The dress rehearsal at Penn State is over. The real curtain in Happy Valley goes up this fall.
Coach Guy Gadowsky, who just guided Penn State to a third-place national finish in its final campaign at the club level, is getting his first Nittany Lions varsity team ready. He said he saw no real difference between coaching club hockey this year and coaching at the NCAA Division I level as he did with Princeton and Alaska the previous dozen seasons.
“At its core, it’s still hockey,” Gadowsky said in April. “We had great expectations, and the guys were tremendous. With the dynamic of old and new, I give the seniors a ton of credit for maintaining a great team chemistry.”
– Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky
The Penn State Icers, as they were long known, finished 29-4-1 overall in their final season in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Penn State was originally slated to join the nascent Big Ten Conference in the fall of 2014, but instead will do so in 2013 after playing this upcoming season as an NCAA Division I independent.
“Everything was moved up a year,” said Gadowsky, who played at Colorado College in the late 1980s. “It was important for our staff to do, and implement the foundation for the future.”
He said assistant coaches Keith Fisher and Matt Lindsay, who accompanied Gadowsky from Princeton to Penn State, were tremendous assets in assembling next year’s squad while still helping to coach the Icers club team when they could.
“They were huge,” Gadowsky said of his long-time assistants. “I think there was maybe one weekend when we were all in the same place.”
He added that it had been a lot of work so far, but that there has also been a lot of support from the community.
“So far it’s been a great experience,” he said.
He has strong backing in the athletic department, too.
“Coach Gadowsky is the perfect person to lead our team and build a strong foundation for the program,” acting athletic director Dr. Dave Joyner said in an email. “He’s been a winner everywhere he’s been, and we’re excited to have him guide Penn State into NCAA Division I play and the Big Ten.”
Gadowsky also credited longtime Penn State club hockey coach and associate athletic director Joe Battista, along with new director of hockey operations Bill Downey, for all their work and support. He also discovered rather quickly that he was already moving into a hockey situation on campus, even if there hadn’t been a true varsity squad there for several decades.
“One thing I noticed right away was the number of jerseys,” Gadowsky said. “Flyers, Penguins, Sabres, Canadiens, Capitals — you see them all over. There’s a lot of passion among the students for hockey, and a lot of people are hockey nuts.”
He added that people around Penn State have shown great enthusiasm anytime there has been something to do with the varsity program or the new Pegula Ice Arena that is under construction on campus.
“There’s a huge alumni base, and they tell you how excited they are to be going Division I,” Gadowsky said.
“Penn State needed to be a hockey place,” Joyner added. “Pennsylvania is a great hockey area, and it’s been a logical extension of our athletic department.”
The “new” Nittany Lions will play their first varsity season at the venerable Greenberg/Penn State Ice Pavilion, home to the Penn State Icers the past 30 years, before moving into the ultra-modern, 6,000-seat facility that will bear the name of benefactor Terry Pegula, who also owns the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.
It was Pegula’s original $88 million gift to the university last year that made Penn State’s upgrade to Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey feasible. Pegula and his wife, Kim, also recently committed an additional $14 million that will help endow men’s hockey scholarships.
“Philanthropy has its greatest impact when it grows out of a true passion, and the Pegulas’ passion for hockey and Penn State is unparalleled,” Rodney P. Kirsch, senior vice president for development and alumni relations, said in a news release.
Another plus for Gadowsky, besides recruiting new players for the Division I ranks, is that skaters who were on the club roster when he came in will get a legitimate shot at moving up to the next level.
“We’re only bringing in 12 players, and there’s 15 from last year,” Gadowsky said of the make-up of the 2012-13 Penn State squad. “That guys who came here to play club could end up playing Division I hockey is tremendous. What a great story.”
He said the club players took the situation seriously this season, and worked hard both on the ice and in the classroom to take full advantage of a chance at playing at the D-I level.
“You see those guys get the opportunity, and you feel so good,” Gadowsky said. “It’s fun to watch them come to the rink, and it’s just fantastic.”
Players who came to Penn State with aspirations to play club hockey against the likes of Westchester, Oakland (Mich.) and Michigan-Dearborn are excited at the prospect of now being able to take on schools like Michigan State, Union and Wisconsin.
“I was pretty much just going to get my education,” said forward George Saad of Wexford, Pa., who will be a senior in the fall. “Penn State was trying to go D-I for many years, and I didn’t know if it was going to happen. I came to play [club] hockey, and it worked out in the end.”
Playing for a Division I coach in Gadowsky this season was a positive experience for Saad, who skated for Mahoning Valley of the NAHL in the junior ranks.
“He’s an awesome coach,” said Saad, a civil engineering major who posted 34 goals and 66 points in 77 club outings with the Icers. “When he came in, everything went up to the next level. The expectations became higher, and we played a lot better.”
Now, after playing three seasons at the highest level of collegiate club hockey, Saad is grateful for the chance to play one last year at the biggest level of all.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a dream come true,” he said. “We’ll be skating at a higher level and the competition will be greater, but I’m looking forward to playing some NCAA teams.”