UNIVERSITY PARK — Typically Senior Night for Penn State sports teams is full of drama and tears for athletes and their families as they all parade out in front of the crowd.
For most of the major team sports, there are usually a handful of players who are honored together, and they and their families can commiserate on the ordeal.
But Saturday night, Pegula Ice Arena will host its first Senior Night for men’s hockey, and the list of honorees is pretty short: Mike McDonagh.
The Nittany Lions’ lone senior will be soaking up his moment in the spotlight in the final home weekend of the season as Penn State hosts Ohio State at 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday with honoring McDonagh on the agenda.
“Many guys will tell you I like being the center of attention,” McDonagh said with a grin. “I’ll probably enjoy the face time a lot.”
McDonagh is the team’s joker, keeping life light in the locker room. He’s also a hard worker who has paid his dues to get the ice time has had had this season.
“He’s a funny guy,” sophomore forward David Glen said. “He’s always kind of a clown in the room, and makes you laugh. He’s never too serious, and that’s a good quality to have.”
While it will be a different experience to honor just the one senior — there figures to be as many as eight in next year’s ceremony — it also will be a special night for the program.
McDonagh will be the first celebrated in the team’s new home rink, after decades at the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, and the first who got to play games in the Big Ten.
“I guess he will go down in history as someone special,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “That’s good. He’s a great guy. He deserves that.”
He also is the last survivor from the Icers club program who came to campus with the decision not dominated by hockey. The finance major came because of academics, and looked forward to playing with the club program. When he took his first classes, the university would not announce it would be elevating hockey to Division I for a few more weeks. Gadowsky would not be named coach until the next spring.
McDonagh had no idea what was to come.
Gadowsky coached the Icers the next season, putting everyone through, essentially, a season-long tryout. There were just over a dozen survivors of that season who got the chance to play varsity.
“That says so much about his character,” Gadowsky said. “I have so much respect for him as a person. And as a player, he’s a sturdy, big guy. He’s got skill, but he does everything rather well, he’s pretty well rounded, he’s not afraid to go into the dirty areas, he’s always committed to coming back to his own end. He’s a bit of a hockey player’s hockey player.”
A number of them graduated last year, a few were recruited knowing they would be a part of the move to Division I and a few have left the team since. Two others still with the team – Jacob Friedman and Peter Sweetland – also were commitments to the university before Gadowsky became coach, but they at least knew Division I was possible.
And even after making the cut for last year’s team, McDonagh knew he was not yet done proving himself.
“Coming in freshman year, I wasn’t even sure I was going to be on the club team,” said McDonagh, who had 17 goals and 30 assists during his two years with the Icers. “Each year I didn’t know I was going to be on the team, didn’t know I was going to be on the team. But it all worked out and I’ve had an incredible experience. It’s going to be definitely hard to let go.”
While he has not played as often, there have been a number of thrills for the native of Wilmington, Mass., since then.
Although he does not have a point this season in 13 games, he had six assists last year, highlighted by a three-assist game against Sacred Heart. He also will forever be in the Nittany Lion history books by scoring the first empty-net goal in Division I history against Air Force.
He was a healthy scratch from the season opener against Army, when the team made its debut in the new arena, but he still enjoyed the party.
And just walking into the new building a month earlier with the rest of the team also was a thrill.
“Walking in here the first day, when the whole team walked in,” McDonagh said. “Being in the Greenberg – a lot of history in the Greenberg – but I mean, this rink just blows it out of the water. The moment we walked in as a team together (and) saw everything that’s been accomplished was amazing.”
His other favorite moment came in mid-November against Massachusetts Lowell, when a hard shot cracked one of the panes of glass behind the net and forced a stoppage of about 10 minutes midway through the second period.
“I was on the ice the whole time just looking around,” McDonagh said. “My family was actually at that game. … That was their first game there. I remember looking up at them and just a sea of Penn State fans. It was just an incredible experience as well. ‘This is pretty cool. This is neat.’”
Saturday night, he will be on the ice again, soaking it all in.
He will loving every moment too, knowing he will be taking a special spot in program history.
“The guys last year, they got a year of D-I,” McDonagh said. “They loved the opportunity, but I think they’re a little jealous that I got the opportunity to play a year in the Pegula, so it’ll definitely be sweet to have my family and friends there and be the first guy to come out of Pegula. A very special thing and I’m just honored to be a part of it.”