Penn State Hockey

College hockey’s newest program visits thriving Penn State

Penn State defenseman Erik Auto and the Nittany Lions host Arizona State on Friday at Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.
Penn State defenseman Erik Auto and the Nittany Lions host Arizona State on Friday at Saturday at Pegula Ice Arena.

It’s the easy comparison when the two teams face off at Pegula Ice Arena this weekend — the two newest programs in Division I hockey.

Arizona State is in just its second season of varsity hockey, and the Sun Devils can’t help but cast an envious eye to the home bench at what No. 10 Penn State has done in its first five seasons.

“From a success standpoint and what (Penn State) has been able to do in a short period of time,” Sun Devils coach Greg Powers said, “that’s what we want to be.”

The teams meet at 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday, the next step for the Nittany Lions (9-1-1) on their nine-game unbeaten streak with the Big Ten schedule on the horizon.

The Sun Devils (2-9) would like to grow like the Nittany Lions, but as Powers pointed out, it’s “comparing apples and oranges.”

Penn State had two years from the announcement of the move to Division I to starting varsity play. The school got an $88 million gift from Terry and Kim Pegula, the Big Ten added hockey to its conference list and the sport was much more of a known commodity for fans and young players in the region.

Arizona State dove in just a few months after announcing it would be adding the sport even without a huge donation, in its second season still doesn’t have a conference and just recently finalized plans for an on-campus arena.

“They’ve set the bar really high and have been doing a great job,” said Powers, who had toured Pegula Ice Arena during his program’s transition. “But it’s two completely different situations.”

Recruiting players to a school — and region — that doesn’t have a long tradition with the sport would figure to be an obstacle, but not as much as one might think. As was pointed out by Nittany Lion coach Guy Gadowsky, you accentuate the positives. Among them is being the only school in the Southwest for talented players in California and Arizona. The region has grown tremendously with the sport, and the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft last June was Auston Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Sun Devils also have three NHL draft picks on their roster.

“When you talk about a recruiting footprint, I think that might be a big advantage for them,” Gadowsky said. “There (are) tremendous hockey players in California … great hockey players all over western Canada and another great university institution there. I think they’re in a unique spot to take advantage of that.”

It’s also easy to convince those who want to get away from winter’s chill, as was pointed out by the Buffalo Sabres’ Jack Eichel when he was in the midst of his Hobey Baker Award-winning season at Boston University in 2014-15.

“You ever see the girls who go to that school? That might help,” Eichel told Yahoo Sports’ Puck Daddy. “I’m serious … (they) have a lot of advantages with recruiting that a lot of other schools won’t. It’s a really nice climate and kids like to enjoy their social college life and Arizona has a really nice social life.”

Eichel went on to say he chose Boston University because of its tradition. Powers deals with that much like Gadowsky did, with the concept instead of the tangible. Instead of showing off pictures of alumni in the NHL, Powers sells the vision.

“You can set a standard, you can set a tradition,” Powers said of his pitch. “You can maybe have that hallway of NHL players named after you, you can maybe have a statue outside our new arena of you. There are endless opportunities when you go and start something with a blank canvas. You can paint whatever you want.”

Many Nittany Lion players know that feeling, and several of them know Sun Devil players who are experiencing the growing pains now.

They also see the program is committed to going big-time. The Sun Devils are in the midst of their third of seven trips to the Eastern time zone, and Penn State is already the sixth ranked opponent on their schedule.

Arizona State is being watched by lot of people, from other Pac-12 and Southwestern schools that may ponder a similar move, as well as traditional programs interested in seeing the sport grow more.

Like Penn State shook up the college hockey world, the Sun Devils also are hoping to blaze a trail.

“You hope they do well and build what they want to down there,” Penn State senior forward Ricky DeRosa said. “At the same time, it’s the same mindset — whoever’s coming in here this weekend.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT

Men’s ice hockey

Who: Arizona State (2-9) at No. 10 Penn State (9-1-1)

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Pegula Ice Arena

Radio: WAPY 103.1

Leading scorers: PSU — Denis Smirnov (5 goals, 12 assists), David Goodwin (1 G, 10 A), Nate Sucese (5 G, 5 A), Andrew Sturtz (8 G, 1 A). ASU — Robbie Baillargeon (6 G, 3 A), Dylan Hollman (1 G, 6 A), Tyler Busch (4 G, 2 A).