Gadowsky, Penn State enjoying the ride in Year 1

Guy Gadowsky speaks with a sense of pride and passion that is befit of all Penn State athletics these days.

Though he’s been in State College, Pa., less than a year, and despite that he’s quarterbacking the athletic department’s newest men’s program, Gadowsky is already well entrenched into the fabric and the culture of Nittany Lions sports.

And that’s a good thing. Because, as he continues to mold the hockey program into a respected, revered Division I outfit, there have been — and will be plenty more — bumps along the road. But that’s the fun of it, to an extent. After all, nothing good in this game comes easy. You have to earn your way, you have to battle to be great.

That’s just fine with Gadowsky and his scrappy set of Nittany Lions players these days. In just their first year of Division I status, and though they still play in a tiny barn while a new palace is still being constructed, things are rolling along just fine for Penn State. And it appears that everyone — win, lose or draw — is enjoying the ride. Which, if you consider Year 1 as playing with house money, is probably what it’s all about.

“I just,” Gadowsky said, his head shaking with satisfaction, “love this place.”

It’s hard not to.

Gadowsky, who played at Colorado College and coached at Alaska and Princeton before discovering Happy Valley, has the backing of a proud school that has earmarked hockey as a future focus. There is a new, 6,000-seat arena on the way that will house both the men’s and women’s program in University Park. It will be named the Pegula Ice Arena, after Terry Pegula, the owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, threw the funding needed to not only improve the program, but also to break ground on this gem of a building.

“I told them I wanted it to sound like a garbage can when you’re in there,” Pegula said. “It’s going to be a loud and a fun place to watch a college hockey game.”

And if this year is any indication, the fans will be there. The Nittany Lions still play in the 1,350-seat Penn State Ice Pavilion, which has some atmosphere and charm, but for where this program wants to go it’s just not enough. Penn State, though, has taken its act on the road quite often this season, and has shown that the Nittany Lions will draw in big houses.

In the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh last month — at the home of the NHL’s Penguins — Penn State lost to Robert Morris 6-0 and defeated Ohio State 5-4. All told, the Nittany Lions played in front of 22,460 fans. And earlier this month, in the inaugural Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff at the home of the NHL’s Flyers, Gadowsky’s crew rolled to a 4-2 victory over Vermont in front of 19,529 fans.

“I just can’t say enough about Penn Staters,” Gadowsky said. “It is so much fun to play for them. Talk about rising to the occasion. I think the Penn State alumni and the Penn State fans have a huge part in it.”

They certainly are a proud bunch, the Nittany Lions faithful. And those who have taken the time to get to know this team realize that it falls in line with what Pegula and Co. hoped to build all along.

“It’s amazing. They talk in Pennsylvania about State College as the geographic center of the state. It’s halfway between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and they like to talk about the rabid fan base that is the kids at Penn State,” Pegula said. “But what about Buffalo, Columbus, Washington, the Devils, the teams that are around that area? That’s going to be quite a hockey-crazy school.”

As Pennsylvania continues to grow as a hockey state, indeed, the Nittany Lions will be able to capitalize on that, in terms of marketing, publicity and recruiting. But Pegula is right. Penn State traditionally has few limits with regards to attracting talent from outside of Pennsylvania. And hockey should be no different.

This year’s roster includes players from 13 states and Canada. And five of them, through the 3-2 win at Michigan State last Saturday that pushed Penn State’s record to 10-13, were in double digits in scoring: freshman forwards Casey Bailey (23 points) and David Glen (20), sophomore forwards Max Gardiner (18) and Taylor Holstrom (12) and freshman defenseman Connor Varley (12).

“I think it’s a little early for that but it certainly seems to be a pattern,” Gadowsky said when asked — considering the wins over Vermont and Ohio State in NHL arenas — if his team was developing into a big-time, big-barn type of a program. “They figure out a way to win. Our [games sometimes are] similar. We didn’t come out with our best game [vs. Ohio State] and had to grit it out and this [one vs. Vermont] sort of felt similar to that. So, maybe you’re right.”

Either way, Gadowsky, whose team earned a weekend split with the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich., knows a compliment when he sees one, so he wasn’t about to walk away from it. After all, consider that these Nittany Lions also won a game in an AHL arena earlier this season, a 3-2 decision over Rochester Institute of Technology in front of 10,556 fans at the Blue Cross Arena.

“Yeah, there’s worse monikers to have,” he said, smiling. “Not sure after three [games] we deserve it. But hey, sure.”

It hasn’t been all positive this season. Remember, this is still a team new to the grind of a Division I slate. Just five days before the win over Vermont, in fact, Penn State dropped a 3-2 overtime game to Division III Neumann.

“I think that we have been having a little trouble mental toughness-wise,” Gadowsky said after the Vermont game. “So maybe [we take] a little confidence [out of this] that we can dig down and get a win.”

They’ll certainly need that sort of mind-set next year and beyond. After all, there is work to be done before the Nittany Lions enter play next season in the Big Ten, a league that will also include Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.

But when you’re talking about a program that looks like it will be patient, that looks like it’s in it for the long haul, Gadowsky seems more than able to steer the ship through the good and bad times, knowing that there are likely to be more of the former than the latter.

“Penn State,” he said bluntly, “is the coolest university there is.”