Off and Running
Penn State Earns Dramatic, Emotional First Win
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. This is gonna be big.
Oh there will be plenty of bumps on the head amid the baby steps. And Saturday's first-ever Division I win was against American International, not Wisconsin or Michigan State. But those wins are gonna come too, maybe later than sooner, but they'll come.
Friday night, Penn State was energized by a boistrous home crowd that squeezed into the 1,200-seat Greenberg Ice Pavilion to see the program's debut in Division I.
But Saturday night, Penn State didn't just get a dramatic, historic win, but it got a glimpse into its very future.
Because not just did 4,000 fans show up, 130 miles from its campus, to see Penn State hockey. But they came from all over. They came, not as random passers-by catching a novelty — but wearing Penn State regalia, with their faces painted, waving blue and white pom-pons, and chanting "We Are, Penn State!" They came with the kind of passion reserved for an institution that is ingrained in you, something shared by hundreds of thousands across the vast state of Pennsylvania.
"Isn't it awesome?" a beaming head coach Guy Gadowsky said afterwards. "That means so much. To play in front of that is really, really special. It's why our staff came here, it's why our players came here — it's for that Penn State passion. Our student body is fantastic. I know there's been some questions on culture — honestly, it's the best culture in the world."
Consequently, the still-shiny 13-year old, 8,300-seat Mohegan Sun Arena served as a perfect stand in for what will happen next season — when the Nittany Lions take up home in the Pegula Ice Arena and raise their stakes in the Big Ten.
Which is why Penn State scheduled this game here.
Joe Battista, the proud papa who was most instrumental in putting it all together, held back his emotions while his son, standing next to him, held the game puck. The former long-time club team coach and booster club director, is now an associate athletic director who has overseen every aspect of the new program.
"We were on such an emotional high (Friday)," Battista said. "And to kinda lose a heartbreaker, that was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect day. But here, it was a great crowd — it shows you how strong the Penn State alums are."
The on-ice play was a glimpse into the future as well. It already has the signature of a Guy Gadowsky team — north-south, physical, throwing shots at the net.
And just to prove it, the game winner was scored by center David Glen, a Gadowsky player if there ever was one. After all, he's not just from familiar Gadowsky recruiting territory of Western Canada, but he's from Fort Sakatchewan, Alberta, a suburb of the Edmonton area Gadowsky grew up in.
"He came to my home town when we first talked," Glen said. "It's a special thing. A lot of people don't know about it. He actually coached in my home town."
"I actually played for Fort Saskatchewan," Gadowsky said. "It's fitting, I like that.
Gadowsky continued, "If he didn't score a goal, I would've said he had a great game. He won faceoffs, he back checked, he's a winner, and he's done it for three years in Alberta. I'm really glad we had him tonight. ... He plays a game that helps you win."
The winner was set up on a nice feed from fellow freshman Kenny Brooks, who is from what might as well be a different universe from Fort Saskatchewan — Las Vegas, Nevada.
"We were up there and you could see the play develop," Battista said. "Sometimes those kind of plays look like they're happening in slow motion. So yeah, I shed a few tears."
And after Glen scored the game winner, his second goal of the game, and after he was done being mobbed by his teammates, there was Gadowsky to bear hug him like they had just won a Big Ten championship.
"I'm pumped," Gadowsky said. "We had no idea. We didn't know how many years away we were from even competing at this level. I thought it was a great weekend. I loved our fans (Friday) night in Greenberg. What a great reception tonight. The Penn State colors are flying. I couldn't be happier right now."
Said Glen, "It still hasn't quite sunk in yet. But I was happy to be part of the opportunity. It was a lot of fun out there. ... It's definitely a special moment."
The rest of the team is an assortment of parts. It includes club team holdovers, raw first-year players, and transfers like Nate Jensen and Taylor Holstrom, who once won an Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year Award with Mercyhurst. It includes lumbering 6-foot-4 freshman winger Jonathan Milley, from Quebec, in the mold of the likes of Kevin Westgarth, an NHL'er that Gadowsky coached at Princeton.
And there were also five Pennsylvania natives in the lineup, a number that could grow, especially as the growth of youth hockey in the state over the last dozen years synergizes perfectly with the birth of the Nittany Lions program. Eight other states were also represented, including Nevada and Missouri.
Sure the on-ice product is still plenty rough around the edges. The team did lose a late 3-1 lead. But no one was worried.
"It showed some youth in us, and that's to be expected," Gadowsky said. "It wasn't good to see at the time, but if I had to choose winning this game 3-1 or winning in overtime, I'd pick this way."
Saturday night wasn't the on-campus thrill of Friday, or the bigger ones it will be when Michigan is coming to campus to play in a brand new arena next season.
But that is coming too.
"It's all about putting the pieces of the puzzle together," Battista said. "We have a great coach, a great staff. He'll just keep putting more and more pieces of the puzzle together and and recruit. And that building ... my goodness. You walk into it now, and it looks like an arena."
Penn State means everything to so many residents of the vast state of Pennsylvania, a state bigger than any other that houses a Big Ten team. Penn State hockey will own Pennsylvania. So many people across the Commonwealth have a connection to Penn State, that you can go anywhere and find a loyal crowd — such as in a bunch of Wilkes-Barre Penguins hockey fans that can immediately embrace a visceral connection to the fledgling Nittany Lions.
Penn State will get two more chances to take itself around the state, including a pair of games at the Pittsburgh holiday tournament, and then another game five hours across the other side, with a game against Vermont at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia (Vermont defenseman Nick Luukko's father is a Philadelphia Flyers executive).
Those happen to also be the site of the next two Frozen Fours — but one dream at a time.
Oh yes, this is going to be big — not just Maine big or New Hampshire big, but Wisconsin big. Big Ten big.