Four years ago, these guys were a part of something special.
Seven freshmen made a commitment to a fledgling hockey program, not knowing what was in store for them or the program, or even what their home rink would look like. Their very first game was on Oct. 11, 2013, when the doors were opened to Pegula Ice Arena.
Their last home game also has the makings of something special, with the possibility of the program’s first berth in the NCAA tournament hanging in the balance.
The Penn State men’s hockey team plays its final home games of the season at 7 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday against No. 16 Wisconsin (18-11-1, 11-5 Big Ten).
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“I can’t believe it’s been four years,” said David Goodwin, reminiscing on that very first game against Army when he had a goal and an assist. “That was an incredibly special night and something that I’ll look back on with great fondness as I kind of think back on my time here at Penn State.”
The No. 11 Nittany Lions (20-8-2, 9-6-1) head into the weekend very much in the hunt to make the 16-team NCAA bracket.
Four-plus years ago – whenever each of these men said they would take the plunge with the nation’s newest program – they gave their commitment to a huge collection of unknowns. There were no guarantees the team would have a winning record by the time they were seniors or how competitive they would be in the Big Ten.
“We needed the guys that had been told, ‘Why would you go to Penn State? You’re going to lose for four years,’” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “It was the guys that believed a lot in themselves as well as Penn State University. That challenge didn’t bother them.”
The challenge was about much more than just competitive hockey.
“You’re obviously taking a risk when you do that,” defenseman David Thompson said. “At the same time we knew what this place, this institution and university, had to offer us, not just athletically and academically.”
This senior class, and the class before that played the first season of Division I in the old Greenberg Ice Pavilion, laid the foundation.
Gadowsky hopes he still has players on his team for years to come who will not be intimidated by a challenge, and who appreciate what made current successes possible.
“These guys paved the way for us,” freshman Nate Sucese said. “The seniors this year made a tremendous, a very easy transition for me personally on the ice and off the ice. Off the ice is a big thing coming into a university with so many people here.”
The group to be honored Saturday night – after pregame warm-ups about a half-hour before the opening faceoff – is a little thinner than their ranks as freshmen. Goalie Eamon McAdam decided to leave early to play professionally, and defenseman Mike Williamson had to hang up his skates because of injuries.
The remaining five who put their faith in blueprints and concepts are Goodwin, Thompson, Ricky DeRosa, Dylan Richard and Zach Saar.
Also, for the first time, the team will be hitting the ice having to shake off Senior Night emotions and get a win they really need.
“I’m thinking about Friday right now,” Goodwin said. “I think as I’m preparing for Saturday’s game, there will be a big part of me that will realize, ‘Man, this will be the last time I’m going to get to play here at Pegula.’ ... It will be very tough to leave this place, but it’ll be a lot easier to leave this place if we’re leaving it after going to the NCAA tournament.”
It’s games like these that were part of Gadowsky’s sales pitch to these young men years ago.
“This is really why hockey players want to come to Penn State,” Gadowsky said. “You want to play in big Big Ten hockey games that have implications in terms of the league as well as the national level. That’s exactly what we have.”
Who: No. 16 Wisconsin (18-11-1, 11-5 Big Ten) at No. 11 Penn State (20-8-2, 9-6-1)
Where: Pegula Ice Arena
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday
Radio: WAPY 103.1
TV: American Sports Network
Leading scorers: PSU—Denis Smirnov (17 goals, 23 assists), David Goodwin (8 G, 23 A), Chase Berger (11 G, 17 A), Andrew Sturtz (19 G, 8 A). Wisconsin — Luke Kunin (20 G, 15 A), Trent Frederic (15 G, 17 A), Cameron Hughes (7 G, 23 A), Grant Besse (8 G, 19 A).