UNIVERSITY PARK — When he coached at Princeton and Alaska-Fairbanks, Guy Gadowsky had the challenge of building up hockey programs that had struggled for several years.
Now, with Penn State’s first season at the Division I level beginning Oct. 12, the men’s team coach will face an entirely different obstacle — creating a winner from scratch.
“The biggest challenge? There’s any number of them,” Gadowsky said. “Everybody in the room has to understand that while it’s a great opportunity for them personally — and we understand that — the most important thing when you’re starting off, like we are, from nowhere, is to get everyone on the same page.”
Before coming to Penn State, Gadowsky took a Princeton team, which had a combined eight wins in the two seasons before his arrival, to the NCAA tournament in just five years. The Tigers' win total increased in each of his seven seasons.
After his first two years at Alaska, he led his team to a No. 11 ranking nationally in 2001 and its first 20-win season since joining the CCHA. Before his arrival, the Nanooks hadn't won more than 14 games in the five years since joining the conference.
Penn State will practice for the first time Oct. 6 at midnight. It will be open to the public. The team will then play American University at home Oct. 12 and in Wilkes-Barre Oct. 13.
Gadowsky coached last year’s team to a 27-3-1 record in its final season as the Icers. The team fell to Oakland in the semifinal of the ACHA National Tournament.
Gadowsky hasn’t yet been on the ice with the current team, which is made up of about half carryovers from the Icers and half new recruits and transfers.
The Lions return leading scorer Justin Kerchhevel, who scored 19 goals and dished out 36 assists for the Icers last season. Tommy Olczyk led the team in goals with 23 and was second behind Kerchhevel.
Both goalies will be back, as well. Sophomore P.J. Musico posted a 13-1-1 record and a 1.41 goals-against average, while junior Matt Madrazo went 12-1 and had a 1.90 GAA. Freshman goalie Matt Skoff will also likely compete for playing time.
Gadowsky isn't sure of this team’s strengths but said the key to building a program is filling it with quality people.
“I believe in that,” Gadowsky said. “I believe we have some good, strong character people, and I’m excited about the quality of guys we have. That’s the most important thing in achieving.”
Sophomore Max Gardiner, who transferred from the University of Minnesota and scored three points as a freshman there, said it is easy to see how Gadowsky gets his players to buy into his system.
“His passion for the game and passion for the guys he coaches,” Gardiner said. “He cares about his players, and he’ll do everything he can to get them to the next level.”
The Lions will play a variety of teams this year as an independent program, ranging from perennial power Michigan State to club teams like Arizona State and Ohio. They will play 22 Division I games, six ACHA club games and four Division III games. They also will play the United States Development team twice.
Next year the Lions will join the Big Ten, along with Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Gardiner, who is one the highest-profile players arriving because of his time at Minnesota, said the biggest hurdle the Lions will face this year is lack of experience. The team has 11 freshmen, five sophomores, six juniors and six seniors. None of the seniors has ever played Division I hockey.
Olczyk, who will likely see time on the top line this year, said that because of the Lions’ lack of experience, Gadowsky is preaching work ethic and commitment to teamwork.
“We’re going to try to be the hardest-working team in the NCAA,” he said. “That’s going to come with good practice habits and in games with live bullets. But sticking together and sticking to the game plan — that’s going to be our biggest challenge and most important challenge.”
Olczyk said Gadowsky’s dedication to the sport and to his players will eventually build the foundation of a successful program.
After all, the coach has done it before.
“He’s the most passionate guy on the ice,” Olczyk said. “Every day at practice he’s got a big smile on his face. He jumps in the drills sometimes, and he’s the most passionate coach I've ever had. He loves hard work. He works hard at what he does.”
Steven Petrella is a Penn State journalism student.