Penn State creating the blueprint for starting up big-time hockey

Penn State celebration

Penn State may have created the perfect blue print for building a successful Division I college hockey program.

It goes something like this:

FRIDAY ON ASN: Penn State at Wisconsin, 8 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Step 1: Hire a coach with a vision. For Penn State, that meant bringing in former NHLer Guy Gadowsky five years ago for the final year of club hockey so he could get a leg up on recruiting.

Step 2: Commit to playing an up-and-down style that will attract fans.

The Nittany Lions rank fifth in the nation in scoring at nearly 3.9 goals per game — and 37th in team defense, allowing 2.97 goals per game. The exciting style has drawn a crowd. They rank seventh in the nation in overall attendance and are one of just five teams in the country to fill their home arenas to over 100 percent capacity.

Speaking of which …

Step 3: Get out of the nice, but humble club hockey confines where the team had to share its locker room and get into a state-of-the-art arena that makes NHL teams blush. Ahem, meet alumni Terry and Kim Pegula, who gifted the university $102 million for the creation of the lavish Pegula Ice Arena.

With just under 6,000 seats, games at The Pegula are the hottest ticket on campus. The arena is a thing of beauty, resplendent with eight locker rooms, two sheets of ice and the latest user-friendly technology for players and coaches. It is set up so efficiently that officials from schools looking to build their own arenas have stopped by to study the design. Some NHL teams have, too.

And that leaves …

Step 4: Recruit players with vision.

Typically, this is where programs have fallen short, attracting blue-collar players who compete but don’t often thrive against more heavily recruited blue-chippers.

Not so with Penn State.

When the Nittany Lions travel to Wisconsin this weekend to take on the Badgers, eight seniors will be buzzing the Badger net with hopes of being the first Penn State team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. In just over three seasons Penn State owns wins over every team in the Big Ten and is currently 14th in the Pairwise rankings.

Included among those seniors is Tommy Olczyk, son of Stanley Cup winner and current TV analyst Ed Olczyk. When Tommy visited as a recruit more than four years ago, Gadowsky said he noticed he had a special quality.

“Tommy from the get-go could see the vision of building something special,” he said.  “He was talking about what the program would look like in 10 or 15 years and I think that’s been a key, we recruited the right kind of student-athletes.”

The series opener Friday on ASN, and Gradowsky promises fireworks from a team that’s light years ahead of schedule in its quest for national prominence.

The Nittany Lions have locked up at least third place in the Big Ten with two weeks remaining. At 19-9-4 overall is officially on the tournament bubble. The Badgers (6-16-8, 1-11-4-2) have gone from traditional power to spoiler.

“We respect Wisconsin greatly,” Gadowsky said. “That program has a history of tremendous success, and it’s someone we look up to when you look at all the alumni they have in the NHL and the success they’ve had. It’s that way with all these teams in the Big Ten week in and week out.

“We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re here a lot sooner than I think anyone could have anticipated and the bulk of the credit needs to go to university for the passion it has for the program and support of the students, fans and alumni. The Pegulas created an amazing arena that can host NHL games.”

Pedal to the metal is the Penn State way these days, on and off the ice. So when tuning in to the Big Ten matchup on Friday, Gadowsky said viewers will see his Nittany Lions make some mistakes, but also attack the net.

“We tend to stress and and play to score goals,” Gadowsky said. “It’s an entertaining style of hockey and we’re going to get up and down the ice.”

Above: Video and photo courtesy Penn State Athletics

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu