When when current defenseman Paul DeNaples talks about his first Penn State men’s hockey game, he means the very first one, when the program made its Division I debut in Pegula Ice Arena.
He was in the arena Oct. 11, 2013, when the Nittany Lions defeated Army in front of 6,370 fans. For the then-teenage hockey player from Scranton, the emotions and memories were immediate and impactful, and they remain vivid more than five years later.
As DeNaples, now a freshman for Penn State, talks about that first game, his eyes open a bit wider and a smile quickly moves across his face.
“I grew up a Michigan fan, my dad graduated from Michigan, but being at that game was special,” said DeNaples, one of four players from Pennsylvania on the team’s roster. “With that happening and as I developed as a hockey player, once I got the offer to play here, it was yes right away.
“None of us grew up wanting to go here — there was no Penn State hockey program when we were really young. But this program has grown up so fast it’s amazing. It would’ve been stupid to say no.”
Penn State’s hockey program has developed quickly and, like all top-level programs, it has done so with experienced players. Most Division I-level prospects play junior hockey first and arrive at college not as teenagers but more often as 20-somethings.
DeNaples, 20, is one of the younger players on a roster that includes four 24-year-old teammates. Again, it’s a common occurrence in Division I hockey.
Penn State’s average age of 21 years, 11 months was the second-oldest in the Big Ten entering this season and tied for 11th nationally. By comparison, Alaska-Anchorage (22 years, 9 months) is the oldest and Boston University (20 years, 6 months) is the youngest.
DeNaples, a 6-foot, 184-pound defenseman who served as a team captain for his junior team, said the only time he felt like a freshman on campus was during orientation last summer. “Because you were among all the freshmen from all the teams, maybe it was a feeling of being a little older, but not much,” he said. “Even then you’d look at some of the football players and they might be younger than me but they’re twice the size of me. And once you’re in class you really don’t know how old anyone is.”
Coach Guy Gadowsky believes that maturity is a good thing. Whether it’s adaptability and on-ice experience from playing juniors, or whether it’s simply the additional focus and drive that a 20-year-old might possess, he likes to empower and trust his players as a result of what they’ve already done.
“Some of these guys have played three games in three nights in three different towns. They’ve all lived away from home before, and junior hockey is a business when if you’re not getting the job done you can get traded,” he said. “When they get to college, there can be a bit more appreciation for what they have.”
Junior Blake Gober, a 24-year-old forward from Colleyville, Texas, agreed.
“Nobody misses the 12-hour bus rides, and we have great facilities and support here,” Gober said. “Plus, I wasn’t ready to come here out of high school. Now I know how serious school is and I’m better prepared for that. In juniors I didn’t have school to worry about until the last year, so all of that experience makes things better.”
That does not mean a season progresses without challenges, though, as the team has discovered this season.
Thanks to some inconsistency and a few key injuries, the No. 15 Nittany Lions (14-10-2, 6-9-1 Big Ten) are tied for last in the seven-team conference. They were off this weekend before a season-ending stretch of games that begins when perennial power Minnesota, which was unranked this week but sits ahead of Penn State in the conference standings, visits Pegula Ice Arena next weekend.
Gadowsky, the team’s captains, older players and even players with ample experience who happen to be younger have consistently preached about the power of personal responsibility and quiet leadership. “There are a lot of guys on our team that I know are good leaders,” Gadowsky said. “They’re not going to be the yappy guys, but when there’s something that needs to be said it gets done. The truth is that less you talk the more people listen when you do talk.”
Coaches and players alike hope that mentality, no matter the players’ age, transfers into on-ice success as the season winds toward its completion.
“At first I was a little quiet as a freshman,” DeNaples said. “Now I’m pretty comfortable and everyone is a leader in their own way. Coach Gadowsky gives us a lot of opportunities. He tells us there’s always a hockey play to be made out there and he wants us to do it. That’s what we have to do.”
Members of Division I men’s college hockey teams are generally the oldest student-athletes on any campus where the sport is played because they come to college after a couple of years in junior hockey. Here’s a look at the average age of Big Ten hockey teams entering this season:
Ohio State: 22 years, 1 month
Penn State: 21 years, 11 months
Michigan State: 21 years, 5 months
Minnesota: 21 years, 3 months
Notre Dame: 21 years, 1 month
Wisconsin: 20 years, 2 months
Michigan: 20 years, 11 months
Source: College Hockey News