Penn State ice hockey: Nittany Lions facing tall task with entry into Big Ten

gbrunski@centredaily.comOctober 10, 2013 

— Guy Gadowsky said it several times last season.

It may have been the Penn State men’s hockey program’s first in NCAA Division I, but the deep end of the pool was going to be the second season.

The head coach could see the future was a little scary for his fledgling Nittany Lions.

Sure, last season provided plenty of challenging games, especially for several members of the team who were not recruited to a varsity program, but instead went to Penn State to play for the Icers club program.

However much success Penn State may have had, this season was going to be tougher — the start of Big Ten hockey.

Welcome to the big time, Nittany Lions.

The conference has a deep, rich history of ice hockey, whether or not there has been an actual conference.

“It’s going to be awesome,” sophomore goalie Matthew Skoff said. “We’re here and we’re ready to showcase our skills against the best. Right now we believe we’re in the best college hockey league in the country.”

How rich is the conference in hockey history?

With just six teams, they combine for 23 national championships since the first NCAA tournament in 1948, not to mention 77 top-four finishes and 126 tournament appearances.

No program has more titles than Michigan’s nine, and the Wolverines have made 24 Frozen Four trips. Wisconsin adds another six titles and 11 Frozen Four appearances, and Minnesota has five crowns and 20 Frozen Four appearances.

Denver, with seven NCAA titles, Boston University (5) and Boston College (4) are the only programs that can rival the Big Ten’s elite.

These Big Ten programs have been loaded with talent. The six teams have combined for 625 NHL draft picks and scores of Olympians. On the famous 1980 U.S. Olympic team alone, 11 members came from Big Ten programs

There had been a de facto Big Ten before, but that was only when the programs faced each other. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all were members of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Wisconsin and Minnesota were part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. A “Big Ten title” was awarded from 1959 to 1981 to provide the name.

Now, the brand name will mean much more with an actual conference.

“A lot of the football fans, people who watch college football, can relate now to the Big Ten,” Skoff said, “because there’s Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State, Ohio State-Michigan games that actually mean something, and in a conference where they’ll actually play for something at the end of the year.”

It also will play a major role in recruiting, where the Big Ten — and its namesake television network — carries weight well beyond the Great Lakes states.

“This is actually extremely exciting for all of collegiate hockey,” Gadowsky said. “The fact that we now have a Big Ten Conference is huge. There’s a battle across the border. We try to get the best hockey players in North America and beyond and part of our competition is major junior hockey. Until this year it was very difficult for people across the border to get educated about college hockey and the exposure that the Big Ten hockey conference is going to bring is going to be great for that battle and is going to be great for that battle and is going to be great for educating everybody about what college hockey is all about. I think when you see the Big Ten rivalries the excitement is going to be phenomenal. I think the intensity is going to be phenomenal.”

With so little history on this level, the Nittany Lions have much to prove, which is why in the preseason coaches’ poll, Penn State was picked to finish sixth in the league and no Nittany Lions were named to the list of players to watch.

Plus, the Wolverines, Spartans, Golden Gophers, Buckeyes and Badgers all will do their best to make sure life won’t be easy for the Nittany Lions, even if Penn State beat Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State last season.

“We have beaten them,” but the hard part is going to be coming in every night and having to beat them on a consistent basis,” junior forward Taylor Holstrom said. “That is going to be completely different from last year and we are doing everything we can to make sure that happens.”

The U.S. Military Academy and Penn State confirmed on Wednesday that Army will be playing the Nittany Lions on Friday in their home opener. Army’s status for the game was in doubt due to the government shut down.

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