UNIVERSITY PARK — After a three-decade dream was finally realized, Joe Battista needed a new challenge.
Just weeks after seeing the Pegula Ice Arena opened with huge fanfare, Penn State’s associate athletic director for ice hockey says he is leaving the university.
Penn State announced the move Tuesday, officially as the retirement of Battista, who has helped raise hundreds of gifts worth millions for the university, most notably $102 million from Terry and Kim Pegula to build the arena and raise the men’s and women’s hockey programs to Division I status. The donation is the largest gift in university history.
Battista is moving to Buffalo, N.Y., to help the Pegulas with their East Management Services, serving as vice president for hockey-related businesses.
“It’s the challenge,” Battista said Tuesday afternoon. “I have found my next challenge and I have the support of people who are just as passionate, if not more so, about hockey than I am, and now we’re teamed up.”
The 1983 graduate of the Smeal College of Business has been beaming since the arena was opened, the product of his dogged determination. With countless near-misses over the last three decades to get a big-time arena and big-time hockey program on campus, Battista finally succeeded in 2010 with the financial commitment from the Pegulas.
Battista oversaw the project from the drawing board to the final chair moving into the offices, and there was immense satisfaction when he and the hockey programs got to move into the building in early September.
“I don’t think we’d have a Divison I program if it wasn’t for him,” Nittany Lion men’s coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We’re all greatly indebted. I know I am to him and thank him for everything he’s done to get us to this point. At the same time I want to congratulate him. He’s moving on to work for a tremendous man and a tremendous organization.”
He even was asked what he would do with his time now that the project was completed, and he responded half-joking with the question, “What part of running an $90 million facility don’t you understand?”
But he realized he needed to do more.
“I was asked, ‘How can you leave here? This was your dream job,’” Battista said. “Not really. My dream has come true. I got the programs to Division I status and we got this gorgeous building built on time and actually under budget.”
Battista said that while sitting in his brand new office, complete with mementos scattered all around his office including a collection of hockey sticks sitting in the corner.
“I’m not about this kind of stuff,” said Battista, whose last day with the university is Nov. 8. “I’m in it for the adventure. I’m in it for the journey, the challenge. I really don’t have anything left to do. I think I’ve served my alma mater very well. I think it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship over the last 35 years.”
Battista began the journey as a Penn State student and playing for the Icers club program in 1978. After a few years away, he returned to coach the Icers for 19 years, winning more than 500 games and six American Collegiate Hockey Association national titles. He later became the Nittany Lion Club’s executive director and then became the director of major gifts for the Smeal College. In 2010, he assumed his current role with the hockey program when the Pegulas made their major gift.
“Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State community for more than 30 years as a student and employee, and I thank him for his loyal service to the university and Intercollegiate Athletics,” Director of Athletics Dave Joyner said in a statement. “Joe’s vision, passion and tireless efforts toward bringing NCAA Division I hockey to Penn State were unmatched and it’s fitting that he was able to see both the men’s and women’s hockey programs play at Pegula Ice Arena. We wish him and his family all the best in the future.”
With the Pegula’s venture, Battista will serve numerous roles as a facilitator and liaison between business and hockey entities. Pegula also is the owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and is building a $170 million Harborcenter in downtown Buffalo. Battista has been a consultant on that project since it began in 2012, and it includes a hotel and retail space in addition to two ice rinks in a building not far from the Sabres’ arena.
“He wants western New York to be a hockey mecca,” said Battista, who will live part time in Buffalo with his family remaining in State College. “There will be people that will laugh when they hear that … but we are in a perfect location and all they ever needed was someone like Terry who has the passion, the resources and the determination to actually do it. I want to be around people like that.”
The dream also is to grow the sport, from youth levels through college.
The new adventure begins Nov. 11.
“I’m back where I belong,” Battista said. “My wife said she has not seen me this happy in a long time. She can just tell I’ve got that bounce in my step.”
Gordon Brunskill covers Penn State hockey for the CDT. Follow him on Twitter @GordonCDT