Penn State Hockey

Pieces fall into place with Penn State hockey team’s scheduling puzzle

When college sports programs put schedules together, sometimes the anticipation is for one scenario, but another comes along.

It’s especially true when schedules are made several years in advance.

The Penn State men’s hockey team might have anticipated Notre Dame to be a decent team, but were the Fighting Irish going to be in the rankings?

The same can be said for opponents agreeing to play the Nittany Lions: They might be improved in their fourth season of Division I play, but who would have guessed they would be high in the rankings?

That is part of the tricky job Bill Downey faces each year as he pieces together the team’s schedule as director of operations.

The former forward on the Icers club program has the tough task of filling out the 34-game schedule for each season. They have 20 in the Big Ten, then the rest comes from calls and emails.

As it turned out, looking at the schedule at essentially the midway point as the Lions hit a 16-day break for exams and the holidays, the first half was a little easier than anticipated, with only two ranked opponents, and it has allowed the team to gain confidence and momentum with 18 Big Ten games left.

“You really don’t know what you’re getting when you put the non-conference (schedule) together,” said Downey, who filled in at the team’s weekly media session Monday at Pegula Ice Arena with head coach Guy Gadowsky unavailable. “The Big Ten, those are the only games we know we’re getting year-in and year-out. We don’t really plan for it that way.”

The Nittany Lions (11-2-3) are flying on a 10-game unbeaten streak. They have climbed into the rankings in the two major polls, at No. 14 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll and No. 15 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. Monday marked their first ever appearance in the latter. They also have made it to No. 9 in the Pairwise ratings, which is not a poll but a mathematical formula that serves as a major indicator for postseason possibilities.

When making the schedule, Downey said, a lot is taken into account like the needs of the athletic department, when are home football games and who has available dates. They want to provide good home games for fans, but sometimes can only do so much.

With the Fighting Irish, No. 16 in the USCHO poll, it was a late addition that happened to work out, and they are set to meet again for three more seasons.

Things worked out with No. 15 St. Lawrence popping onto the schedule as well. But the Nittany Lions also have feasted on a number of struggling programs. Only Alaska-Anchorage (8-7-3) has a winning record among the rest of the opponents faced so far.

“Every team starts out the season 0-0, so you really don’t know what you’re going to get until you play those first couple games,” Downey said.

Philly trips to continue

In each of its first four years as a Division I program, Penn State has faced Vermont at the Wells Fargo Center. It’s an important game, not so much because of the opponent, but because it gives the team experience in an NHL arena and is popular with the locals.

“It’s our largest alumni market,” Downey said. “I think that’ll continue.”

The Nittany Lions staff has talked with people from the arena and the Flyers about the game’s importance, but the Catamounts may not remain as the competition.

“We’re trying to do what’s best for growing the game in that area,” Downey said. “It’s part of what we see as our footprint, our athletic recruiting footprint, so we want to make sure we’re having a marquee event when we’re going down there.”

Quick preparation

With the long break, there are no more formal practices until after Christmas. There are optional skating sessions, and when players head home they are on their own. The team returns Dec. 26, then hits the ice two days later at Consol Energy Center to meet Robert Morris (9-4-3).

“We ask them to be professional in their approach to playing,” Downey said. “Part of that is, when it’s time to show up at the rink to compete you’re ready to go. Whether that means they go home and get on the ice at all, work out, the onus is on them to do that. We’re not going to hold their hand through that.”