UNIVERSITY PARK — While he could not give actual names, Joe Battista could not help but do a little bragging about a recent tour given to a prospective recruit for the Penn State mens ice hockey team.
Head coach Guy Gadowsky had just completed the tour, and the young man, despite having another college campus visit scheduled, decided right on the spot to commit to the Nittany Lion program.
What clinched the sale?
Spending more than an hour wandering around the massive construction site at the corner of University Drive and Curtin Road.
Pegula Ice Arena, the $90 million future home of the Nittany Lion mens and womens teams, not to mention community teams and leagues, figure skating and public skating sessions, is taking shape and is no longer a concept sketched on paper.
A mass of concrete, steel and glass is becoming something much more tangible, and something that will help convince young men and women that central Pennsylvania is the place to be for hockey, even if its varsity programs have only been officially competing for four months.
One year after the ground was broken on the construction site, two years since the arena drawings were first shown to the public and two-and-a-half years since the announcement that Terry and Kim Pegula had made an $88 million gift the largest single gift in university history to elevate the programs to varsity status and construct the building, reality is taking shape.
I think its going to be a very popular venue at Penn State, said Pegula, calling from his home in Florida. Its going to be nice for the community and hopefully bring in more hockey players in central Pennsylvania.
It was a dream held for decades by Battista, the former coach of the Icers club program who is now the associate athletic director for Penn State hockey and the Pegula Ice Arena.
Its been a 35-year quest for me, said Battista, who played for the Icers and graduated from Penn State before going to the bench. I am savoring every moment of this dream coming true.
Battista was the guide something he does several times a week for alumni, guests, donors and administrators for an exclusive tour for the CDT earlier in the week. The tour, lasting better than 90 minutes, covered every corner of the arena, from the locations of the future luxury suites and Nittany Club to the compressor room and Zamboni garage.
There is still much to do with the building construction, but the basic shell is all but completed. There are a few bricks left to lay, a few windows to hang and a giant garage door to install, but most of the work is now on the interior. The cement base for the bowl of seats is set, the steel beams outlining most of the locker areas and offices are in place and even the scoreboard is dangling from the ceiling.
While there were frequent discussions and alterations early in the project, most of the changes that come in now are minor.
Were too far along for any major changes, Battista said. Now its pretty much all cosmetic or were moving an (electrical) outlet or something.
Battista said he visited about 40 different arenas, often with other athletic department personnel and even with the Pegulas, to help in the formulation of the arena. That tour covered home rinks of NHL teams, AHL teams and Division I programs, including several future Big Ten brethren.
The planning also included plenty of bartering, keeping things within the budget, which is one of the reasons the capacity was capped at 6,000 seats even if there was an initial desire to go closer to 10,000.
Were going to be the smallest in the Big Ten, capacity-wise, Battista said. But its also going to be the newest and its got the most bells and whistles.
Its those bells and whistles that prompted Battista to crow about the unnamed recruit someone from the university talking about a specific athlete before he is officially signed is an NCAA violation and stealing him away from another high-powered program. The Nittany Lions have nine men committed to the recruiting class this fall, two for the fall of 2014 and three for the fall of 2015.
Gadowsky also takes a trip around the building about once a week, often with a potential recruit in tow, and having an actual building has made the sales pitch easier.
Its really amazing how quickly they work, Gadowsky said. Theres a lot of smart people in this world. Its all way above my head to see the things they do and how quicky they get it done. But its coming along great.
While places such as Minnesota, Michigan and Michigan State have a rich history and championship banners hanging from the ceiling, Penn State needed something to set it apart.
Penn State needs to have something, Pegula said. Sometimes the best players want to go to a place that has an attractive venue, and this sure is going to be that.
There is plenty to help win over those young men and women contemplating joining the Nittany Lion programs.
• Battista made a point to show off where those luxury boxes would be, just 48 feet from the ice, and the loge boxes just 30 feet from the ice.
• The scoreboard already hanging in the arena is just the shell and does not have any electronics, which will be installed later. The scoreboard was added early to lessen the need for heavy equipment on the arena floor to potentially cause damage. Soon the pipes will be laid in the subsurface along with a heating system to prevent the pipes under a constant sheet of ice from freezing before the final layer of cement is put down in one continuous pour.
• One of Battistas stadium visits included the old Hersheypark Arena, with its steep bleachers. That design inspired the student section seats, the steepest allowed by code, which will be behind the opposing goalie for two periods every night.
That looks like the Roman Coliseum, Battista joked.
• Battista also pointed out the closed corridors to keep in noise and no acoustical dampeners in the ceiling to make the arena even louder. They are doing their best to give the Nittany Lions as much of a home-ice advantage as they can.
I wanted it to be a loud building, Pegula said. They wanted to have the acoustics right in case they wanted to hold events there besides hockey, and I said, No, its a hockey arena, I want it to sound like youre inside a garbage can.
• The community ice sheet has seating for 300, plus standing room, party rooms and plenty of locker rooms for community league teams.
• They are in negotiations to bring in an ice show later in the fall and hope to be hosting youth and high school tournaments and even the occasional professional team. But the arena, other than melting the ice for about two months each spring for a few events such as commencement, will be almost exclusively for events on ice. They did not purchase covers to put over the ice and have other events on top of it.
Its much more than just the two varsity teams, Battista said. This was a gift to the community.
Some of the biggest highlights and selling points to recruits most of the general public will not see.
• The compressor room is one of the biggest expenses at Pegulas insistence. The room has $2 million worth of equipment to help give the arena one of the best sheets of ice in the nation, with rink manager Chris Whittemore able to control the temperature and humidity of the ice and building from his phone. The arena also has a tank of purified water for the sheets so they are cleaner, smoother and last longer.
Terry wanted the fastest, best ice surface in North America, Battista said. We didnt spare any expense. Its as sophisticated an ice system as youre going to see. ... We spent a lot of money on this room, and hopefully it will pay dividends.
• The locker areas for the teams will include lounges, a steam room, training rooms, therapy tubs and a lot of locker space. Each individual locker area for players will include blowers to quickly heat and dry their equipment.
• Not far from the team locker rooms will be a synthetic ice training area, which is a cross between a baseball batting cage with a pitching machine and a golf course simulator. The room will have targets, timers, a radar gun and plenty of other trinkets to help train athletes. The area will be available not only to teams, but to camps and for rental to high school and youth teams.
This is nicer than what some NHL teams have, Battista said. We tried to think of everything. Im not sure if we did, but we tried. Im sure there are things we will figure out if we left them out.
• The designers Crawford Architects, of Kansas City, Mo. attempted to keep some eyes on the future as well, retaining the ability to update wiring and cables as technology advances.
Battista also was happy to point out the project is on budget and still on schedule for its opening in September. Workers are there six days a week most weeks, starting at 6:30 a.m. and staying until midnight.
They have not made any major sales pitches yet, but they already have sold 1,500 season tickets surpassing the capacity of the current home at the Greenberg Ice Pavilion. With 1,050 seats dedicated to the student section, which will not be sold until next fall, it means the arena is already close to half-filled. Seat selections, which will be weighted by ticket holders in the past as well as Nittany Lion Club point standings, will be held in June.
Sponsorships all around the arena also are nearly sold out, including spots under the ice and around the boards, to raise close to $750,000. In all, an additional $5.5 million has been raised in commitments and donations in addition to the Pegulas gift, which was increased by another $14 million to a total of $102 million last year. Battista said the goal was to raise an additional $10 million to accompany the Pegula gift.
And, despite such a sizable donation, the arenas benefactors have hardly set foot on campus, or even called anyone on the construction crew, looking for updates or giving input.
They have been very unassuming and have not been helicopter donors, said Battista, who figures he has taken about 3,000 pictures of the project and sends many of them to the Pegulas.
The Pegulas did have a lot of input in the planning stages, and Kim Pegula is still involved in some aspects of the buildings look and design.
Im one of these guys that, I know the Penn State officials are looking at it, Pegula said. We looked at the architecture beforehand, and its up to them that it gets done right.
But their work has certainly been inspiring, not only for future Nittany Lions, but those on the ice this season who are eager to move into their new home.
Every time I drive by, whether its a day or a week later, it always seems like theres something new I notice, sophomore forward and team captain Tommy Olczyk said. Theyre making some sort of progress and its something really, really special and I know the guys cant wait to get in there.
Gordon Brunskill can be reached at 231-4608.