The new building was beautiful, loud and packed to the rafters.
And nearly all of those fans left with smiles on their faces.
Aside from a few too many penalties, it was hard to ask for anything more of the Penn State ice hockey team in their new home, erupting for three third-period goals to put away Army 4-1 Friday night in the first game in Pegula Ice Arena.
“When there’s a packed barn like that, and those fans are yelling,” said defenseman Nate Jensen, who scored the first goal in the new rink, “you get jitters, you get nervous for those kind of games and it was fun.”
With 6,370 fans filling every corner of the brand new $90 million ice palace, the building was electrified long before the opening faceoff, with a huge roar when the team skated onto the ice for the first time.
Following team captains Tommy Olczyk of Penn State and Brian Schultz taking a ceremonial drop of the puck from Terry Pegula, whose donation made the moment possible, the energy in the arena grew even more. There also was a big roar of applause for Pegula when he was introduced.
Curtis Loik, David Goodwin and Eric Scheid netted the other goals for the Nittany Lions, Mac Lalor found the net for the Cadets and goalie Matthew Skoff made 25 saves to lock up the win.
After the final horn, players stood around center circle, tapped their sticks on the ice, waved them in the air, skated over to the student section to salute them, then linked arm-in-arm and sang along with the Blue Band to the Alma Mater.
“It’s cool to be a part of Penn State,” Skoff said. “It was good to have that special moment with the fans that hopefully are going to be there for the rest of the season for us. It was something special between us and the fans.”
Then, as the team left the ice, Jonathan Milley greeted each of his teammates with a high-five.
“I’m pretty bummed it’s out of the way,” Goodwin said. “I wish we could do it again.”
“I think it’s going to be this crazy throughout the whole year,” Jensen said. “When we score a goal it gets loud in there. I might black out every time I score.”
It took only 3 minutes and 2 seconds to get that first goal, raising the decibel level in the arena even more — if that was even possible.
Jensen took the puck from Holstrom at the point, took a stride toward the goal and fired it through a maze of players.
“Taylor passed it out to me and Max (Gardiner) was in front — he’s a big body,” Jensen said. “He pretty much just screened the goalie and I shot upper left. I kind of blacked out after. I didn’t know who scored. Taylor went down and did some (celebrating) on the ground so I was like, ‘Did he get the goal?’ It was just a good team effort. It’s an honor to get it.”
The goal came in front of that student section, which was harassing Cadets goalie Rob Tadazak all night – just like the place was designed.
“We don’t get that kind of student section at West Point,” Tadazak said. “It’s nice to have people screaming. It’s all fun and games. I was going to shake their hands after the game. It keeps it interesting.”
“The star of the show tonight was definitely the student section,” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “The atmosphere was tremendous. Walking out on the bench was a pretty phenomenal feeling.”
For Army, which had to deal with being in limbo with the shutdown of the U.S. government and questions of whether they were allowed to hold athletic events, it also was a thrill for the team to be a part of Penn State’s historic moment.
“It didn’t affect us in a negative way,” Army coach Brian Riley said. “I think all of our guys would tell you that they loved it. The fans were great, the student section – fantastic. This was what college hockey should be about.”
Being a part of the Nittany Lions’ history wasn’t affecting the Cadets as much as just being able to open the season.
“It was more like first-game-of-the-year jitters,” Tadazak said. “It’s kind of like Christmas morning to hockey players. I think we were more anxious to get going.”
Following the first goal, the Nittany Lions turned into their own worst enemy, picking up 11 penalties totaling 33 minutes, including a pair of 5-on-3 opportunities for Army. The Cadets, however, could only convert on one of those chances when the game was all but decided.
Gadowsky blamed associate athletic director Joe Battista, with home the coach had a conversation a few hours before the game.
“The last thing he said to me as I walked out of his office was, ‘We just can’t take a lot of penalties because the guys are so jacked up,’” Gadowsky said. “That’s I think what happened. Some of that is poor technique too. We’ve had a week of practice.”
It didn’t hurt too much.
While killing one of Army’s many power plays, David Goodwin poked the puck away out of the zone, and the puck bounced off a linesman back to Goodwin, who sent the puck across to Loik to start a 2-on-1 break. Loik kept the puck the rest of the way, ripping a wrist shot low past Tadazak’s glove side just inside the post.
Goodwin then tore down the ice on a 3-on-none break, with Dylan Richard and Zach Saar, and beat Tadazak on a low wrist shot to essentially wrap up the win. Saar was given the assist.
“All I remember was Richard yelling at me, ‘Shoot! Shoot! Don’t try to hold up and wait for me,’” Goodwin said. “I was like, ‘All right, I’ll go shoot.’ It went in. Pretty sweet.”
All those penalties finally caught up with the Nittany Lions with 4:21 left, during another 5-on-3 advantage, when Lalor fired a wrist shot wide open from the slot to spoil the shutout.
The team also got a pep talk from Pegula about 90 minutes before the game, and Gadowsky’s hopes of keeping his team calm were dashed.
“The guys were ready to chew nails after he left,” Gadowsky said.
No matter what, the Nittany Lions know it will be a night they will remember a long time.
“The first time when we went out there for warm-ups and we look up, it was just – I forget. I blacked out,” Goodwin said. “It was insane.”