Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Women's Hockey, the ACHA, Commonwealth Campuses, and How I Got Here

The PSU section at the Ashburn Ice House for the ACHA WD2 national championship game

The Kohl Center and the Ashburn Ice House are very different facilities in most superficial respects. One is a 15,235-seat (for hockey) multi-purpose arena that is home to one of NCAA hockey's most storied programs, Wisconsin. The other is a twin-sheet community rink in northern Virginia, with less than ten rows of bleachers running from the goalline to center ice on one side.

Yet they have something very important in common: in this entire season of blogging about Penn State hockey, they were the only two locations hosting games that caused me to cut loose with a completely uninhibited scream.

For most games I attend in person, particularly when I'm in a press box, I try to be respectful of media decorum. I do wear Penn State gear and generally give a quick and silent fist pump on goals, both of which are violations of that decorum, but generally (other than a moment of weakness when I yelled "are you effing kidding me" at a blown call at the end of the PSU-Lindenwood NCAA women's game on February 9th) I adhere to the well-known "no cheering in the press box" rule. Even when watching from home, I still carry a certain detachment essential to communicating information about the game quickly and accurately - my raison d'etre, after all.

Twice though, I let go. The first time was an occasion familiar to probably all of you, Taylor Holstom's overtime goal to upset the Badgers on February 25th, the NCAA men's team's final game of an inspiring first season. The other, probably less familiar, moment: Nina Elia's overtime goal to put Penn State's ACHA women's team in the national championship game with a 2-1 win over defending national champion Wisconsin-Stout (if you don't believe me, take a listen to the end of this video).

I couldn't help but reflect on how I got to that point. After all, when I started this blog in 2010, it was a) as an outlet to obsess over Penn State's finally ditching the ACHA for the greener pastures of the NCAA and b) never my intent to cover women's hockey in any form. Yet here I am in 2013, trying to juggle coverage of four hockey teams at University Park, along with also touching on teams at the Commonwealth Campuses. It didn't come from obligation either. I have no trouble admitting that I enjoyed my two trips to Altoona this year - one for the ACHA women against Slippery Rock in December, the other for an ACHA men's game between the teams at the Behrend and Altoona campuses in January - every bit as much as my trips to Consol Energy Center or Wells Fargo Center to watch the NCAA men play (and win) in NHL buildings.

My Icers/NCAA men focus began to change fairly early on when I covered the hockey tournament at the 2011 World University Games in Erzurum, Turkey and devoted just as much space to the women - goaltenders Katie Vaughan and Heather Rossi, defender Lindsay Reihl and forward Denise Rohlik represented PSU for Team USA, along with coach Mo Stroemel - as I did the men, mostly because I'm a sucker for international hockey.

Increases in TYT's attention to the women weren't immediately apparent once everyone was back in the U.S., but they did come. After limiting Lady Icers coverage to a mid-season and an end-of-season update (plus the WUG) in that first season of TYT, in 2011-2012 I made sure to get a recap up for each weekend of games. This season, it's continued to progress to the point where I deliberately choose to watch a women's game over a men's game if circumstances make it the more compelling matchup. As things turned out, I attended a nearly identical number of women's and men's games in person.

Simply tracking Joe Zitarelli and other former Icers eventually became much more

The ACHA Division 2 Ice Lions were next up. Following them started off in 2011-2012 as a product of wanting to track the careers of former Icers shed during the NCAA transition process like Mike Broccolo, Joe Zitarelli and Mac Winchester, but that attention grew as the team made their way through a highly-successful season to the point where I attended and live blogged a game for the first time last February, then each of their games at the ACHA national tournament. This season, I made sure to devote a weekly post to their exploits, watched their games online as frequently as I could, and will once again be watching them at nationals this weekend.

With the ACHA women this season, the initial motives were similar. Women's hockey had grown immensely on this blog by then, and as with the Ice Lions, I knew many of the players as former Lady Icers including Vaughan, Carly Szyszko (a left wing who played goal during the aforementioned World University Games with both of the team's goalies halfway across the world... yikes), Allie Rothman, Ashton Schaffer and Mary Kate Tonetti. As things got underway, I quickly realized that I was dissatisfied with the amount of information available, and figured that I'd better just start going to the games myself. Long story short, I now do the team's website.

I didn't do quite so much with the Commonwealth Campus teams, but I did attend that Behrend-Altoona game on the suggestion of Altoona team manager Bridgette DaSilva and tried my best to give them the same level of coverage I give the others, at least for one game - I tweeted updates, took pictures and did postgame interviews. I also did mid- and post-season updates on Altoona and Behrend, as well as Berks, Brandywine and Harrisburg, while throwing Commonwealth Campus items in Three Stars as appropriate.

That's quite a meteoric rise. I mean, think about it: In two seasons, I went from nothing to do with women's hockey to covering it on a more-or-less equal basis with the men, while also adding stuff about the University Park ACHA teams once a week (at minimum), and occasionally the Commonwealths after completely ignoring them as well. It's a task that frequently broils my sanity, but hey, if I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it.

The what, though, is the easy part. The why, I'm not sure I can articulate as well.

I can start with "they're all wearing Penn State jerseys and playing competitive hockey." As those of us with roots in the ACHA know, those players work every bit as hard and represent the university with every bit as much honor as the NCAA-ers, and they deserve recognition for it. It's something we said for years with the Icers and Lady Icers, and it's no less true now that we have the shiny new toy of NCAA hockey. Sometimes - an idiotic tweet from Mark Yanis being the latest example in a long line of slights from some in the athletic department - I fear that we're rapidly losing a sense of what Penn State hockey has been and ought to be. We used to celebrate ACHA accomplishments, and there should still be room for that, even as we forge ahead with the varsity teams.

If you're only concerned with "the highest level of hockey possible," why are you watching men's NCAA hockey at all with the NHL out there? Your answers to that question are likely also things that apply to the ACHA teams and women's hockey as well. Just saying.

That's not a complete answer, though. A couple anecdotes might help.

During the NCAA women's series at Robert Morris February 22nd and 23rd, just before the second period of the Friday game, I stood above the PSU locker room entrance to try to get a photo of the team before stepping back out to the ice. I didn't get a good one, though, because forward Tess Weaver and defender Paige Jahnke were both looking up at me and pointing. I frantically started gesturing at them to look down, we all started laughing. Moments later, they were gone and I had missed the opportunity. No complaints though.

Two weeks before that, on the day of Penn State's Senior Day game against Lindenwood, Reihl's father Rob invited me to his tailgate, where I pregamed with something much better than my usual rink pretzel and a coffee and got to chat with the families of several players, including Emily Laurenzi, Celine Whitlinger, Kendra Rasmussen and Kate Christoffersen.

Many of my other interactions are just based around simple thank yous. Current Ice Lions coach Matt Morrow and former Ice Lions coach Josh Hand both somehow figured out what I look like (I'll never get how people recognize me - while my photo is on here, it's pretty small, and I generally don't go out of my way to be visible from a personal standpoint) and thanked me for my coverage in person. Hand still, whenever I'm at the rink, gives me a playful shove while walking past, invariably screwing up whatever I was typing at that moment. PSU-Altoona coach Tom Lantz rolled out the red carpet when I was there. At the recent ACHA women's tournament, I think just about every player on the team and every parent of those players thanked me as well, which admittedly, gets a little embarrassing after a while (at least they didn't think my name is Terry, some do believe it or not). I know this makes it sound like an ego thing, but it really isn't. I'm not doing anything all that special here, I've never felt that way. I'm just a guy with an obsessive personality, passion for Penn State hockey - all of it - and too much time on his hands.

None of this, by the way, is meant to be a knock on the NCAA men's players or parents. They've all been fantastic on the occasions we've interacted (Yanis excepted, I suppose... he's a great player, but it's going to take me a while to get over that). But NCAA men's games are business in a lot of ways, largely because of the amount of attention they get, including back to junior for the players and parents and continuing after Penn State, hopefully, into the pros. Let's be honest about something: When you're routinely on television and in major publications, you're a little less likely to care about some blogger saying things on the internet about you. Furthermore, I'm perfectly aware that most of my audience is around for the men. I'm also perfectly aware that there's a ton of competition at men's games, especially for the higher-profile contests, so generally, I put more pressure on myself when covering them. I greatly respect the work of everyone who writes about Penn State hockey, but yeah, I am trying to do a better job than them. Admittedly, it stops being fun a lot of the time, partly because everyone else is very good at what they do.

There's an entirely different feeling for me going to the other games. It's as if I'm going to visit friends, almost like going to an Icers game. In the lobby of the Ice Pavilion before games, I catch up with the parents, provided I didn't just come from their tailgate. With the NCAA women for example, sometimes I say hi to assistant coaches Gina Kearns and Casey McCullion, as well as Cara Mendelson and Katie Murphy if they aren't playing. I often exchange a wave with Weaver during warmup, and always chat with Steve Hass, who does an outstanding job photographing the games. Afterwards, Coach Brandwene stops by to thank me for coming out way more often than he has to (which is never, of course).

Basically, everyone involved with the other programs makes me want to be around it. And because of that, supporting the student-athletes who don the blue and white chipmunk-bearing sweaters is not merely an exercise in school loyalty, it's also about wanting the best for people I know and like.

The NCAA women's team, the Ice Lions, the Women's Ice Hockey Club and the Commonwealth Campus ACHA teams. Get to know them, and you'll like them too, I promise.


  1. Do you ever see the commonwealth campuses coming together in a hockey conference of their own? I'm sure it'd be a lot of fun for the tourney at the end of their season to be hosted in Pegula or something similar.

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    2. Love to see it...you kind of have to keep Berks out of that conversation because they're a D1. The major obstacle is that once you get to the D3 level, the travel is sort of at the radius where Eastern PA to Western PA is a long-ish trip. Behrend and Altoona actually do play in the same conference now with schools like Cal (PA) and Robert Morris' D3 team, while Brandywine and Harrisburg are each in separate conferences more fitting their geography. But if they're able and willing, yeah, that would be incredible. At the very least, you could still maybe set up a four-team tournament in January or February at PIA outside of the conference idea, which would be pretty cool.