When hockey fans head to Pegula Ice Arena for this weekend’s series against No. 16 Michigan, they will have the chance to say goodbye and good luck to the team’s seniors.
But they also should give those seniors a big thank you, not just for giving their all and representing their school, but also for believing in a hockey program when it was tough to do so.
It can be a lot to ask of an 18- or 20-year-old to commit to a concept, to drawings on a page and a promise of what will be with nothing tangible to see and feel.
“They said there was going to be a (Big Ten) league, but there wasn’t (at the time),” coach Guy Gadowsky said. “They said there was going to be this beautiful building, but there wasn’t. There wasn’t even a shovel in the ground.”
The Nittany Lions (16-12-4, 8-7-1 BIg Ten) will face the Wolverines at 7 p.m. Friday and hold Senior Day before the 3 p.m. faceoff Saturday with a lot on the line for the program, but so much of that is because of the young men who will be honored said “yes” to Gadowsky.
“They had to have a lot of faith in themselves,” Gadowsky said. “We recruited a lot of players, and a good portion of those would come back and say, ‘Jeez, I just don’t want to lose for four years.’ These guys never said that.”
These key additions to the program came in waves.
Young men like P.J. Musico, Jacob Friedman and Peter Sweetland played for the Icers club program before the start of the Division I varsity team, and Taylor Holstrom and Nate Jensen transferred from Mercyhurst and played a year for the Icers before the jump to varsity.
Then more decided to change schools, with Max Gardiner leaving Minnesota for the first Penn State varsity season, and this year’s team captain, Patrick Koudys, switching from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before last season.
“It was really a no-brainer for me to come here,” Koudys said. “Looking back on last year, it was such a great experience for me, such a great opportunity and I’m really happy that I ended up here. There’s no place I’d rather be. It really worked out, that’s for sure.”
It will be a tough weekend for Holstrom, who will miss skating on the ice after suffering a leg injury last Saturday in a loss to Ohio State and is out for the rest of the season. Another senior, Tommy Olczyk, has one year of eligibility left after starting his career with the Icers and is expected to return for next season.
Koudys said he did a lot of research, heard good things about the coaches, and paid a visit to see the new building’s progress before he took his leap – and he wasn’t alone.
They all showed faith in Penn State and the coaches, even at a time when many outsiders were looking askance at the university and the athletic department because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. These young men were not scared away, and showed their strength and perseverance even more as the team struggled through an 8-26-2 season a year ago.
This entire season has been a reward.
Twice this season they have appeared in the national rankings, they at one time had one of the nation’s top offenses, put together an eight-game unbeaten streak and at 11-2-3 still have one of the nation’s best home records.
You can bet there were few anywhere who thought that would be possible in the program’s third year.
“It shows we don’t take anything for granted,” Koudys said. “It’s cool to see their faith in the coaching staff and everyone’s faith in the coaching staff — coming here might not have been the best facilities, might not have been what’s new, but we all came together and the coaches led us to where we are now, that speaks volumes to who they are as people and coaches.”
They also held first place for several weeks in the Big Ten, remain in the hunt for a top spot and can move up in the standings with a sweep of the conference-leading Wolverines (19-11, 11-5).
Containing Michigan will be a tall task. The Wolverines possess the nation’s top-scoring offense, averaging a fraction under 4 goals per game.
And following this weekend, Penn State finishes the regular season at second-place and No. 15 Minnesota.
“They’re big games, they’re good teams,” Koudys said, “and we like playing against the best to show we can compete with the best and we are the best. It’s exciting to play against a good team like Michigan and show them what we’ve got.”
The Nittany Lions also know there will be plenty of emotions flowing this weekend. With spring break starting on campus, the student section may not be at its loudest and fullest, but the Lions hope it’s close to capacity to help inspire them.
“The Roar Zone is unbelievable,” Koudys said. “Sometimes we get a little extra hop when we are playing in there.”
Koudys and the rest of the seniors will be disappointed Saturday will be the final day to salute the fans and gather at one end of the rink for the alma mater. It won’t be long until they all head their separate ways.
Koudys and Gardiner have the strong possibility of professional hockey ahead of them. Koudys was drafted by the Washington Capitals, Gardiner by the St. Louis Blues, and others may draw some interest.
“To be able to play professional hockey is a dream,” said Koudys, who will graduate in May with a degree in nuclear engineering and is considering what to do with that when pro hockey is finished. “It’s something I hope does happen in my future, but it’s bittersweet. As much as I want to move on and hopefully play professional hockey, I do love it here and wish I had more than two years here.”
They all had to work hard to survive their leap into the unknown.
A big thank you for taking that jump will come their way this weekend.
“They believed in themselves to make it,” Gadowsky said. “You look at this year, right now, what a great year for them. It’s great. I will definitely always remember this class, always, forever, and so should the program. They were the ones that first stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to build something.’ It’s not just, ‘I want to arrive somewhere.’ I admire them all for that.”