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.


  1. Great article. I'm with you on remembering the Icers. And most fans I've talked to at games seem to agree. Some go a bit overboard thinking the transition should not have meant any Icers losing their spot on the team to make room for better players. I don't agree with that mindset (you only have a short window where recruits will overlook your record), but I'm glad several upperclassmen got a taste of big time NCAA hockey. I just don't understand why the history books are being written as if we have no hockey history though. To me that's a slap in the face of all the people who worked so hard to get the program ready for the transition we get to experience. Your article above outlines their importance perfectly.

    1. From 9/17/2010 until this season, there were 16 Icers who didn't get a senior day with PSU's top hockey team, which I think is a fantastic number, considering some of the predictions (mine included).

      Of those, nine retired (and it has to be said, there would have been some attrition there regardless), five are with the Ice Lions and Tim Carr/Josh Daley are in DIII. Carr's doing well in a rotation at WNEU, while Daley isn't playing much more than he did here at UWSP. So with all of that in mind, if you have too much of a problem with how that's gone, you're probably related to one of the 16. We are trying to win hockey games against some pretty good programs, after all. And to the credit of all, the Icers on the team weren't exactly charity moves. They're not our stars, but they are contributing without a doubt.

      There's a guy who likes to come in my live blogs with "Gadowsky really screwed up by not keeping Russo and Dell." Last time he did that, we were beating Air Force in the third period. Pretty ridiculous.

      You hit it on the head with respect to our window - by 2014-2015 or so, the new program/new arena buzz fades pretty rapidly. With any new venue (assuming the team isn't popular enough to sell well regardless), attendance declines sharply in year two, and I assume that mirrors the attitude with recruits and others.

      I tried to not make this one as much about the history (other than the quick jab at the end) and more about the direct contribution to the current team, but yeah, obviously that's something I care about a lot too. The official line I've received was a concern that the Icers would "overwhelm" the NCAA team. I think that's crap, but hopefully it leaves the door open to add more and more in once we have a few NCAA seasons in.

      I think that hit on everything, sorry about the flow of it haha.