While Penn State’s Peyton Jones stands in the crease during Nittany Lions’ home hockey games, listening to the treatment received by the opposing goalie, a thought goes through his head: “Glad it’s not me.”
Penn State is in just the sixth season of fielding a Division I hockey program, but in that short time, Pegula Ice Arena’s crowds — especially the student section known as the “Roar Zone” — are already on par with some of the best and toughest college arena crowds in the nation, according to both opposing players and the Nittany Lions.
“It’s really good for college hockey,” said Tony Calderone, who plays in front of a Michigan crowd that has been among the nation’s best for decades. “I think this place got a crowd fast. They’re a dangerous crowd. When Penn State gets their crowd going, it can be harmful for the other team.”
It is what Terry and Kim Pegula had in mind when they took part in designing the arena that bears their name after their $102 million in donations to the university.
Dozens of times each year, coach Guy Gadowsky will thank the home crowd and the ‘Roar Zone,’ the student section. For big weekends, like what looms this week when No. 6 Ohio State heads into town, players will get antsy to step onto the ice — and try not to get too fired up.
“We haven’t talked about balancing, we just enjoy it,” Gadowsky said. “We’ve never really talked about, ‘Be careful not to get too hyped,’ but ‘just enjoy it.’ It’s a great problem to have. We love it. It’s fun. It’s awesome. If sometimes we get a little too amped up, we’ll consider that a great problem to have.”
When former associate athletic director Joe Battista, who also coached the Icers club program, gave tours of the building while it was under construction and before it opened, he frequently crowed about the steps of the “Roar Zone” being the steepest allowed by building codes. It made that end of the arena appear to be a giant wall of students. The building also was designed with a metal ceiling — for a louder arena at the insistence of the Pegulas.
Along with the home-ice advantage in structure, they needed students to do their part — which turned out to be pretty easy.
“We had great expectations because of what we see in other venues, athletic venues here at Penn State, and because of the pride that Penn State has,” Gadowsky said. “As high as the expectations were, the ‘Roar Zone’ and the atmosphere here at Pegula has exceeded those expectations.”
The first year of student-ticket sales was held in-person at the HUB-Robeson Center, with the line of students winding down sidewalks. Students had to be given rainchecks to keep their place in line so they could get to classes. Online ordering has been used ever since, and a mere 2 minutes, 12 seconds was needed to sell out the section back in September.
“Any time you can get students to come out and generate a lot of buzz, and support the team, is great,” said Michigan State senior defenseman Carson Gatt. “They’re off to a great start, definitely.”
The “Roar Zone” also has its own student leadership, and those in the section also get very well educated about the opposing players — especially the goalie. In the opening minutes of every game they shout taunts at the goalie, who spends the first and third periods in front of the net a few feet away from the section.
“They keep us in games and they motivate us to play better every time we’re on the ice,” said Jones, who tries to block out most of the arena action during games but occasionally sees what the fans do. “For me it’s awesome, first and third (periods) to look up and see them. And in the second, it’s like they have my back.”
While central Pennsylvania may not have deep hockey roots, many students come from the other parts of the state, where there are the natural followings of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. Other NHL jerseys also have made appearances, like the Buffalo Sabres, Washington Capitals and even a few long-gone franchises like the Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers.
There are occasional games in which the section has a different look — when students are gone from campus. The section’s seats are sold to the general public for those contests, like when Michigan State visited the day after Thanksgiving and when Wisconsin was in town lasts weekend before the spring semester began.
The students were not missed by the Badgers.
“They do a really good job of getting a good atmosphere, getting loud,” Badgers junior defenseman Peter Tischke said. “It’s hard to hear out there. We’ll be calling out plays out there and stuff and it’s really hard to hear. You have to get really close. It’s a really fun atmosphere to play in.”
Even without the students, they still get strong turnouts. The place has had sellouts for all but two games played there since the building opened, and last season actually averaged 104 percent capacity, with standing-room tickets added in, to lead the nation.
The atmosphere of games also typically leads football coach James Franklin to bring potential recruits to games at least once a season.
“You’ve got the student section yelling and stuff like that that,” Penn State freshman defenseman Cole Hults said. “It’s definitely intimidating and your gut sinks a little bit more. The opposing team coming into that, it’s definitely huge for us. It’s going to be great having them back for Ohio State.”
The Nittany Lions will still have to be at their best this weekend against the Buckeyes, but they know they will not be lacking for energy when the puck drops.
“Coming to games here (is) so much fun. I can’t wait to come to the next game,” Gadowsky said, referring to the student section. “There are so many great things about this university, this program right now. I’ve gotta put them at the top of the list. They make everything we do great.”
Who: No. 6 Ohio State (14-4-4, 7-4-1 Big Ten) at No. 13 Penn State (12-7-3, 5-4-3-2)
Where: Pegula Ice Arena
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday
TV: BTN (Saturday)
Radio: WAPY 103.1
Leading scorers: PSU — Andrew Sturtz (10 goals, 18 assists), Brandon Biro (5 G, 15 A), Trevor Hamilton (4 G, 16 A), Chase Berger (7 G, 12 A), Nate Sucese (10 G, 9 A). OSU — Tanner Laczynski (10 G, 19 A), Matthew Weis (8 G, 15 A), Mason Jobst (9 G, 12 A)