UNIVERSITY PARK — The commute was anything but enviable.
Imagine traveling more than 200 miles — each way — on two-lane roads in the middle of winter to play hockey three times a week.
For Justin Kirchhevel, and his father Pete, it was worth the effort, time and gasoline.
Kirchhevel now plays a major role with the Penn State ice hockey team, and will be counted on again Friday night when the Nittany Lions have one of their biggest tests of the season with a visit to Michigan State.
Penn State makes its first Big Ten road trip, a season ahead of the start of a Big Ten hockey conference, facing the Spartans at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday.
Big road trips are nothing new for any of the Nittany Lions, and Kirchhevel is especially used to traveling.
Because he got started late in playing hockey — he didn’t hit the ice until age 9 — he had to play catch-up and he and his father decided they needed to jump-start his hockey education with a little extra driving. So three days a week, from ages 10-13 with his father driving and Kirchhevel sleeping in the back seat, they drove from Brookings, in eastern South Dakota, across Minnesota to Minneapolis to play hockey.
There’s no interstate highway connecting the two communities, either.
“He had a lot of sacrifices,” Kirchhevel said of his father. “Back then I didn’t know what it was, didn’t appreciate it, but now this time, it’s great to have him there and do everything for me and I appreciate it. I wouldn’t be here today without them.”
Kirchhevel also is a bit of a trail-blazer as just the second resident of South Dakota to play Divison I hockey. He follows Princeton junior defenseman Matt Farris, who ironically was recruited to the Tigers by then-head coach Guy Gadowsky, who now coaches the second Mount Rushmore State resident with the Nittany Lions.
“It’s been a good experience,” Kirchhevel said. “I’m glad to be able to represent South Dakota.”
The line from Brookings to State College still was not direct. Kirchhevel left to play in Colorado at age 15, skated with Omaha in the United States Hockey League, then with St. Louis and Fairbanks in the North American Hockey League, then began his college career at Alaska-Anchorage before transferring to Penn State to skate with the Icers club program last season.
The 23-year-old junior wing has been showing off his stick skills and vision since arriving on campus. He has two goals and two assists this season in 11 games – missing a month-and-a-half after suffering a concussion at the end of November and not returning until Jan. 15. He had an assist in his first game back, then posted a goal and an assist in a 4-2 win over Vermont in Philadelphia on Saturday.
“He’s always had the potential to put up the numbers that he’s putting up the past couple games,” said forward Casey Bailey, whose 11 goals is tied for the team lead. “He’s a very skilled, quick player. He knows the game well and he works hard, and I think if he keeps that up he’s do well for the next couple seasons. It’s nice to have that.”
Kirchhevel also has been the beneficiary of a line change. He began the season on the right wing with Taylor Holstrom and Tommy Olczyk, but there have been quite a few shuffles of the lines since then, especially while Kirchhevel was injured.
Then, just as he was coming back from the concussion, winger Curtis Loik was lost to injury — Gadowsky would only say it was a lower-body injury that likely would not keep him out long — and Kirchhevel got to join the top scoring line with David Glen and Kenny Brooks.
“Curtis Loik’s a big loss, but Justin protects the puck extremely well so he fits in on that line in that way,” Gadowsky said. “David Glen’s a goal-scorer. Instead of just protecting pucks, Justin has great vision and that (assist to set up Glen against Vermont) was a great backhand pass too. It’s a tough thing to do. He’s fitting in very well on that line. He’s also very gritty. He likes to hit. He fits in that line very well.”
It makes all those miles driving with dad worthwhile.