PHILADELPHIA — More than 39,000 fans crammed into the Wells Fargo Center for hockey on Saturday, and despite the presence of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Claude Giroux in the day’s first game, the atmosphere was no less dynamic for the nightcap between two college teams that were a long, long way from home.
Indeed, despite the presence of the Flyers for the past 46 years in a predominantly pro-sports town, the collegiate game works here just fine in the City of Brotherly Love, so have no fear, next year’s Frozen Four is in good hands.
Some three hours after the Pittsburgh Penguins outlasted the Flyers, 3-1, in the opening game of the NHL’s shortened season on national television, Penn State and Vermont tangled in the inaugural Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff. An announced crowd of 19,994 passed through the turnstiles for the NHL tilt, the largest ever for a regular-season game in Philadelphia’s storied history.
After the crews cleaned out the place, the Zamboni rolled through its paces, and the facility readied for the Nittany Lions and the Catamounts, 19,529 more fans waltzed into the arena to watch a proud Penn State program, in its first year of Division I status, take on an established Hockey East program amid an impressive atmosphere.
They got their money’s worth.
Justin Kirchhevel and Taylor Holstrom each had a goal and an assist, and David Glen and Casey Bailey also added tallies, helping Penn State to a 4-2 win over Vermont. The Nittany Lions, playing as independent, improved to 9-12 on the season. Robert Polesello and Kyle Mountain scored for Vermont (6-12-4).
“I give them credit for gritting it out tonight; we battled,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “We didn’t have our best game, but we figured out a way to win it, and it’s a big win for this program.”
The contest, technically a home game for Vermont, was helped along by Flyers president Peter Luukko, whose son, Nick, is a sophomore defenseman for the Catamounts. And despite being closer to Penn State’s State College, Pa., campus, there were plenty of fans in the contingent from both sides.
The paying customers weren’t the only group to enjoy the day. Long before the game, while both teams warmed up in the bowels of the arena, the players were greeted by exiting Penguins and Flyers, dressed in suits and smiles, eager to meet some enthusiastic, star-struck collegians who play for an education and the love of the game.
“I don’t know if this is so much about the win, it’s more about how it happened, where it happened,” Gadowsky said. “What a tremendous environment to play a hockey game in. To see how many thousands of Penn State fans, dressed in blue and white out there, screaming … it’s just awesome. I just can’t say enough about Penn Staters.”
Luukko, a 2010 sixth-round draft pick of the Flyers, added an assist in the loss, as Vermont outshot Penn State, 37-31. Luukko’s family watched the game from the Flyers’ executive luxury box, high atop the arena.
The game featured a little of everything, and Flyers fans still fond of the franchise’s “Broad Street Bullies” days must have enjoyed the second period, which featured 16 minutes in penalties.
“I thought they played better than we did,” Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon said. “But we’d like to keep this thing going. I think it was a great event for our athletes to be involved in. It certainly wasn’t the result we wanted. We certainly didn’t play to the best of our ability, which is disappointing. But in terms of the experience and the atmosphere, we couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
The 2014 Frozen Four will be held here on April 10-12. From the looks of it, there is likely to be another Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff long before that.
“It was tremendous crowd, and it was just so much fun to play here. That, we will take away with us,” Gadowsky said. “I know this was sort of a warmup for the Frozen Four here. If tonight was any indication, they’re going to knock it out of the park.”