It was a quest three decades in the making, so the feeling was understandable.
The first time he stepped on the ice with a pair of skates at Pegula Ice Arena, Joe Battista said he was “numb.”
“That was cool, taking the first step out there,” Penn State’s associate athletic director for ice arena and hockey development said. “I had a little lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.”
There had been so many attempts over the years to elevate the ice hockey program back to varsity status and to get a new ice arena on campus, and so many times the hopes were dashed for the former member of the Icers club program as well as a championship-winning coach.
Finally, in 2010, Battista’s dream came true, and three years later the product is the $90 million Pegula Ice Arena, which opens its doors officially Friday afternoon, hosts its first varsity hockey game that night and should help both hockey and figure skating interest blossom in central Pennsylvania.
Nothing will beat that moment in mid-August, however, when the ice was finally down and Battista got to go out and carve it up.
“I don’t know that my skates hit the ice,” he said.
The dream became a reality when Terry Pegula, a 1973 Penn State graduate and avid hockey fan, and his wife, Kim, decided to donate $88 million to the university to help get the arena built and elevate the men’s and women’s programs to varsity status. It is the largest single donation in university history. By the time ground was broken on the arena in 2012, Pegula added another $14 million to the pot to help endow scholarships and with other expenses.
The native of Carbondale is one of the world’s richest men — No. 161 on Forbes’ 400 list, with an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion, according to the publication. Pegula made his fortune in oil and natural gas drilling before selling his East Resources company to Royal Dutch Shell for $4.7 billion in 2010.
His passion for hockey not only led to the Penn State donation, but also to buying the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and to building a complex near Buffalo’s downtown harbor and the Sabres’ arena with rinks, restaurants and a hotel for $170 million.
Oddly enough, it has been months since Pegula has been in State College, so his tour of the building Friday will be a major surprise, even if he and his wife were hands-on in the design of the building.
“Helping to make this dream a reality didn’t require much debate in my mind,” Terry Pegula said in an emailed statement to the CDT. “I tend to gravitate and stick to things that I know and things that I care about. Hockey and Penn State fall into those categories for me, and I thought it was time for Penn State to be a part of the Division I college hockey spectrum.”
The ice palace at the corner of University Drive and Curtin Road, which has been unofficially open since late September, not only fulfilled Battista’s dreams, but also those of nearly any college hockey coach and player, and any local resident who wants to learn to skate or play hockey.
The Nittany Lion team locker rooms for both the men and women are filled with all kinds of perks, like saunas, hot and cold soaking tubs for injuries, synthetic ice shooting areas and a large weight-training room.
“It has all the bells and whistles that you would expect from millions of dollars,” said Taylor Holstrom, a junior forward for the men’s team.
“The facility coming on board has been huge for recruiting, really, right from day one,” said women’s coach Josh Brandwene, also a Penn State alumnus. “Between rink plans, virtual tours, construction tours, it’s been a difference-maker for us already. I think the crew we have here now speaks for that in terms of the youth, the talent, the great students we have here right now, this group that just joined us this fall. (I’m) really pleased with everything. But certainly moving forward it’s a game changer on a whole other level with folks being able to come in and see the finished product for themselves.”
The two varsity teams moved in Sept. 9, and some saw the place for the first time then, including the woodwork in the locker rooms.
“I was bawling my eyes out,” senior women’s goaltender Nicole Paniccia said. “I could not stop crying. As a senior, playing my last year in this rink is just such a great experience.”
“We are very spoiled,” said her counterpart on the men’s side, Matthew Skoff.
There also are plenty of locker areas for community events and a number of available learning opportunities.
“It’s a great place to watch a game and it’s going to have a tremendous atmosphere,” men’s hockey head coach Guy Gadowsky said, “but it’s also extremely convenient not only in its location, right in the middle of campus, but also the amenities that it has to make it convenient and cutting edge for the student-athlete in terms of training and rehab and getting better. These guys have a great work ethic but being able to combine that with the convenience that Pegula Ice Arena affords us is going to be a significant factor.”
Having such resources not only will benefit the Nittany Lion teams for their health and skills — and in recruiting — but also will help build the teams’ cohesiveness. The teams used to show up at the old home rink, Greenberg Ice Pavilion, for practice or across the street to lift weights at East Area Lockers, put in their time and leave.
Now, with team lounges and amenities like big screen televisions and pingpong tables, it is a congregation point.
“I think you’ll see the guys in the rink at all hours of the day right now,” said David Glen, the team’s leading scorer last season, “whether it’s working on their shot in the shooting room ... we have that beautiful weight room now, the pingpong table in the lounge. You’ll see a lot of guys spend a lot more hours in the rink. I think it’s really good for team chemistry, especially with all the new guys coming in.”
“I’ve been in here at 7 o’clock at night,” added Glen’s linemate, Casey Bailey. “I just drove up here, hanging out here, watching TV with five or six of the guys. It’s an incredible place. Basically, if we could we would throw a bunk in here and stay the night. I think the gift that we received from the Pegula family is incredible and we can’t be happier.”
The arena has helped stoke the fires of hockey fans on campus and in the area. Fewer than 15 season tickets remained — single seats scattered around the building — last week and students descended on the season ticket sale like locusts. Close to 1,000 people lined up at the HUB-Robeson Center to form a line that snaked around and well outside the building.
It left a mere 200 single-game tickets and 233 standing-room spots available each night this season for men’s games.
“We receive as much excitement outside State College as we do inside State College, even across the (Canadian) border,” Gadowsky said. “There are a lot of people excited about what’s going on, very curious what’s going on. To see that (long line at the HUB) happen right here in State College, the response from the student body, the response from the community with tickets and season tickets, it’s awesome.”
While the Nittany Lions’ share of the amenities were put in for the teams, there are plenty of highlights for fans as well in an arena that will hold 6,000, including standing-room, per game.
The main arena features loge and club seats, 14 suits and two opera boxes, complete with access to a club dining area with full meals from a full-service kitchen.
The student section, with nearly 1,000 seats, will be at one end of the rink with a steep pitch to the stairs to enhance the noise right behind the opposing team’s goalie two periods each game. Most of the arena is enclosed, with a metal ceiling and no acoustic enhancements, to make the building as noisy as possible.
“Personally, I like the student section and the locker room,” Skoff said. “I am going to feel bad for the other goalie that comes in and has to turn around and see raging fans right behind him.”
The concourse has interactive touch-screen televisions to provide information on the teams and Penn State hockey history, and numerous spots with information signs to educate fans about the game.
The building has two sheets of ice, with an additional community rink for adult and youth leagues, public skating sessions and other learning opportunities. Between the two rinks is a corridor with lounge chairs, three fireplaces and a restaurant with a Subway café and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. That area, with wireless access, will be open to the public from early morning until late at night.
The impact on the community will be felt, especially by those who first learned their skating skills at the old Greenberg rink.
“It’s so cool,” said sophomore women’s forward Jill Holdcroft, a State College product. “I was going to a lot of Penn State games growing up, and to move over here and walk around this facility is awesome. Now seeing some of the little kids that I coach walk in with big smiles — it’s been a lot of fun to see how things are transitioning.”
The fun has been felt throughout the programs, and especially by those who made the building possible.
The beneficiaries who will be donning blue and white uniforms, not only this weekend but for years to come, certainly are appreciative.
“For as many times as I’ve been a part of rink plans and virtual tours and construction tours,” Brandwene said, “ I gotta tell ya, turning down University (Drive) knowing I was making a right hand turn for the first time into this parking lot, my heart was racing. Like it really hasn’t been since I was a player despite the number of times I’ve been in the building.”
“I’ve been feeling a little bit of it for the last six months now,” Glen said. “I’m really excited for the game. I think it will be as good an atmosphere you’ll get in a college hockey arena. I can’t wait for that day and I know we’ve been thinking about it for a long time.”