Road trips can be fairly challenging for a college hockey program, but this week is extra tricky for Penn State.
The Nittany Lion men’s team leaves campus Tuesday on its way to Fairbanks, Alaska, for what is, by far, the longest road trip in the team’s brief Division I history.
Penn State plays in the Brice Alaska Goal Rush this weekend, meeting Alaska Anchorage at 9 p.m. Friday, then the host Nanooks at 11 p.m. Saturday.
The team needed the inside scoop on traveling to the Land of the Midnight Sun, and they got it from player Casey Bailey.
“I kind of was just focusing on making sure they were being professionals about it,” said Bailey, a native of Anchorage. “We don’t need to look for an excuse to play bad over the weekend.”
Among the bits of advice Bailey passed along was to get sleep on the first leg of the transcontinental trip to Seattle, but to stay awake for the flight from Seattle to Fairbanks to help them adjust to the four-hour time change.
The team hops on a bus after Tuesday afternoon’s practice for Newark, N.J., where they will spend the night before catching a 7:30 a.m. Wednesday flight across the country, finally arriving at around 4:30 p.m. local time.
Most of the questions he got from teammates were about how much daylight they would have — with the autumnal equinox only three weeks ago there is not a large differential from State College, although the sun stays fairly low in the sky — and about how cold it is up there. High temperatures this weekend are forecast to be in the 30s.
Bailey is one of three with experience in the Last Frontier. Forward Eric Scheid played as a freshman in Anchorage, and coach Guy Gadowsky coached the Nanooks from 1999 to 2004, and will be honored with an induction into the school’s sports hall of fame.
“It is a fun experience because the people there have been so great,” Gadowsky said. “The community there is just awesome. It’s in that way I think very similar to what we have at Penn State. The community has really rallied around the team.”
In addition to the personal benefit for Bailey and dozens of family and friends, the Nittany Lions get a few other bonuses for the trip.
The guaranteed money for the tournament neutralizes most of the travel costs, and the games do not count against the NCAA’s regular-season limit of 34. It allowed Penn State to schedule two more contests at Pegula Ice Arena.
It also serves as an educational trip, since most of the team has never been to the state. The team has a few excursions planned, including a visit to Fort Wainwright, a nearby military base where a Penn State Icers alumnus is a fighter pilot.
Each of Penn State’s three freshmen saw action in one of the team’s two games on the season’s opening weekend against Connecticut.
Forward Scott Conway and defenseman Erik Autio each played in Friday’s 2-2 tie, and James Robinson hit the ice for Saturday’s 7-1 win.
“I thought all three of them showed a lot of promise in a lot of areas,’ Gadowsky said. “All in different ways. … It’s interesting. They all add a much different ingredient but all of what they have to offer is very welcome on our team.”
For Autio, a native of Finland, it was an adjustment to North America’s style of play, which is much more straightforward than play-making, finesse styles in Europe. He also was playing against older, stronger college athletes than he saw with his previous club team.
“The tempo was more fast-forward from end to end,” Autio said. “More than like getting the puck wide. So I noticed that. Really moving the puck fast is what I need to work on right now, just to get the puck to our forwards as fast as possible, just to get quick rushes.”
Robinson was the first to get on to the scoresheet, but it was for a two-minute penalty for running into UConn goalie Rob Nichols.
“Completely accidental,” Robinson said. “I was going so fast. I thought I could beat him to the puck. We kind of ended up at the same time. Sometimes in hockey, hockey plays happen. I didn’t mean to run him at all, but it happens.”
The most offensive-minded, statistically, of the trio was Conway, who took four shots in Friday’s tie. Even though it was his first college game, he said he didn’t feel too nervous.
“I really was expecting butterflies,” Conway said. “I had the tingles in the fingers, stuff like that. Then as soon as I stepped on the ice and saw the crowd in the warm-ups, it pretty much left.”
Vote for the Lions
For the first time in program history, the Nittany Lions are receiving votes in a national poll.
Penn State received six votes in this week’s U.S. College Hockey Online top 20 rankings.
“It’s nice to see,” Gadowsky said. “It’s cool.”
They are a long way from No. 20 Minnesota Duluth’s 108 points, and tied Michigan State in votes, but it’s the latest small step for the program.
“It means we’re moving in the right direction,” Scheid said. “I don’t know how many votes we had or who was doing it, but at least someone thinks we showed some promise this weekend.”