It’s a scene that has been repeated hundreds of times in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion.
Penn State hockey players were down on the ice stretching, they skated laps around the rink at both low and high speeds, they had passing drills around the center circle of the rink and they peppered goalies with shots.
The only difference was the drills run this past week were not just for a season opener, but for the first Division I men’s game in school history.
The puck will drop at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the program’s home for the last four decades – the final season before they move a few blocks to their still-under-construction new home – for a sold out show and a little bit of history.
“A little bit of nerves,” junior defenseman Nate Jensen said of his expected feelings tonight, “but we’re pretty excited to get out there, play a couple games, get a couple hits in, get the crowd involved. It’s going to be a fun night for us.”
There will be plenty of pomp as Penn State welcomes men’s hockey to the collection of varsity teams – the 31st at the university and the 59th Division I program in the U.S. Penn State fielded a varsity program for five seasons in the 1940s, though it was gone before the NCAA officially began to sanction hockey.
The arrival of ice hockey tonight completes a journey that has been ongoing for decades and officially for just over two years with the announcement of an $88 million gift from Terry and Kim Pegula to start men’s and women’s varsity programs and build a new rink. Their gift was later increased to $102 million.
Ground was broken on the 6,000-seat Pegula Ice Arena just after the start of the year at the corner of University Drive and Curtin Road and is expected to be completed in time for next season.
For one more year the Nittany Lions will call the Greenberg Ice Pavilion home with its 1,300 seats, and team members are looking forward to make history on whatever sheet of ice is available.
“Once you’re on the ice, it’s Division I hockey,” said Jensen, one of five Nittany Lions with previous top-level college experience playing as a freshman at Mercyhurst.
Like the home ice situation, this season will serve as a transition period in other ways. Penn State will play as an independent, with a hodge-podge schedule comprised of former ACHA club opponents, Division III programs and varying levels of Division I. They even play the U.S. Under-18 National Team. The schedule does include several opponents ranked in the preseason polls, including Union, which played in last season’s Frozen Four, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan State.
The Spartans and Badgers will be on the schedule even more in the future with the Big Ten forming a hockey conference next fall, with Michigan, Ohio State and Minnesota also making the jump.
While some games should be winnable, there are a few opponents, like those Big Ten teams, who will provide quite the daunting task. With a program still being built, the Nittany Lions are realistic about what they may face this season.
“We will not be judging our success and our progress through wins and losses,” said head coach Guy Gadowsky, who previously guided the programs at Princeton and Alaska. “Certainly wins and losses are going to be a byproduct of the job we do in terms of how we do with the foundation, but we’re going to judge it in terms of how quickly and how consistently we get on the same page. We’re going to be judged on what we control and how we do in the areas we control.”
The team does have some talent and even some size – eight Nittany Lions stand 6-foot-2 or taller and six weight over 200 pounds – and that should help keep them competitive physically with the more established programs.
“We know that it’s going to be a huge step up,” Gadowsky said. “We understand that in terms of the speed and the strength of the athletes – moreso even the speed of the game, the thinking – and it’s something we’re going to have to work on every day at practice.”
Gadowsky also is fairly sure his team has some attributes that will keep it competitive, and will try to turn some of his players loose when he can.
“We tend to be a very creative team,” Gadowsky said. “We don’t put a lot of leashes on our players, we let them go, and if we’re going to play that we we’ve got to have smart hockey players.”
The crop includes a variety of talent, from six seniors who put in three years with the Icers club program to those who transferred from other schools to freshmen who were recruited with the aim of having them be a part of school history. There are also several sophomores, like team captain Tommy Olczyk, who were recruited to play for the Icers last year to help with the program’s foundation.
For all of them, Gadowsky was seeking the right kind of player and person, someone who was willing to set aside personal goals to be a part of something bigger.
“There are players that just want to go somewhere that’s already established, and go to some place as a destination where they’ve already arrived,” Gadowsky said. “We want to find the players like Tommy Olczyk that want to come here and are really hungry to build something.”
Now, Penn State has become a hockey destination.
Notes: Tonight’s game, and every game all season, will air on 103.1 FM and the Penn State Sports Network. … Tonight’s opponent, American International, plays in the Atlantic Hockey League. The Yellow Jackets were 8-26-3 last season. … The teams play again Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre. … Penn State is the first school to add Division I hockey since Robert Morris in 2004. … After tonight’s game, the Nittany Lions do not play at home again until Nov. 3 against Division III Buffalo State.