PHILADELPHIA — There are now three Division I men’s ice hockey programs in Pennsylvania: Mercyhurst, Penn State and Robert Morris. The D-I team closest to Philadelphia is Penn State, roughly 200 miles away; Robert Morris, near Pittsburgh, is 300 miles to the west, and Mercyhurst (Erie, Pa.) is another 100 miles farther away than that.
Even with no college hockey presence in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia has recently proven its ability to embrace the sport at the college level.
“I was just talking to [Vermont coach] Kevin Sneddon,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia, “and he mentioned that Penn State played Vermont here and they had 17,000 people, but certainly I grew up watching plenty of pro hockey to know how big and how passionate the Flyer fans are.”
Lucia himself has a connection to the local NHL franchise. “Actually, I was drafted by the Flyers back in 1978,” said Lucia, “but like any good man, you have to know your limitations, so I got into coaching instead.”
The addition of the Penn State program at the start of the 2012-13 season forced the Big Ten to form a league of its own, a move that helped to shake up divisional alignment through much of college hockey. That development, however, is something that Lucia sees as positive for the sport as a whole, not just for the six teams that play in the Big Ten league.
“Any time you can add a brand school like Penn State, it’s good for college hockey,” said Lucia. “One of the things that’s unique about our sport is that we have Division I, Division II and Division III institutions. You see it here. Union is a Division III institution, but what makes our sport so great is that they all can compete on an equal footing. That doesn’t happen, really, in any other sport at the NCAA level.”
Lucia said that there were reservations that resulted from the realignment that created two new conferences and drastically changed the makeup of a third.
“Some different conferences were formed and there’s a lot of angst,” said Lucia, “but I think this year proved that the WCHA that remained was a very good conference, a very competitive conference with like schools. The new NCHC is an outstanding conference with for the most part Division I and I-AA institutions.
“I think we found out that everybody’s going to be OK.”