UNIVERSITY PARK — Finally, the hoopla and distractions are gone.
It’s time for the Penn State men’s ice hockey team to just start worrying about hockey.
The Nittany Lions got the season underway last Friday night, opening the new Pegula ice Arena with plenty of pomp and circumstance.
“That was great,” coach Guy Gadowsky said, “but I gotta tell you, it’s nice to have it behind us.”
Gadowsky said the team was back to work at practice Saturday, but it took until the coaches’ meeting Tuesday morning before he finally felt the weekend was in the past and the focus was just on the season.
So what did Gadowsky do to wind down the emotions on Saturday?
“I watched the Penn State football game,” he joked of the 43-40 overtime win against Michigan.
“We tried to treat it like any other game, but obviously emotions were high,” said defenseman Luke Jensen, who scored the first goal in the new arena. “I think it’ll be a little more relaxing … next time we play.”
The team is back on the ice Friday and Saturday at Air Force, with 9 p.m. starts both nights.
Having a few days of practice, with all the routines, followed by a plane trip to Colorado on Thursday will also help wash away any lingering emotions.
“It was a couple days,” sophomore winger Curtis Loik said. “We were pretty hyped up. I didn’t sleep that much that Friday night.”
The women will put have their chance to play their home opener this weekend, hosting Union on Friday and Saturday.
The men get their next showing in front of the home crowd on Oct. 25 against RIT.
“The guys are already really looking forward to coming back to playing again here,” Gadowsky said. “That being said, it is nice to get that out of the way and to focus a little more on hockey than all the questions that didn’t revolve around hockey.”
Going a mile high
In addition to adjusting to their first game on the road, and just their third airplane flight as a team, the Nittany Lions will have an added obstacle this weekend — the thinner air of high altitude.
The academy is in Colorado Springs, with an elevation of 7,258 feet for the campus.
“It’s definitely different, so we’re going to have to adjust to it,” junior Max Gardner said. “It’s something we’re going to have to battle through.”
One key for the team’s adjustment will be the pregame skate they take Thursday night after arriving in town.
“That’s a big skate for us,” Jensen said. “You’ve got to kind of adjust to skating up the ice. It is a big difference. If you’ve never played at altitude, you get short on breath, you get tired easier — that pregame skate helps a lot. The first couple shifts, once you get into it you get used to it.”
While playing at high altitude will be a new experience for most of the team, a few players do have experience. Jensen played a game at the academy when he was a freshman at Mercyhurst College, and when Gardner was a freshman at Minnesota, he played across town at Colorado College.
That campus also was where Gadowsky went to school, so he is most familiar how to handle the experience.
He said some opposing teams would dwell on it quite a bit, even bringing oxygen tanks to the bench, but it is more how everyone handles the mental aspect. Gadowsky said shifts would not be shortened — no one would be running a stopwatch — but they had to be cognizant of the challenge.
“You have to manage your shifts extremely well, but I believe you should do that anyway,” Gadowsky said.
Many players also echoed the same point Tuesday that they had to drink extra fluids before and after arrival, to deal with not only the thinner air but also the drier climate.
McAdam to play
After elegantly dodging the question last week, Gadowsky was less evasive this time about his goalie for this weekend — freshman Eamon McAdam will get his first minutes in goal Friday night.
“I guess I should probably tell him after I tell you guys, he’s going to play Friday night,” Gadowsky said. “He doesn’t know that yet. We want to see him.”
The third-round draft pick of the New York Islanders brought in an extensive resume even before stepping onto campus.
“We’re all anxious to give him opportunities to see that potential that we believe in,” Gadowsky said. “But it’s up to him to show us when he gets the chance.”
McAdam was in the running to start the opener, but ultimately Matthew Skoff’s experience from last season’s big road wins at Michigan State and Wisconsin on national television played a major role.
“Matt Skoff was definitely the right choice for (last) Friday for a couple reasons,” Gadowsky said. “One was how he finished up last year and the extreme confidence the team has in him because of that. … Plus he really did have, we felt as coaches, the best preseason practices.”
Williamson to play
Another Nittany Lion freshman who had his name called in last summer’s NHL Draft, defenseman Mike Williamson, is expected to play this weekend after missing Friday.
One of the great selling points of the Pegula Ice Arena was the new “Jet Ice” system that is supposed to have the fastest ice possible. So, for men who spend a lot of time on ice, is there a difference?
“It’s a great ice surface,” Jensen said. “I’m sure they need to work on some kinks here and there. They’re new in the rink too, so they need to work on some stuff to with the ice, making sure it’s great for us to play on.”
Comparing to other ice arenas, players said they did not notice much of a difference once the ice had been carved up a little — but there was a noticeable improvement from the old home.
“Obviously it’s a huge difference from Greenberg,” Jensen said. “Greenberg isn’t as state-of-the-art as Pegula. It helps a lot too when they have those ice girls coming out and scraping the edges of the rink, get the snow off the ice, but it’s a lot different than Greenberg and easier to make plays.”
Follow Gordon Brunskill on Twitter @GordonCDT