Just four years ago, the Gophers' senior class had never heard of Penn State hockey. Now their Senior Day and hopes of another Big Ten championship are in danger of being spoiled by a thriving Nittany Lions program in just its third season of varsity hockey.
Penn State has turned what many thought would be a weak attempt at expanding college hockey into an instant success. In State College, Pa., hockey is one of the hottest tickets in town. It's already a self-sustaining sport that turned nearly $1 million in positive net revenue last season.
"No one really expected this," Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. "I think we were always really optimistic that hockey would be taken to really well at Penn State. The student section sold out in three minutes. I think we've sold out every game this year. The atmosphere has been phenomenal. The reports [state] that we're making over a million dollars."
Then there's the success on the ice. The 18-win Nittany Lions are three points out of first place entering the final regular-season series against the Gophers and are one of four schools that have a chance to finish on top of the Big Ten standings. Earlier this season, they briefly held that top spot, earned their first national ranking and beat traditional power Minnesota for the first time.
Arizona State is confident it will be next on college hockey's express elevator. The sport expanded to the Southwest in November when the largest public institution in the country announced it would sponsor a sport that has no Division I presence west of Denver.
The success in Pennsylvania and Arizona have observers and fans wondering: Which school is the next Arizona State? The answer could impact Big Ten hockey, the two-year-old conference that is already eager to expand beyond its current six-team footprint. At least three Big Ten schools are considering, quietly in most cases, adding hockey, and the conference has had talks with Arizona State about a hockey-only alliance.
"What has been most exciting is, since the Arizona State announcement, the number of people that have contacted us … about what needs to be done to have [hockey] happen at 'our school,'" said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., a company funded by USA Hockey and a grant from the NHL with a mission to promote the sport. "There is enough percolating out there to keep us motivated and believing that we can make this contagious if it isn't already."
Leaders from the NHL, USA Hockey and college hockey have formed The Campus Effect committee built of 12 influential individuals, including Bill Daly (NHL deputy commissioner), Tod Leiweke (Tampa Bay Lightning CEO), Joel Maturi (former Gophers athletic director), Jamie Spencer (Wild vice president) and Joe Battista (Buffalo Sabres VP and brainchild behind Penn State's program). The committee believes the profile of college hockey has never been higher, with sold-out Frozen Fours and a graduation rate of 85 percent.
Snee and Battista made Arizona State the first target of the "Campus Effect" plan in a hotel lobby at an annual college coaches meeting in Naples, Fla. Six months later, Snee left the chill of a Minnesota November for sunny Tempe, Ariz., where the Sun Devils would officially announce that varsity college hockey was coming to the desert.
"Not every inquiry is going to lead to success; most won't," Snee said. "But when you see a path where this can be successful, I think that's what's kept us confident. One school [adding hockey], it's not a trend. But when you have two, it's a trend."
Which school next?
Southern California, Northwestern, UCLA, Alabama, Auburn, Arizona, Penn, Rhode Island, Illinois, Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon, Navy, Georgia Tech or Georgia? Four years ago, these schools would not have appeared in a story about college hockey. But with Penn State plowing a road and Arizona State right behind, these are some of the names being thrown around in college hockey circles.
Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer Heppel, who oversees men's hockey, said there have been no formal discussions of Big Ten members adding hockey since Arizona State's announcement but added that Penn State's success has been a good example for others to see. A source told the Star Tribune multiple Big Ten schools are quietly exploring adding the sport.
Stu Siegel, the chairman of the Penn hockey alumni board and former owner of the Florida Panthers, tweeted at College Hockey Inc. the day of Arizona State's announcement proclaiming he wants Division I hockey to return to the university. The school already has a rink in place and just needs the financial backing and support from the administration.
Club teams at Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Tech attract several thousand fans for rivalry games. The Pac-12's California schools could build rosters made mostly of in-state talent, as the state's three NHL teams have helped produce thriving youth programs and 50 current D-I players.
Battista would not comment on talks he has had, honoring the discretion of such a process, but he did say at least four schools are very close to making a decision on whether to add the sport.
"Let's identify markets [where] we think it will work. Help them identify donors. Utilize our contacts and our knowledge where the hockey people pull people together and connect the dots," said Battista, who spearheaded Penn State's hockey push before joining the Sabres. "Not every one of them is going to work, but where there is a will, there is a way. … If I had a dollar for all the people that said [Penn State hockey] wouldn't happen …"
Sun Devils in Big Ten?
Arizona State coach Greg Powers and the donors that gave more than $32 million convinced Sun Devils athletic director Ray Anderson of the benefits, and at a news conference in November they declared their intention to be a national contender in college hockey.
"I believe we bear the burden of making this successful on the ice and we want to win as soon as possible," Powers said. "We want to be a revenue sport, and I know we can be and we will be.
"When we prove this to the rest of the West Coast and in particular the Pac-12, I do believe we'll be the first domino that causes, eventually, Pac-12 hockey."
In the meantime, Arizona State will have to build its résumé as an independent Division I member for the next two seasons. After that, the Sun Devils will join a conference, and some expect it to be the Big Ten. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have a long athletic history and like schools in their "Power 5" conferences. They also have TV networks hungry for more prime-time sporting events.
Arizona State and the Big Ten both confirmed they've discussed a hockey future together. An outside school competing in one Big Ten sport already occurs in men's lacrosse with Johns Hopkins.
Two other conferences with a major presence in the Midwest, the WCHA and the NCHC, are also engaged in conversations with the Sun Devils.
"I think being in a conference with like institutions is important," Heppel said. "[Arizona State] is going to have to think about that from an institutional and sport perspective. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have a historic relationship.
"Everything was done the right way [at Penn State]. It's the model of how to start a program, and they're proving they can be successful not just competitively but financially. I think that does raise eyebrows in a good way."