (W)
9T. Wisconsin-La Crosse  45   (W)
9T. Minot State          45   (W)
11. Slippery Rock        50   (E)
12. Rainy River          60   (W)
13. Connecticut          64   (E)
14. South Dakota State   70   (W)
15. Alaska               75   (W)

According to the ACHA website, the WD2 tournament has been expanded to eight teams this season, up from six last year. Despite the issuance of a combined ranking this time around, it's more important to note each school's placement relative to others with the same east-west designation, as the top four from each of the two regions will receive an invite to the national championships. The tournament will take place over the second weekend in March at the Ashburn Ice House in Ashburn, VA.

Long story short: Penn State, which presently has a 3-1-1 record, is in as of this moment. Undoubtedly, the pollsters were impressed with PSU's sweep at No. 8 Michigan State on October 13th and 14th, and possibly even with two tight losses at No. 1 Cal (one in overtime) to open the season.

The next ranking, due out in mid-December, will be interesting because if Penn State is to be punished for its (understandably, given that it's a first-year organization and the soon-to-be-alleviated ice time crunch in central Pennsylvania) light schedule, it will likely be in that poll as no games will be played between now and then. Six games in January and February - including against No. 2 West Chester and No. 11 Slippery Rock - will keep PSU front-of-mind after that point.


For the Ice Lions, still 9-4-1 (3-0-0 MACHA North) following a home split with Ohio on November 16th and 17th, the latest ACHA Division 2 Southeast Region poll was more confirmation than novelty since it was the second ranking of the season.

1. Miami (11)             9
2. Rowan                 20
3. Bowling Green         33
4. Penn State            40
5. MD-Baltimore County   41   
6. Liberty               50
7. Toledo                56
8. Rider                 82
9. Virginia Tech         84
10. Temple               93
11. Delaware             96
12. Maryland            102
13. Florida Gulf Coast  105
14. Pittsburgh          127
15T. Akron              131
15T. Dayton             131

Others receiving votes: Georgetown, Ohio

Penn State held steady at fourth, and behind the same three teams as in the first poll. Given some of the game results to date - notably PSU's 7-3 loss to Miami at the ACHA Showcase on October 6th - it's hard to take too much issue with the team's placement. No. 2 Rowan, of course, is a MACHA North rival of the Ice Lions, and games on December 15th (at Rowan) and January 26th (at the Ice Pavilion) will provide an obvious opportunity for PSU to improve its position.

In ACHA D2, the top two teams in the Southeast and each of the other three regions at the end of the regular season receive an automatic bid to the ACHA national tournament, held March 15th through 19th in St. Louis. Teams ranked third through tenth in each region battle for two other bids (per region, so eight total) in regional tournaments on the weekend of February 23rd and 24th.

The Ice Lions are back at it December 7th and 8th, with home games against Delaware and Temple.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Ohio Contest Moving to Hershey

UPDATE 11/27, 10:58 A.M.: Penn State has confirmed the move. Here's information on tickets, which will go on sale this Friday at 10:00 a.m.:
Tickets can be purchased at or through the GIANT Center Box Office, which is open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., at 717-534-3911. General admission tickets will cost $10 each, while club seats will cost $15 each.

According to an email sent to Hershey Bears club seat holders, the Penn State game against former ACHA archrival Ohio on February 1st is being moved from the Ice Pavilion to Hershey's Giant Center, the arena of the Washington Capitals' AHL affiliate.

I'm satisfied with the legitimacy of what I received, so here it is, with the part about it being confidential, the property of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, etc. conveniently cut off. I threw my ethics out the window a long time ago, no worries there. I did not obtain the attachments referenced in the email.

Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, that's all I know about it at this time - I assume information about honoring tickets purchased when the game was scheduled to be on campus along with refund information for ticket buyers unable to make the trip will be coming with an official announcement. The general admission status of most seats would seem to lend itself to the easy transfer of venues, however. UPDATE: According to the PSU release, the game was not offered in any ticket packages or single-game sales, making the need for honoring tickets or issuing refunds moot. I checked my season tickets and sure enough, the February 1st Ohio game is excluded. Sneaky, sneaky.

On several levels, the move makes sense. For starters, it means that Penn State has played or will play at every NHL or AHL arena in Pennsylvania this season as the program attempts to build a broad following. On October 13th at Mohegan Sun Arena, home of the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Nittany Lions beat AIC 4-3 on David Glen's overtime goal for PSU's first NCAA win. The Three Rivers Classic on December 28th and 29th will be played at the Pittsburgh Penguins' Consol Energy Center, while a January 19th game against Vermont will grace the ice of the Pens' cross-commonwealth rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

It also grants a bigger stage to the likely final chapter of the legendary Penn State-Ohio rivalry (although it should be mentioned that the final game the next day will still be at the Ice Pavilion). The Icers earned a 48-23-5-8 (W-L-T-OTL) record against the Bobcats from 1981-1982 through last season, including a 9-4 record in ACHA tournament competition. The teams met in the ACHA finals four times, with Ohio winning the 1995 and 2004 titles and PSU emerging with the Murdoch Cup in 1998 and 2003. The aforementioned win over AIC in Wilkes-Barre drew a crowd of 5,389, and a similar throng on February 1st would be a fantastic send-off for the series.

Penn State hockey also has a remarkable history in Hershey, as the 1940-1947 varsity team played eight games at Giant Center's predecessor, Hersheypark Arena (which still stands next door). The informal teams that preceded the first varsity attempt played another eight in Hershey, while the Icers added three, although none more recently than a 6-2 win over Duquesne on January 4, 1980.

Three Stars: November 19-25

2014 defense commit Bo Pellah is getting a serious look from NHL scouts.

3. Gadowsky Lands 2013 Transfer
(Lions 247)

Recent commit Eric Scheid, an Alaska-Anchorage transfer, gets the Andrew Dzurita treatment. Your money quote:
“I expect us to really surprise some people. I think a lot of people have been writing Penn State off to not be competitive for the first couple of years, but people don’t understand how easy it is for Penn State to recruit with their facilities and coaching staff. With the guys they have now, I think next year we’re going to make a big jump and turn a lot of heads.”
2. Union-Penn State postgame report
(Schenectady Daily Gazette)

I don't normally include recap-ish stuff in Three Stars, but I'm making an exception as a way to give a stick tap to Ken Schott, who covers Union hockey and is easily the hardest-working opponent beat writer I've encountered this season. He made my life ridiculously easy this past weekend with his in-game updates and with his postgame content (including players and coaches from both sides).

This is Schott's blog post about Sunday's PSU-Union game. Be sure to read it, watch the linked videos, and give him a follow on Twitter as well, you won't be disappointed when doing any of those things.

1. 14 BCHLers, plus one alum, listed in latest Central Scouting rankings

Halifax's Fucale tops Central Scouting's list of goalies

In 2011 and 2012, Penn State sort of flirted with the NHL Entry Draft in the form of Luke Juha and Mark Yanis, both of whom were considered at different points of the process but ultimately passed over. However, it's starting to look more and more likely that PSU will finally have a player drafted (while associated with the school, apologies to Max Gardiner) in 2014, with Eamon McAdam and Bo Pellah standing as the top two candidates for the distinction of being the first.

The latest evidence: the listing of both Pellah and McAdam in the NHL Central Scouting Service preliminary rankings. McAdam was named the USHL's best goaltending prospect, while Pellah received a C rating, which loosely translates to fourth, fifth or sixth round consideration.

McAdam was also named one of five draft-eligible goalies worthy of first or second round consideration by The Pipeline Show.

Best of the Rest

What If? BC To The Big Ten: A Hockey Perspective
(BC Interruption)

With the Big Ten drastically lowering its standards to chase television sets of late... hey, why not Boston College? Added bonus:
While joining the Big Ten would put BC in a stable football conference and make the athletics department more secure financially, it would be absolutely catastrophic for the hockey program and would effectively destroy BC hockey as we know it.
Get on the phone, Jim Delany.

(Deadly Nuts)

Deadly Nuts is absolutely one of my favorite blogs because it's sort of what I wish I could be if I was a) funnier and b) less inhibited. Oh, and c) could recap hockey games using MS Paint. Seriously, take a look at this post covering OSU's sweep of Northern Michigan two weekends ago, it's unreal.

Duxbury's Amie Varano commits to play ice hockey at Sacred Heart

A recruiting miss for the women, as Varano considered the Nittany Lions, along with DIII schools Norwich, Castleton State and the University of New England. And picked Sacred Heart, which would be my last choice of the group.

New hoop event at NHTI will replace Jacob's Bridge

Here's some insight on a possible St. Anselm move to NCAA Division I for both men's and women's hockey - and why it may be more likely now than nine years ago, when a previous batch of serious rumors hit. St. Anselm's women would likely join Penn State in College Hockey America, should DI status become a reality.


Former Icers player and coach and long-time sponsor and booster Mark Horgas found a couple quality teammates at the rink last Monday night in the form of women's players Jill Holdcroft (left) and Kendra Rasmussen (right).

Daily Dish: Should USA Hockey's Dave Ogrean Resign?

This column calls for a high-ranking official in an organization to resign because he allegedly didn't do enough to stop abuse. Never heard of anything like this happening before, that's for sure.

What do I think? I don't know, ask USA Hockey fanboy Chris Peters what he thinks. Then I'll take the opposite position, because he's probably wrong.

Huntsville’s biggest concern is off ice
(Omaha World Herald)

I like to toss something in about Alabama-Huntsville once in a while, just because. This one's a nice update on their present status, which is...
In January, the WCHA is expected to discuss whether to extend an invitation to Alabama-Huntsville to join the league.

“Without a conference, it’s going to be difficult to keep the program, without a doubt,” Chargers coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. “I don’t think the WCHA is looking at it that way — the WCHA needs to do what’s best for the conference. But I think Huntsville has a lot to offer. I don’t see the downside.”
It goes without saying by now, but best of luck to our brothers in non-varsity origins. UAH visits the Ice Pavilion on February 8th and 9th.

Hockey withdrawal
I started the year by watching the Rochester Americans, and that lasted for awhile, but it's just not the same. It's not NHL hockey. It's not the Buffalo Sabres. I also covered the Buffalo State men's hockey team and that was very intense, especially in the season opener when they defeated Penn State, but still, after some time, it didn't make up for NHL hockey.
What's "NHL hockey?"

Sunday, November 25, 2012

M: Penn State 1 at Union 4

On the surface, Penn State (6-5-0, 5-4-0 NCAA DI) was swept by No. 8/8 Union (8-2-1, 3-1-0 ECAC). It was the first time a PSU hockey team failed to win during a series since January 7-8, 2011 at Ohio and the one goal scored in two games was the lowest output since a weekend at Rhode Island two months prior to that trip to Bird Arena.

Underneath the surface? I sincerely pity any Penn State hockey fan who didn't drop the $7.95 each night to watch it happen.

It wouldn't have been entirely surprising if the Dutchmen, after what their side may have considered an embarrassingly close 2-0 win over a start-up program Saturday night, had charged back to blast PSU out of Messa Rink Sunday afternoon. That was not the case. In fact, Sunday's effort was arguably an even better one from the Nittany Lions, despite the difference in the final margin.

Once again, PSU's undisputed star was Matt Skoff, who cemented his grip on the top goaltending spot and pushed some of his evident early-season jitters even further into the past. For the second straight day, Skoff set a career high in saves - 42, following 40 Saturday night - and for the second straight day, he gave the Nittany Lions a chance to beat a great hockey team. Some people consider a team lucky when receiving great goaltending to balance out tilted ice. Not me. I just see it as great goaltending from a great goaltender. Hey, that's part of the game too.

Kenny Brooks, shown here against Army, turned in his typical two-way effort - including seven shots.

Players like David Glen and Kenny Brooks prefer to make their own luck as well. After Union sophomore Daniel Ciampini poked home a rebound of a Greg Coburn point blast to make the score 1-0 for the Dutchmen after 20 minutes, two of PSU's best forwards so far this season put on their hard hats and got to work. Just 50 seconds into the middle period...
From behind the cage, [Max] Gardiner sent the puck to the right corner where Glen slid it across the ice to the right half wall. Brooks chased the puck down and took a shot from the circle that [Union goaltender Troy] Grosenick stopped, but Glen was positioned right on the doorstep to knock it past the netminder.
Two minutes later, Union coach Rick Bennett used his timeout. The strategy worked, as his team largely carried the play for most of the rest of the frame, forcing Skoff's best work of the late afternoon. In all, the freshman was a perfect 17-for-17 in the second period. In addition to shooting the puck with great frequency, the Dutchmen also started to draw penalties. Thanks to two minor penalties to Bryce Johnson and one to Michael Longo, the Nittany Lions spent about half of the last 12:19 of the period playing 4-on-5.

The next penalty, an early third period cross-checking call to Brian Dolan, would prove too much to kill. Quality end-board work from Ciampini and Wayne Simpson resulted in a pass up top to Shayne Gostisbehere. The third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers then dropped a center-point bomb through traffic and past Skoff. Five minutes later, Mark Bennett won an offensive faceoff to Skoff's left and got to the opposite circle in time to deflect Ryan Forgaard's wrister in for a 3-1 Union lead. The goal was reviewed for a possible high stick on Bennett's part, but upheld.

Just as in Saturday's game, PSU did not fade away in the face of a third period deficit. Following the Bennett goal, the Nittany Lions registered seven of the game's next ten shots. Skoff was pulled for an extra skater with 2:56 left, but Dan Carr took advantage of the empty net for the final goal of the match.

Union goaltender Troy Grosenick, a Hobey Baker Award finalist last year, stopped 37 of the Nittany Lions' 38 shots. Gostisbehere's game-winning goal was the only power play marker of the game from four attempts by each team.

It bears repeating, one last time: against the No. 8 team in the country, which won the ECAC regular season and playoff championships and advanced to the Frozen Four last season, Penn State played two games that were very much in doubt in the third period. As a first-year NCAA Division I program.

And against my nature, I'm thrilled despite losing. Simply put, it's because the day when Penn State fans are justifiably upset about losing to a Union seems closer than ever.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

M: Penn State 0 at Union 2


Considering the circumstances, Penn State (6-4-0, 5-3-0 NCAA DI) may have played its best game of the season Saturday night in what was effectively a 1-0 game against Union (7-2-1, 3-1-0 ECAC). The Dutchmen, of course, are presently ranked eighth in the country and played in the Frozen Four last year after winning the ECAC regular season and tournament championships.

And they escaped - yes, escaped - at home against first-year NCAA Division I team PSU.

It does need to be said that Union dominated most statistical categories including shots (42-22) and faceoffs (35-21). Still, Matt Skoff built on his performance against Air Force on November 10th played another outstanding game to serve as the equalizer. The freshman from McKees Rocks, PA read plays and spotted the puck superbly all game long, rarely making things look difficult despite intense pressure at times. He was beaten once in 41 shots faced - by Wayne Simpson's wrister off right wing assisted by Kyle Bodie and Ryan Forgaard midway through the game - but gave no indication that he's about to give up the starting job apparently earned against Air Force any time soon.

Matt Skoff stymied the powerful Dutchmen Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions very nearly tied things up in short order after Simpson's goal. From the Union recap:
[Dutchmen goalie Colin] Stevens made perhaps his best save of the night later in the period, stopping Penn State's Nate Jensen with a glove save on the goal line, as Jensen tried to stuff in a rebound off a shot from Michael McDonagh at 4:13. The play was reviewed by referees Kyle Allen and Peter Feola on video, and the call was upheld.
To underscore how close of a call it was, the radio teams from both Union and Penn State stated during the review process that they thought the puck had crossed the line.

A few minutes into the third period, a funny thing happened. PSU, which had been on the back foot for most of the first 47 minutes, suddenly became the more assertive team, and actually outshot Union 10-7 over the last 12:30 of a one-goal game. David Glen had three of the ten as the Lions pushed for overtime, but with Skoff on the bench late, Cole Ikkala sealed the result with an empty netter off a 2-on-1 with Max Novak.

In addition to Skoff, Glen and Jensen and in my opinion, the defense pair of Luke Juha and Peter Sweetland excelled, as did Taylor Holstrom, who seemed to be in the middle of most of what PSU had to offer offensively. Casey Bailey and Kenny Brooks were great on both ends. Bailey likely saved a goal with a blocked shot at the post on the follow-up to a wraparound attempt on one of the few occasions Skoff wasn't in position.

Stevens finished with 22 saves to pick up his second shutout of the season. Neither team converted on the power play, with Penn State going 0-for-2 and Union ending 0-for-4.

Arguably the biggest concern for Penn State is the status of defenseman Joseph Lordo, who was hobbled late in the game. With Mark Yanis already out thanks to a fractured ankle, PSU only had seven available defensemen going into the tilt. We'll know Lordo's status (at least to some extent) relatively quickly, as PSU will take another shot at the Dutchmen Sunday afternoon at 4:00 p.m.

What's Union?

There has been a trend involving most of the Nittany Lions' strongest opponents this season, and it's not a positive one from a PSU perspective. Guy Gadowsky's crew (6-3-0, 5-2-0 NCAA DI) passed the first two significant challenges with a 2-1-0 combined record, but...
  • RIT: The Tigers opened their season with a split at Michigan prior to hosting Penn State, but have won exactly one game since then (against perennial Atlantic Hockey whipping boy AIC) and sit at 2-7-3.
  • Air Force: Since their two games at the Ice Pavilion, the Falcons have only taken the ice once, in a 2-1 loss at Connecticut Friday to drop to 3-5-3 overall. A tough early schedule contributed to that mark, so it may still be fair to consider the academy among the AHA favorites.

RIT has struggled mightily this season, and not just with Casey Bailey.

Looking ahead, there's...
  • Miami: With impressive weekends at Michigan (split), at Ferris State, last year's NCAA runners-up (split) and home against resurgent Providence (tie-win), the RedHawks are 7-2-3 and ranked fifth in the most recent polls. The problem? PSU might not actually play them.
  • Ohio State: The Buckeyes have muddled to a 5-3-3 start, although with a CCHA mark of 4-1-2, thanks largely to a sweep of Northern Michigan last weekend and a win over Lake Superior State Friday night. I suppose the good news is that the Nittany Lions are guaranteed to play one of OSU or Miami. The bad news is that getting paired with Robert Morris for the first game at the Three Rivers Classic took the possibility of both off the table.
  • Vermont: After being destroyed by Minnesota Friday night, the Catamounts are 2-6-2 and not likely to improve from there.
  • Michigan State: Sparty, which made the NCAA tournament last season, hasn't seemed to fully recover from being brutalized by Minnesota to open the season. While MSU did manage a tie with Miami last weekend and a win over Michigan the weekend before, they're just 4-6-2.
  • Wisconsin: The 1-6-2 Badgers have not only been a train wreck on the ice, they've also had to deal with the sudden departure of assistant coach Bill Butters, who was replaced this week by Matt Walsh.
Long story short, the bigger opponents on the schedule have either struggled or, as with Miami, there's no guarantee that they are, in fact, actual opponents.

Then there's Union, Penn State's first major-conference opponent, which hosts the Nittany Lions at 7:00 p.m. Saturday and 4:00 p.m. Sunday.

"What's Union?" was my dad's reaction when I mentioned the huge series on Thanksgiving. Since I use him as my "average Penn Stater" barometer, let's get into that a little bit, with apologies to any devoted college hockey or Union fans reading. Given that we're all sort of new to this and maybe can't talk about a Union with the same fluency as, say, Delaware or West Chester, I consider it one of my duties to offer background where possible. And hey, it's a learning experience for me too - between the ACHA and the NHL (a pro hockey league, if you've forgotten), I'd be lying if I claimed to be an NCAA hockey junkie before 2010 or so.

Anyway, Union College is a liberal arts school of 2,194 undergraduates in Schenectady, NY. It was founded in 1795 and is the alma mater of, among others, President Chester A. Arthur and former Secretary of State William Seward, who is probably best known for his purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Apparently, the school was a big deal early in its history.
[In 1800], Union was graduating as many students as any other college in America. Along with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, it was known as one of the "big four."
So... right there with Harvard, Yale and Princeton five years after being chartered, eh? I'll take your word for it on that one, Union College website. Pretty impressive until considering that there were only 22 other colleges in the entire United States at the time Union started up.

An accounting of the school since dropping out of the "big four" around 1801 shows that, beyond its many prominent alumni (mostly in government), it did several things of note relative to our purposes here. First, between 1858 and 1879, it built the thing pictured just below this paragraph. It's called the Nott Memorial and is named after a guy who was Union's president for sixty-two years, from 1804 through 1866.

Okay, it has nothing to do with hockey, but pretty sick building.

In 1903, Union fielded its first hockey team. However, in a reality familiar to Penn State hockey history buffs, the Skating Dutchmen only played 142 games over 31 non-continuous seasons, ending in 1949.

A quarter-century later, Ned Harkness arrived in Schenectady. Harkness had long established himself as a coaching legend, thanks to his two previous college stops. In 1950, he oversaw the successful reboot of hockey at RPI, helping the Engineers to the 1954 national championship. He moved on to Cornell in 1963, where he accomplished even more, with four consecutive Frozen Fours, the 1967 and 1970 national titles (1970's capped a 29-0-0 season) and some guy named Ken Dryden. The Detroit Red Wings were impressed enough to make him their coach and later, general manager for a period that was... uhhh... less successful.

Harkness returned to college game and New York's Capital District to help Union start its program back up in 1975 at the NCAA Division III level. The 2,225-seat Frank L. Messa Rink at Achilles Center was completed that year, and Harkness immediately filled it with competitive teams capable of beating some of Division I's best until abruptly resigning early in the 1977-1978 season following a dispute over admission standards for hockey players.

Union fell backwards for a while after that, but recovered to become a top DIII team throughout the middle and late 1980s, including a surprise run to the 1984 national championship game and subsequent NCAA tournament appearances in 1985, 1986 and 1989. Harkness' initial vision for the Dutchmen - DI status - was finally realized in 1991. For the next 15 years, Union would more or less fill the entire spectrum of possible records between putrid (1998-1999's 3-26-3) and decent (1996-1997's 18-13-3).

In 2003, Nate Leaman took over and finally built the Dutchmen to consistent respectability beginning with 2009-2010, the program's first 20-win season of its time in DI. A first DI conference championship (the ECAC's regular season crown) and NCAA tournament came along the following season, and Leaman parlayed that success into a job at Providence, handing Union's reins to assistant Rick Bennett.

Troy Grosenick doesn't suck.

Last year saw unprecedented heights for Union hockey. Behind guys like goaltender Troy Grosenick, a Hobey Baker finalist, top scorers Jeremy Welsh and Kelly Zajac and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in June, the Dutchmen were one of the nation's best teams. Following a 20-7-7 regular season and a second consecutive Cleary Cup for the ECAC's regular season championship, Union plowed through the league tournament, beating Harvard in the final. They marched on to NCAAs, defeating Michigan State (with the help of this non-goal) and UMass-Lowell once there to reach the Frozen Four in Tampa, FL, before the ride ended with a semifinal loss to Ferris State.

Other than Welsh (who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes immediately after Union's season ended), Zajac (now with the AHL's Albany Devils) and captain Nolan Julseth-White, Union returns just about every significant piece from last season. The payoff has come in the form of a 6-2-1 record to date (3-1-0 ECAC) and the number eight slot in both the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey polls. Two things stand out from the team's schedule so far. One is an impressive 6-2 over No. 17/15 Harvard on November 9th. The other is an 8-0 win at AIC (which, of course, played a pair of overtime games with PSU on October 12th and 13th) on October 26th.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing for Dutchmen fans hoping that 2011-2012 was a beginning and not a zenith is the way guys like Kyle Bodie, Daniel Carr, Wayne Simpson and Josh Jooris have upped their point production to compensate for losing Welsh and Zajac - after all, successfully replacing big-time players on the fly is a process the perennial powers have mastered.

Gostisbehere is back to lead a defense that also includes standout Greg Coburn. PSU will get some respite in that department as Mat Bodie, another quality defenseman, is set to miss the series with a broken wrist. The Nittany Lions weren't quite as lucky with respect to Grosenick, whose right leg injury suffered in that Harvard game wasn't as serious as initially feared. He'll be available for the series, as will outstanding backup Colin Stevens.

What does Penn State have in its first-year NCAA program relative to the very best in college hockey? When these games are over, Union will have told us. Besides, if the Dutchmen don't, who will?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Did The Icers Matter?

With Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten this week, some attention was given to the question of whether either school would take advantage of their new conference's sponsorship of hockey by adding NCAA Division I hockey to their athletic offerings. Big Ten hockey, as I'm sure you know, presently only involves six of the (now) 14 league members, so speculation regarding those (now) eight members without NCAA hockey is a favorite pastime of bored hockey bloggers.

Contrary to the assertions of many entertaining that topic who declared that neither school has a hockey team, both have ACHA programs, although at decidedly different points in the hierarchy. Maryland, once upon a time, was a conference rival of the Icers in the short-lived ACHL (although not a particularly competitive one - PSU never scored fewer than 12 on them in five meetings over two ACHL seasons from 1992 through 1994), but today, they're stuck in the rather large middle class of Division 2. Sometimes they're decent (relative to the division), sometimes not.

Jason Adams, a huge part of his team's recent successes, has helped Rutgers to a 9-4-0 start this season.

Rutgers, on the other hand, has become a pretty solid program after years of struggle following their 1998 elevation to Division 1. In recent seasons, the Ice Knights typically have won one of the weaker D1 conferences, the NECHL, collected an autobid to to the national championships, and lost once there. RU has certainly had moments - they beat defending national champ Delaware on October 26th and toppled Rhode Island last year, to cite two examples - but generally, they have struggled to break into the upper levels of D1. To its credit, the program upgraded leagues to the ESCHL (formerly PSU's home) this season and looks to continue growing.

However, with no disrespect whatsoever intended (I happen to like Rutgers' program), it's a fair statement that neither school's team is at the level of the Icers prior to the NCAA transition.

For years, Penn State and Illinois probably led the nation in "when are you guys going NCAA?" Part of that was due to the two schools' prominence, location and the promise (or specter, for some) of Big Ten hockey. Most of that, in my opinion anyway, was due to the status of the Icers and Fighting Illini as arguably the two most successful ACHA Division 1 programs of the last 10 or 15 years. I mean, why always PSU and Illinois, but not Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State (oh right... keep forgetting, sorry) or Iowa? ACHA prominence and visibility is really the best, simplest explanation.

For a while though, I've been somewhat dismissive of the significance of that last point. Through all of the wins, All-Americans and Murdoch Cups, after all, both schools need(ed) a pile of money and an arena. No way around it - that has always been and will always be the case. So really, what do ACHA wins even matter in terms of the NCAA? If someone shows up with, say, $102 million, NCAA hockey gets started regardless of whether the school had good ACHA D1 program, a bad NAIH program, or nothing at all.

Now that we're 25 percent of the way through an actual NCAA Division I hockey season fresh off of a transition from ACHA D1, I thought it might be worthwhile to re-visit that position. Just how important were the Icers to the successful re-establishment of varsity hockey at Penn State?

Roster Ramifications

At the tail end of Frank Serratore's legendary postgame on November 9th, he made maybe his only misstep of that beauty when he said "it's not like [Penn State is] bringing guys in from club hockey."

Not quite true.

The fact is that eight of 27 players on Penn State's inaugural NCAA Division I roster came to University Park with no clue that they would ever have a chance to play NCAA Division I hockey. They're not insignificant pieces either - forwards Michael McDonagh and Michael Longo are lineup regulars, with net-front wizard McDonagh fourth on the team in scoring. Defensemen Brian Dolan and Rich O'Brien will be relied on heavily over the next couple months with Mark Yanis' fractured ankle testing the blueline group's depth. Eric Steinour has played in more than half of the games so far, and while Dom Morrone has only dressed once, it was an outstanding turn on the top line in the Nittany Lions' last game, a 5-1 win over Air Force.

"Original Icers" like forward Michael McDonagh were able to make an impression by playing a high level of hockey in 2011-2012 - and are now key contributors on an NCAA Division I team, which has benefitted the program in many areas.

An additional eight players arrived at PSU last season - after the NCAA announcement, of course - and played one season as Icers before joining the NCAA roster. While these players (which include guys like captain Tommy Olczyk, goalie P.J. Musico, and DI transfers Nate Jensen, Taylor Holstrom, Bryce Johnson and Justin Kirchhevel) certainly came in with an eye on the NCAA, the presence of a top-end ACHA program was still vital in their cases. Guy Gadowsky and his staff, which coached the final Icers season, were able get in, implement systems, make evaluations, and begin to lay a foundation for their program's culture. The transfers probably don't end up as Nittany Lions without the ability to play highly-competitive hockey during their required year in residence. For the others, most of whom arrived without any promises, the Icers represented a chance to make an impression in a way simply not possible even at a lower-end ACHA D1 school. It's also worth mentioning that PSU's good ACHA Division 2 program may have helped as a contingency plan for those in that situation, one that has been pursued by former NCAA hopefuls Brandon Russo and Forrest Dell, among others.

Recruiting Flexibility and Focus

Other than the tangible on-ice contributions of those players the Nittany Lions' surprising 6-3-0 start, it's important to look at what those previous two paragraphs mean in the big picture. PSU's roster has six seniors, six juniors, five sophomores and ten freshmen. A little young? Sure. But not nearly as young as one would expect from a first-year NCAA program.

There's a ripple effect in recruiting of course, and it's very telling that the Nittany Lions are only (as of this moment) bringing in five new players for the second NCAA season. Thanks largely to the class balance made possible by the Icers, Penn State can hone in on talent, need, and fit, as opposed to grabbing every warm body out there in order to fill out a roster. This sort of focused recruiting effort has led to early successes above and beyond what may have been possible with trying to go 0-to-27 in a short time frame. Additionally, the Icers have provided the Nittany Lions with a large collection of quality players willing to play without scholarships, allowing even greater flexibility with the available money moving forward.

It's not hard to imagine some sort of alternate reality where PSU has either no ACHA team or an ACHA team lacking the quality to offer anything to a DI-level player. I don't think it's any sort of exaggeration to say that it would have been a much larger struggle to get things going. At the very least, it's extremely unlikely that the team would be as immediately competitive as it has been.

Built-In Support

There are, of course, several other areas where the Icers have enhanced the Nittany Lions. Actually, "enhanced" is the wrong word - did Terry Pegula suddenly roll out of bed a few years back and say "hey, I went to Penn State 30 years ago, maybe I should chip off nine figures to start NCAA hockey there?" Of course not. His son Michael attended PSU hockey camps. He remained a fan of the Icers. And of course, like so many of us, he was drawn in by the charisma of Joe Battista. Simply put, Pegula doesn't exist to us without the Icers.

Penn State, thanks to the Icers, had a ready-made supply of support from day one.

Even beyond Pegula, the Icers have provided a ready-made pool of support. Two other high-profile donations - from Paul and Nancy Silvis and from John and Karen Davis - also came from people with ties to the non-varsity program. Surely, there have been numerous others from fish dating back to the Icers but not big enough for a press release, myself included. The team has a booster club that was formerly called the Icers Booster Club. From the start, Penn State has had a pool of donors, fans, sponsors and even official personnel (Billy Downey and Steve Penstone, anyone?) made possible by the Icers. Enjoy this blog? Credit the Icers for that too.

The team even has a fascinating built-in history (that extends well beyond the 1940 through 1947 period, trust me), should the athletic department ever choose to embrace it. Does that directly translate to wins and losses in the present day? Probably not, but it is a source of pride for many, and pride can be converted to dollars in most cases.

So you tell me, does having a top ACHA program matter? Would Illinois be in a better position to make the jump than Maryland or even Rutgers? I think the answer is pretty evident.