In the eyes of most casual observers, it was a demotion.
Tommy Olczyk doesn’t see it that way.
“On the ice and off the ice, this is the most fun I’ve had playing hockey in a long time,” Olczyk said.
The senior forward says he is “looser, more goofy” in the locker room, and not as serious — and he doesn’t feel the pressure that he has to be because of the expectations.
For the first two years of the Penn State men’s hockey program, Olczyk was the team captain, in some ways the face of the team.
Before this season, team members picked Patrick Koudys to take over captain’s duties and wear the “C” on the front of the sweater.
Olczyk was in full agreement.
“Being a part of the team, I think this was the right decision,” he said. “You see what we’re doing this year as a team, I think Dice is definitely the guy for the job.”
The Nittany Lions (12-7-4, 5-2-1 Big Ten) are certainly having their best season in their short Division I history, in second place in the conference standings and just outside the national top 20 poll. They have already surpassed last year’s win totals (8-26-2, 3-16-1), and in just 23 games have scored 80 goals — matching last season’s total over 36 games.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined that we’d be in the position that we’re in,” said Olczyk, who has five goals this season.
Some might grumble about losing the captaincy, but not Olczyk, at least publicly.
Coach Guy Gadowsky credit’s Olczyk’s long history in the game — he’s the son of former NHL player and coach Eddie Olczyk — with giving plenty of big-picture perspective.
“In my mind he’s about as much of a leader as he’s ever been,” Gadowsky said. “Part of the thought process in making the change, and have a great example that you don’t need a letter to be a very strong leader, has really paid dividends.”
Gadowsky also said a lot of other members of the team have stepped into leadership roles, even if they do not have a letter on their chests. The coach said Taylor Holstrom “in my mind is a captain,” and second-year Lions Eric Scheid and David Goodwin have also expressed themselves when needed.
There were times the previous two seasons Olczyk did seem a little uncomfortable as the voice of the team, but he knew it was part of his job. He also knew he wanted to be a part of this program from the ground floor, and he was the right person for the job at the time.
He’s savoring the success of this season, and also likes what he has helped build from the program’s infancy.
“I want to be proud of what I personally left behind, and what I helped all these guys leave behind,” Olczyk said. “When I’m an alumni one day, this team’s going to win a national championship.”
A little rest
The Nittany Lions have just one game this week, facing No. 15 Vermont (15-8-2) at the Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff at Wells Fargo Center at 1 p.m. Saturday. With the break from the standard schedule of two games per weekend, the team is taking an extra day off. The only reason players were required to be in Pegula Ice Arena on Tuesday was for physical treatments.
It will be the final chance to get a little extra rest this season, with a dozen Big Ten games remaining over the next six weeks.
“Down the stretch you always wish that you could take a day off,” Gadowsky said. “It’s often tough when you have (consecutive two-game weekends). This is our last opportunity, so we took advantage of it this week.”
Penn State hosts Wisconsin next weekend, on Feb. 6 and 7.
Taking their best shot
In addition to increased scoring, netting 3.48 goals per game to tie for sixth in the nation and improve on last season’s 2.22 per game, the Nittany Lions also are throwing plenty of pucks toward the net.
Penn State’s 41.87 shots-per-game average by far leads the nation, with Robert Morris second at 36 per night.
“We have guys that like to shoot the puck,” Gadowsky said. “They seem to be getting results so we’re not going to frown upon it.”
They have produced at least 40 shots in 13 games this year, topped 50 six times and had 64 in their last game against Northern Michigan.
Last season they averaged 35.25 shots per game, and two years ago they posted 37.85 each contest.
The team’s style this season has led to a lot of end-to-end action and plenty of excitement for the fans, and the Nittany Lions are definitely not complaining.
“You’re not going to score unless you shoot the puck,” Conway said. “The more shots the better.”
It’s always a topic at this time of year: When will the Nittany Lions play an outdoor game?
Last weekend, the NHL announced three outdoor games for next season, it held the annual Winter Classic with Chicago playing at Washington on Jan. 1, and Michigan and Michigan State are set to tangle at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Feb. 7 in the latest of their many meetings in the great outdoors.
Gadowsky was asked if there was a chance for a game, since one of the contests next February has the Minnesota Wild hosting the Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium, the Golden Gophers’ football stadium.
“It would be cool to play there,” said Gadowsky, who noted the Big Ten schedule for next year was not yet set. “We have not, until you brought it up, had the discussion.”
There has also been the long-standing hope for a game, college or NHL, at Beaver Stadium, though that continues to be just talk.
“If we did it right it would be fantastic,” Gadowsky said. “I don’t think that, just because we’re Penn State, we better go play in an outdoor game.”
Gadowsky has been much more guarded of late on injury situations. Two players are out this weekend, with Jacob Friedman suffering an upper-body injury and Kenny Brooks out with a mid-body ailment. Gadowsky “can’t say” with certainty if Taylor Holstrom will be on the ice with a “banged-up upper body.”