More of the promises made to Penn State hockey’s pioneers will come to fruition this weekend.
The second-year men’s program will play its first conference home game on Sunday against college hockey’s No. 1 team.
Upsetting the top-ranked Gophers would be nice, although this weekend is also about realizing that everything the players and coaches gave up to be part of something new was worth it.
“That encompasses it,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “You’ve got the No. 1 team in the country coming to town for our first league game ever. That’s what this is all about. Everybody here did what they did [and came to Penn State] for the opportunity to play the top teams in the nation, and that’s exactly what we have this weekend.”
The university added men’s Division I hockey in 2012-2013, giving the Big Ten the sixth member it needed to begin sponsoring a hockey conference this season.
The Gophers, on the other hand, have been college hockey’s standard for decades. They have experienced nearly everything the sport has to offer, which is why this weekend will also be special for the Gophers.
Gaining a new opponent means visiting a new campus and a new shiny arena.
Pegula Ice Arena debuted earlier this season and set a new standard for college hockey facilities. The state-of-the-art 5,782-seat venue has impressed every visitor, and the Gophers should have the same reaction.
“All I know is that [Penn State] is new [to hockey] and they have a really nice rink,” Gophers forward Travis Boyd said. “So I’m actually really looking forward to getting out there and playing on it.”
Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei has already nicknamed Pegula the “new barn.” It’s much more than that, though.
The $90 million project features two NHL-sized rinks (one open to the community), team lounges and dry changing rooms, a strength and conditioning center, a shooting gallery, suites, loge boxes and club seats, state-of-the-art television and radio broadcasting facilities, a press box and media center, a high-definition video board and ribbon board, and much more.
The arena is named after its donors, Terry and Kim Pegula, who gave a record total of $102 million for Penn State to start a Division I hockey program.
“Obviously they had a lot of money to work with from the tremendous donation of Mr. Pegula, and from everything I’ve heard, they built a top-notch facility,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “It’s like anything, the latest is always usually the best.”
Lucia is excited about more than just the new arena, though. The national brand of Penn State will undoubtedly improve college hockey in the long run, he said.
It may take several years to start to see the effects. The Nittany Lions are still in the start-up phase and have won just four games this season. Their schedule is full of ranked opponents, which is what Gadowsky wants. He’s not naive about how long and what it takes to build a top program.
“We’re optimistic of what we have to sell as a program and look forward to someday being right along with the top programs in the nation,” said Gadowsky, who left behind a much-improved Princeton program after seven seasons as head coach.
Transfers make up a chunk of Penn State’s roster. Minnesotans Eric Scheid (Alaska Anchorage), Nate Jensen (Mercyhurst) and Max Gardiner (Gophers) left behind their original college teams for a chance to help build something new in State College. All three have become integral parts of the system.
Scheid leads the Nittany Lions in points this season. Jensen is a captain and leader on the blue line. Gardiner is battling injuries but led the team in assists last season.
“We’re a program trying to develop fans into true hockey fans. And as far as the rink goes, it’s right up there with any arena,” including Mariucci, Scheid said. “The goal this weekend is to go in and make a statement and show we’re not just a joke. [Penn State hockey] is here to play.”