When Penn State Hits the Ice, Joe Battista's Dream Will Finally Be Realized
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
"I'm still trying to make sure it really happened ..."
Joe Battista is a dreamer. He's also proof that dreams do come true.
For 32 years, Battista dreamed of a Penn State varsity hockey program. And when Penn State steps on the ice Friday for its first game as a new varsity program, it's not exaggerating to say that Battista's emotions will be akin to giving birth.
Battista has been as much about Penn State as anyone. He's spent more than 30 years dreaming, but also realizing dreams. He helped form the ACHA, the organization the governs club hockey. He helped Pennsylvania scholastic hockey tie into the state's NHL teams, at a time when the state barely produced any players to higher levels.
All the while, as a coach and administrator at Penn State, Battista worked behind the scenes — more at some times than others — trying to turn the school's acclaimed club program into a varsity one. Then, after all of his dreams had been realized, he had to sit and watch as the school was rocked by scandal and people he was close to for years, were left fired, shamed, and with their reputation in tatters.
This, then, became the prism through which many viewed Penn State. None of which is relevant to this hockey program, or its players today.
And none of which mattered when the seeds of varsity hockey were being sewn.
* * *
There was a varsity program at Penn State in the 1940s, but with more and more schools playing at new indoor on-campus facilities, Penn State was at a crossroads. It was practicing outdoors, and playing games in places like Johnstown, Hershey and Philadelphia. The school decided it wasn't prepared to build an artificial indoor facility, and scrapped the program.
During years of trying after that, there were times when it looked possible. But something always seemed to create a new roadblock. There were talks in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s, but each time, the economy went bad.
The current rink, where the club team has been playing, was being planned in 1980. It was conceived as a 4,000-seat arena, but that idea was scrapped as interest rates shot as high as 16 percent. Further, construction crews hit solid rock when trying to build the foundation, which led to increased costs. A decision was made, instead of delaying the project, to go with a 1,200-seat arena.
When things improved, Penn State moved its athletic department into the Big Ten.
"For the university it was phenomenal, but at that time it was devastating to the hockey program, because it put us on the backburner as far as you can get," Battista says.
When Penn State built a brand new basketball arena, the Bryce Jordan Center, an outline of where the ice would be was etched into the floor. But a decision was made to leave out ice-making facilities, and the shape of the interior bowl was changed.
Battista was too young at the time, with not enough of a voice among Penn State administrators who still perceived hockey as Slap Shot.
"If we can't get this to varsity within five years, I'll get out of hockey or go try to coach someplace else," Battista told his wife.
But as his summer camps became more popular, they went from two weeks to seven, and made it more financially worthwhile to keep coaching at Penn State.
It also led Terry Pegula to Joe Battista for the first time — as the father of one of Battista's campers.
Penn State club hockey continued to flourish, winning four straight national titles, appearing in 10 straight national championship games. Crowds regularly stretched the boundaries of fire marshalls, with as many as 1,400 or even 1,600 people squeezing in.
"It had become this niche sport that had this rabid following of townspeople, student and alums that never missed a game," Battista said.
Unknown to Battista, all that while, a rags-to-riches story was being written.
Terry Pegula came from modest means in the blue-collar Scranton-Carbondale area of Pennsylvania. He borrowed $7,000 from his mother to start his oil company. He became a hockey fan during his time in Buffalo, and his first NHL game was the Philadelphia Flyers against the Sabres.
As Battista was helping build a good environment for Penn State hockey, Pegula was turning his $7,000 into a $4.7 billion dollar enterprise — a company that touched just about every oil deal East of the Mississippi.
He was also raising children that were very much into sports. His daughter was a well-regarded tennis player, and Pegula would bring his son to Battista's summer hockey camps. Pegula didn't necessarily stand out to Battista at the time, but Battista certainly stood out to Pegula.
But at the time, Battista barely noticed. Closing in on 50 years old, knowing he had done everything possible short of getting Penn State to varsity status, Battista stepped aside for another role at the school.
That's when the call came.
* * *
It was the spring of 2006. Pegula tracked down Battista's unlisted phone number.
"You're not going to remember me," Pegula said to Battista, "but my kid came to your hockey camps, we bring the family to Icer games, we enjoy the way you play."
OK, Battista thought, what's this setting me up for?
"Why aren't we playing Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State — why aren't we a varsity program?" Pegula said.
"If I had a dollar for every time I was asked that," Battista said, rolling his eyes, "we'd have a rink by now."
"Well, I'm in town, and if you're not busy, how about you take me out to dinner," Pegula said.
The pair arranged a meeting at Kelly's Steakhouse in Boalsburg, Pa. Right away, Battista knew that Pegula actually followed hockey.
"Holy smoke, this guy knows his stuff," Battista thought.
Pegula told Battista about his oil company he owned in Pittsburgh, the house he owned in State College.
After a nice dinner, Pegula said, "Maybe I can help you with this."
This guy has no idea how much money it's going to take, Battista muttered to himself. He has no idea how successful a business man I am, Pegula thought.
Battista went home, googled Pegula's name, and nearly fell out of his chair. He found out that Pegula, at that time, was the largest private owner of oil and gas wells East of the Mississippi.
Battista had literally struck oil.
* * *
At that time, Pegula's State College house was right across the street from athletic director Tim Curley, but the two never talked about hockey until after the meeting with Battista.
The possibility was suddenly real, but it was contingent upon Pegula selling his company, because all of his assets were tied up there.
Things looked good — until the market went in the tank in late 2007 and into 2008. Everything got put on hold. Battista got despondent.
"Well, just one more big tease," he thought. "It just isn't meant to be."
But for three years, Battista maintained his friendship with Pegula. They started going to Penguins games together, to Penn State games together; Battista started giving Pegula's youngest son, Matthew, private hockey lessons.
In that time, Battista was executive director of the school's booster club, but then shifted jobs in 2009 to become director of major gifts at the business school. But Curley kept Battista on in a role as the main contact with Pegula, which kept the relationship, and the idea, alive.
And then in May of 2010, Pegula reached an agreement to sell the business to Shell — for a whopping $4.7 billion dollars, more than enough to fund a couple of hockey programs, that's for sure. Pegula was flush with cash, and filled with a loyalty to Penn State and to hockey.
The business didn't officially sell for two more months, but Battista and Pegula used that time to work on the gift agreement.
After 30 years of trying, this was really happening.
* * *
As the larger college hockey community caught wind of it, the shockwaves began to spread. For years, fans and hockey people argued about whether or not Penn State adding hockey would be a good thing or not. On the one hand, many had been clamoring for a great, big school like Penn State, long considered a potential addition because of its popularity and success at the club level, to join the ranks of college hockey. Others worried about the ramifications, the possibility that it would create a Big Ten Hockey Conference and what that would all mean.
Now the thinking was over. It was a reality.
Pegula's sizeable gift would fund the creation of a new hockey arena and endow a large portion of the scholarships for a men's and women's program.
Battista's job then became raising the funds for the coaches' salaries, and the rest of the endowment, about $10 million. He was now the Associate Athletic Director for the Ice Arena and Hockey Operations, and the Director of the Ice Arena and Hockey Campaign.
"I believe it's the longest title in the history of the university," Battista quips. "It doesn't even fit on one business card."
The ramifications were certainly felt. The Big Ten Hockey Conference did indeed come to fruition. The ripple effects were monumental — the creation of a new super conference, the dissolution of the 42-year old CCHA, Notre Dame to Hockey East, and the complete restructuring of the WCHA.
But Battista, of course, believes the legacy is nothing but positive.
"This is essentially a blueprint for future programs," he says. "I gave a talk at the AHCA convention, it was about the role of a coach in fund raising and alumni relations. You could tell there were a lot of people there that were like, 'C'mon, we're coaches, we recruit.' I said, 'Look guys, I'm in the development business now and I'm telling you, tough times are coming. There's going to be more and more pressure for programs to raise their own moneys, build endowments, etc...' By the size of the crowd that came to hear my talk, I was pleasantly surprised how many of them understood what I was saying.
"In any sport, you're not just a coach and a recruiter, you're the CEO of your sport. It's everything. It's fund raising, alumni relations, community involvement. You need to have a global view. ... With tuitiion costs going up, more private philanthropy is going to be needed to make this work for schools."
The model had worked previously at Miami, many years ago. And Bowling Green revived its program through a similar endowment effort. The big difference was that Penn State had an $80 million sugar daddy.
* * *
There was a backlash, of course. Some people wondered why all that money couldn't go to the library or chemistry department. But a rink, Battista argued, would be open year round, and be open to the community, not just Penn State hockey. It will add to the local economy.
The change meant that club coach, Scott Balboni, who succeeded Battista in that role, would be pushed aside. But Battista said that they always knew that would be the case.
Battista said the money was the easy part. Putting everything in place after that was the hard part. But they got off to a good start when they hired former Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky to lead the program.
"We wanted to find our 'Badger Bob' Johnson," Battista says.
Gadowsky was sold easily. "You so quickly get caught up in his vision," Gadowsky says of Battista. "After meeting him for five minutes, I mean, you just want to jump on board and just come here. And I thank him so much for spending the time with me and letting me hear a little bit about the vision he's had, for probably a lot longer than any of us know."
Then, 11 months before this weekend's inaugural game, came the black cloud.
Penn State, lauded for being emblematic of all that was right about collegiate athletics, was sudddenly awash in scandal. A former football coach was accused of molesting children. The president, Graham Spanier, and athletic director Curley, who stood proudly on that stage with Pegula and Battista just a year earlier, were forced out, facing criminal charges for covering up the alleged crimes. Legendary football coach Joe Paterno — who Battista insists always supported the goal of varsity hockey at Penn State — was also disgraced and gone. The athletic department was hammered with a $60 million fine, and NCAA sanctions, not to mention pending legal issues.
Pegula's support remained steadfast, so the dream of hockey that was now reality was never really in jeopardy. But it cast a shadow over things for a while.
"I have watched good friends lose their jobs; families move away, friends and family members become estranged because of where they stood on the 'scandal' that has rocked our Happy Valley," Battista said recently in his blog. "I will keep my thoughts private on the way I feel but suffice it to say I am proud to have known and worked with (Joe) Paterno, Tim Curley and President Graham Spanier. My memories of my time with them will always be more positive than negative because they were 'in the Arena, where cold and timid souls dare not go.' While I had my share of differences with each of them over the years, I will subscribe to the theory that 'a man is greater than his failings.'"
The unfortunate by-product of the major errors made by Penn State's administration, and former football coaches, is that anyone who talks of "family" and "doing things the right way" is now subject to sideways glances, derision and sounding hollow.
But the confluence of forces that created Penn State hockey, was driven by that ideal, as hokey as it may sound now. And it remains genuine to those people. Battista talks often now, as he did when he was head coach of the Icers club program, of a family atmosphere — caring about the players not just as athletes, but as people.
"We made academics our top priority, and their behavior and actions, we got very heavily involved in the community," Battista says.
And that's what drew him to Pegula, and vice-versa.
"He sees us developing our own energy interests as a way of helping create jobs, generate revenue, and improve the lives of many people. And he also is very committed to doing this the right way," Battista says. "I know that's one of the reasons he felt that Shell was the right partner for him, because of their track record, their commitment to doing things the right way."
* * *
The new arena is still a year away, but the new program has arrived.
This weekend, forgive Battista if he holds back a few tears in between grins.
This weekend, he gets to watch his baby being born.
"Some people think I'm a dreamer, and for 32 years they were right," he says. "But I love the game of hockey, and I continue to go back to my roots. So many of the friends I have in life to this day are the guys I either played with or against. And the respect we had for each other, the work ethic the sport taught us, the ups and downs, getting a chance to travel to Canada and learn respect for another nation ...
"So I apologize for being a dreamer — up to a point. My wish has always been to have other people share that passion."