College Hockey:
Commentary: The power and potential of Penn State

Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky’s program is a bit of a guinea pig for potential college hockey expansion (photo: Steve Manuel/Penn State Athletics).

The moment the Penn State Nittany Lions took to the Pegula Arena ice for the first time last Friday night, it was clear. A new era of college hockey had arrived. The millions of dollars and years of waiting had been worth it. Now that the ceremony of it all has ended, the real work begins.

The arrival of Penn State is the most significant event in college hockey in the modern era, more than likely. The shift it stirred within college hockey clearly was one of seismic proportions.

After the upheaval of realignment, college hockey fans so steeped in tradition may fear what’s next for the game they’ve cared for so deeply. However, as one watched what unfolded in Happy Valley last Friday night, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of hopefulness for what the future holds, not only for the Penn State hockey program but the college game as a whole.

There is a newness to this season that brings along curiosity and intrigue, particularly at Penn State. There are new faces in new places, including new conferences. However, for college hockey to thrive in this era of realignment, that curiosity and intrigue needs to turn into regularly packed houses, higher TV ratings and better-attended postseason events. If it does, college hockey grows and gets better.

Penn State’s arrival is a game-changer, not only because of what’s already happened but what comes next. Just because Penn State added hockey doesn’t necessarily mean others will follow suit. That’s what makes the next couple of years in Happy Valley so important.

The image of a full Pegula Ice Arena, enthusiastic fan support and a team cruising to a home victory from Friday night is one that should stick with other athletic directors around the Big Ten. It will speak to them even louder if the that scene is a regular occurrence at the Peg.

Not only that, but 41 nationally televised games featuring Big Ten teams this season alone has to be an eye-opener for others within the conference.

Penn State, having taken the leap into Division I, is now college hockey’s guinea pig. They have an unbelievable leg up with the monetary commitment from Terry Pegula, which not every school would be able to enjoy. It’s a program that seems destined for success. How quickly the Nittany Lions can achieve that success may be a motivating factor for other schools to take a look at forming a college hockey program.

Interest in Penn State hockey is at a high level to see how a new program fares in college hockey (photo: Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics).

Those within the Big Ten know that a six-team conference is far from ideal. In order for the conference to strengthen its hockey branch, it will need growth. Ideally, that would come from other schools already affiliated with the conference formulating a Division I hockey team.

The affiliation of hockey within the Big Ten makes starting a program more appetizing for teams within the league, but that is what adds more weight to what Penn State is able to accomplish as a program in these first few seasons.

No question, Big Ten ADs are going to be watching. As we know in college athletics, money talks. The $102 million donation from Pegula to Penn State made it all possible, but beyond a charitable donation, a team has to stand on its own. If a sport as expensive as hockey can generate revenue, the start-up costs look more like an investment than a blind leap of faith.

It’s not what Penn State does this season that will matter to college ADs, but what it does next year and the year after. The Nittany Lions are the new shiny thing on campus right now. If they struggle in the standings, will the stands remain full? Will they keep getting games on national TV? Will their fans travel well? Will they win?

These are the questions that are going to be of importance to big-program athletic directors going forward.

If Penn State goes through some adversity in the standings — which is highly probable with a young hockey team — but they still maintain the level of interest they appear to have now, that’s interesting. If Penn State shows it can quickly become a legitimate championship contender, it’s more than interesting — it shows hockey might be good business.

Schools won’t want to start a sport in which they’d be a perpetual basement dweller. If Penn State turns its big-name appeal and state-of-the-art building into attracting elite recruits — and the program already has brought in some solid players — there’s not much to say other Big Ten schools couldn’t do the same.

The risk factor of starting hockey remains high. Most schools would need men’s and women’s hockey to appease Title IX requirements. That’s a lot of money up front. That’s why there needs to be a big-money donor of some kind. Those don’t just grow on trees.

Pegula’s gift is the separating factor. There aren’t many schools that would be able to find someone to match what he did at Penn State. They may not have to, though.

Since the Big Ten is at six teams, there is incentive for the conference to dangle carrots for other programs within it to at least think about hockey. Whether that be reasonable arena standards or more favorable scholarship requirements, that may be something the conference has to acquiesce, at least temporarily.

Nebraska may be the best positioned of any of the Big Ten schools to add hockey. The newly constructed Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln, Neb., where Nebraska’s basketball teams will play, has ice-making capabilities. It was done that way so in the event that Nebraska wanted to elevate to Division I, it would have a place to do it. The facility barrier, which is the biggest for any team, is seemingly removed in Lincoln.

Then there has always been the hopefulness of Illinois elevating its club hockey program, which is both popular on campus and successful throughout its history, much like Penn State. All that is at this point is hopefulness.

Don’t think expansion within the Big Ten is the only way things could change in college hockey, though.

As Jennifer Heppel, who oversees hockey for the Big Ten, told the New York Times in a recent story about the conference, the league would consider affiliating teams for hockey only, though that would be years away. The conference admitted Johns Hopkins lacrosse this summer in order to institute the sport within the conference. Should that happen, the realignment wheel starts again, as it would be difficult to see many teams turning down an offer to join the Big Ten, with its big-name programs and unparalleled television package.

I don’t think anyone in the college game would be happy about that kind of upheaval again.

One way or another, the Big Ten is going to change college hockey again, and it will be what goes down in Happy Valley that drives that change.

Chris Peters covers American hockey on the United States of Hockey blog and contributes to CBSSports.com's Eye on Hockey blog. Follow him on Twitter at @chrismpeters.

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  • Brandon

    The things that have me hopeful are a) Penn State is obviously going to be successful and with the Big Ten sitting on piles of cash, it seems inevitable that other schools will join one day and b) a lot of the conferences have room to add people if they want to move up (Buffalo? Lindenwood? MSU-Moorhead? etc) with the NCHC at 8 teams, the Big Ten at 6, the CCHA and Hockey East at 11. A team wanting to move up will not have a problem finding a home. I hope this leads to expansion, only time will tell

    • siouxpthr

      I dont think the schools like MSU-Moorhead could do such a thing, especially moving to a conference like the NCHC, that would cause cellar dwelling for years, and something they may not ever recover from

      • Nick

        I agree. If a new team formed in the midwest, my guess would be that they join the WCHA.. If the WCHA starts getting full to the point they don’t want the membership, the NCHC might throw the carrot infront of one of the WCHA teams they think could keep up (Mankato maybe?).

    • Samboni

      Don’t misconstrue the excitement over the new toy that is Penn State hockey as a guarantee for success. When Penn State joined the Big 10/11/12/14 (or whatever their current membership is) the firm belief was that men’s basketball would be come a major success in Happy Valley. It didn’t happen.
      Penn State hockey will have to win…and win consistently. Otherwise it stands a very good chance of being just like Penn State basketball, a non-factor.
      While the other A.D.s in the conference will be keeping an eye on what happens inside the Pegula Arena, none of them will be moving to add hockey unless they can find a Terry Pegula of their own to kick start a new and very costly sport.

      • Brandon

        Penn State has already shown that they’ll be able to land recruits (they have a few draft picks already iirc) at a campus that already loved the team and now they have a new arena. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t become successful

    • JakeB

      Brandon, a couple of your facts are incorrect. The CCHA no longer exists (WCHA maybe?). And Hockey East is 12 teams (UConn officially joins in 2014-15). Including HEA on any list of leagues with potential for expansion is a real stretch. Outside of ND, their geographic footprint is tightly concentrated to the Northeast and more specifically New England. Notre Dame was an exception that offered HEA advantages (TV contract, top ten program, established fan base) that very few schools (if any others) can ever offer.

      That said, your post focuses on the positives, and expresses a great passion and hope that college hockey can continue to grow.

      • Brandon

        Yep, you’re right. I meant the WCHA and I forgot about UConn sliding over to HEA. Wouldn’t that then flip the AHA to having 11 teams. They could potentially take one then once UConn leaves

        • JakeB

          Playing off Nick’s point below… The AHA could eventually be ready for a split into two separate divisions (West and East) or even conferences, especially if Buffalo, and another Mideast or Midwest school or two jump in. Also, speculation is that St. Anselm’s or Rhode Island are in talks to replace UConn.

  • JubJub

    It took $80 million to get Penn State hockey in a position of being potentially good. Minnesota State-Moorhead wanted $37 million and couldn’t raise it. With a bubble burst seemingly looming on the horizon in higher education and athletic budgets tightening and scrutinized, I just don’t see a niche sport like college hockey gaining new members. Without a large endowment of $30-$60 million, the risk and uncertainty is too great for any administrator to commit to hockey a program.

    The focus of most college and athletic administrators is maintaining their current varsity programs and increasing their competitiveness. That’s what resources and donations will go to unless a donor specifies hockey. Even then, the college will do everything in its power to convince the donor his gift would be better used in other areas.

    Penn State’s potential success may have a positive impact, but I think most people will see it as a that’s-what-you-get-for-$80 million rather than hey-we-should-start-a-program-too.

  • BSU Beaver

    I like the idea of MSU-Moorhead joining up with the other Minnesota State schools in the WCHA, but as JubJub mentioned they couldn’t get the funding they needed in the past when they tried. I think that will ring true for all of the smaller schools who express interest in a Division I hockey.

    That being said, the article does a good job at pointing out Nebraska as having the potential to join up. There’s already a sizable hockey following in Nebraska (UNO has a solid fan base) and they have an arena. That being said, I’m not very eager to see more big schools with buckets of money sweeping up all of the recruits.

    All in all, I’d be happy to see college hockey expand and gain some traction so long as the parity that we’ve seen in the past still exists on some level.

  • JubJub

    One more note: Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln has a cooling system in the floor but no ice making capabilities. Although it is inexpensive to purchase and install ice making relative to building a whole arena, it ain’t cheap either.

  • bronxbomberz41

    From a money standpoint, getting the B1G to add Northwestern and Illinois (and having a flag firmly planted in Chicago) would be great for college hockey. You don’t need a major city market to anchor a conference, but its worked wonders for HEA with Boston.

    • Joe Crowley

      It would also provide a local draw to assist with what should be the BTHC goal. The final weekend of the BTHC championship at the United Center. Chicago is the economic center of the Big Ten.

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