Just over seven years ago, as Penn State was rocking the college hockey world by announcing the creation of its Division I hockey programs, Terry Pegula laid out his vision.
His gift of $88 million that day was not only meant for the varsity programs and the building that now bears his name, but also was for the sport in general and the people of Central Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby understood, telling Pegula, “This is a great thing you are doing for hockey.”
Pegula told the audience that day: “I’m going to guess that maybe someday in these hills of Pennsylvania, maybe we find a Pennsylvania Crosby. Maybe he learns to skate at our facility, he plays his youth hockey here, and maybe he plays hockey at Penn State.”
Hockey is strong in the state, with a rise of more than 2,100 boys age 18 and younger playing now compared to before the announcement.
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Some states have deep roots in hockey, like Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Pennsylvania arrived later, augmented by the success of the NHL’s Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, but the state is among the top 10 in the sport’s growth over the last two decades in studies of USA Hockey enrollment. The growth started well before Pegula wrote his big check, but he wanted to help keep the trend upward.
“I give Terry Pegula a ton of credit with his vision,” Nittany Lion coach Guy Gadowsky said earlier this week, also looking over the state’s borders. “I think there’s great talent coming out of this state and surrounding footprint. I think it’s getting better and better. I think that Penn State hockey has a lot to do with that, both men and women.”
While a direct correlation to Penn State’s emergence in the sport cannot be made, the state has seen notable growth in youth participation.
According to USA Hockey data on annual membership, the state had 19,504 boys 18 or under registered with USA Hockey in 2009-10, the season before Penn State’s announcement, compared to 21,261 for last season. The western part of the state, which includes State College, has been the source of most of the state’s growth, with a lot of help from Crosby and the Penguins’ Stanley Cups.
Even locally, the Nittany Lion Development Program in Pegula Ice Arena has seen a rise of just 35 participants in the fall of 2014 to 150 this year for players ages 8-18, according to Ryan Patrick, Hockey Director for Pegula Ice Arena. The State College Youth Ice Hockey Association also has 10 teams playing this season for the 8-18 age groups compared to six in 2013-14 for the 10-18 age groups.
Gadowsky wants to ensure the top end of the talent growth ends up in State College — echoing football coach James Franklin’s boast to “dominate the state” in recruiting.
“I think there’s a lot of great players here in Pennsylvania, (and) we want to make that statement that we get the very best,” said Gadowsky, who has had a view of the state’s talent since 2004, when he became the coach at Princeton, across the Delaware River in New Jersey. “That’s a priority for us to make sure that stays.”
Checking the rosters of the NCAA’s 60 Division I men’s programs, 40 players have Pennsylvania hometowns, led by Penn State’s six. Ferris State, in western Michigan, is next with four. Robert Morris and Mercyhurst — which Penn State will play at home 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday — each have three.
Aside from Arizona State, which is in just its second season, Pennsylvania is home to three of the youngest Division I programs, with Robert Morris starting its team in 2004 and Mercyhurst moving from Division III to Division I in 1999. The Lions and Colonials have already met a half-dozen times, and have a home-and-home series in December.
Even before Penn State rose to be a Big Ten and national contender, the prospect of a major college program close to home piqued the interests of recruits, including a pair of freshmen.
Evan Barratt, who grew up in Bristol, in the Philadelphia suburbs, is a Chicago Blackhawks draft pick and played in the U.S. national program, but he was hooked on the Nittany Lions pretty early.
“There are kids in this area that see this and say, ‘Oh, I want to play hockey. This is what I want to do,’” Barratt said. “For me back home, the guys I play hockey with, they want to play hockey in college ... any time there’s a school close to you and your family, it’s perfect.”
Adam Pilewicz, from Sewickley, near Pittsburgh, was likely destined for Penn State anyway. Both parents are alumni, his brother Jake is a senior with the Nittany Lion baseball team, and his sister Emily is a sophomore. When Pegula made his announcement, Pilewicz was inspired.
“Whenever they added the Division I program,” he said, “I was like, ‘I’ve really got to go for this. This is my dream here.’ Realizing this came true is one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Who knows how long before a “Sidney Crosby” from the Centre Region appears, but this weekend, two Pennsylvania hockey teams will be playing in Terry Pegula’s dream building. It is part of what he had in mind seven years ago.
“I’m really excited about it,” Gadowsky said of the sport’s in-state growth. “There’s a big improvement.”
Men’s college hockey
Who: Mercyhurst (2-2-2) at No. 17 Penn State (4-4)
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday
Where: Pegula Ice Arena
Radio: WAPY 103.1 FM
Leading scorers: PSU—Denis Smirnov (5 goals, 6 assists), Andrew Sturtz (4G, 3A), Cole Hults (2G, 5A), Trevor Hamilton (1G, 5A), Chase Berger (1G, 5A); M—Les Lancaster (1G, 5A), Taylor Best (3G, 2A), Derek Barach (2G, 3A), Jack Riley (2G, 3A), Joseph Duszak (0G, 5A).
Try hockey free: Pegula Ice Arena will host a Try Hockey for Free event from 10-11 a.m. Saturday as part of USA Hockey’s Come Play Youth Hockey Campaign. Register at www.tryhockeyforfree.com/7811