Keystone State of Mind
Pennsylvania Enjoying College Hockey Boom Period
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
When the puck drops at Consol Energy Center next week for the Frozen Four, Pennsylvania will celebrate a new stage of college hockey in the state. Not only will this mark the first time the men’s NCAA hockey champion is crowned in the Keystone State, but this season was also a breakout year for college hockey across the commonwealth.
For decades, some of hockey’s best teams called Pennsylvania home. In the 1970s, the Philadelphia Flyers became the first team outside of the Original Six to win a Stanley Cup. In the 1990s, Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins reached that mountaintop. Recently, both the Penguins and Flyers have competed for championships, making it one of the best rivalries in the NHL.
In the AHL, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Hershey Bears frequently square off in perhaps the league’s best rivalry. Thanks to the growth of hockey over the last few decades, the talent pool in the state grew exponentially. In 2011, more players from Pittsburgh were selected in the NHL Draft than were selected in the NFL draft, which would have been unheard of as little as 10 years ago.
“Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup runs and excitement, along with Philadelphia, definitely help,” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. “I think it starts at the NHL level and trickles right on down.”
Unfortunately for the Keystone State, even though youth hockey participation has grown more and more over the last 20 years, the best talent often leaves Pennsylvania to play college hockey elsewhere or join the junior hockey ranks. But three schools in Pennsylvania hope to change all of that.
Since 1987, only one Division I hockey program existed in Pennsylvania – Mercyhurst, all the way up in the northwest corner of the state, tucked in between Ohio and New York. But nine years ago, Robert Morris joined the fray and college hockey started to pick up.
Then, a billionaire Penn State alum decided it was time for his alma mater to make the jump to Division I. So he donated $88 million for Penn State to build a new rink.
“This wasn’t just for Penn State,” Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said. “His goal and his vision was to escalate and improve the hockey around the region.”
Terry Pegula’s gift triggered a tectonic shift in the college hockey landscape.
This season, Penn State’s first as a Division I team, saw the Nittany Lions play in front of record crowds all across Pennsylvania, and a rivalry began to bud with Robert Morris. Meanwhile, both Robert Morris and Mercyhurst came close to snagging an NCAA Tournament bid. RMU finished 17th in the Pairwise, while Mercyhurst fell in the Atlantic Hockey championship game to Canisius.
But Pegula certainly isn’t the only reason for college hockey’s growth in Pennsylvania.
Feeding off the success of the Penguins
For many years, Robert Morris has worked closely with the Penguins to promote itself and try to build interest in college hockey. The Penguins sponsored many “College Hockey Showcases” that featured RMU squaring off with some of the nation's top teams.
In 2010, the Colonials knocked off No. 1-ranked Miami at the old Mellon Arena. This year, Consol Energy Center hosted the inaugural Three Rivers Classic, which featured Robert Morris, Penn State, Miami and Ohio State. More than 12,000 fans flooded the gates both days to see Penn State hockey play in Pittsburgh for the first time. But the hometown Colonials stole the show, shutting out both the Nittany Lions and the RedHawks to take the crown.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” said Colonials captain Brendan Jamison, a Pittsburgh native.
“To get over 24,000 people there for the four games, it was really an exciting event and one that we are excited about continuing in the future,” RMU coach Derek Schooley said.
In addition to working with the Penguins for events like the Three Rivers Classic, Schooley credited the Penguins for the growth of talent in western Pennsylvania as well.
“The game is growing by leaps and bounds, and a lot of that has to do with the grassroots effort of Penguins,” Schooley said. “You see more and more players coming out of Pittsburgh that are playing at high levels.”
Growing up watching players like Lemieux and, recently, Sidney Crosby on a regular basis will do that.
In the 2011 NHL Draft, four players from the Pittsburgh area were selected – forwards Brandon Saad (Chicago), J.T. Miller (New York Rangers) and Vincent Trochek (Florida), as well as goalie John Gibson (Anaheim). You may recognize a few of those names from this year’s gold-medal winning World Junior team. But none of them stayed in Pennsylvania to play college hockey.
A national brand
While Robert Morris and Mercyhurst have slowly been building up college hockey in Pennsylvania to try to attract some of that local talent, all it took was the name “Penn State” for Pennsylvanians to really jump on board.
“It’s not just a regional name, it’s a national name,” Schooley said. “To be able to have Penn State right down the road is good for college hockey. Any time you can add a hockey program at a major university, it’s something that’s exciting for the game.”
Gadowsky coached at Alaska-Fairbanks and Princeton before heading to Happy Valley to coach the Nittany Lions, where he led them to a 13-14-0 record in their first Division I season.
“As successful as the season was, I think the greatest part about it was what happened everywhere we played in Pennsylvania,” he said.
The Nittany Lions played to thousands of fans in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Hershey and Wilkes-Barre. At the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, they played in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a college hockey game in an NHL arena – 19,529.
Gadowsky said the passion for the sport has been in State College for a while, and Penn State is starting to capitalize on that.
“When I got to campus for the first time, I could not believe how many hockey jerseys I saw – a ton of Penguins jerseys and a ton of Flyers jerseys. But there were also Buffalo Sabres jerseys and Washington Capitals, Canadian national team, American national team,” he said. “There was just a ton of hockey interest already.”
Gadowsky also gave credit to the Penguins, as well as the Flyers. He said State College – directly in the middle of the state – becomes ground zero for the Battle of Pennsylvania.
“You see the jerseys multiply on the days they play each other,” he said. “Some restaurants are very well known as being strictly a Penguins place and others are strictly Flyers places. It’s really interesting.”
He first arrived on campus in the spring of 2011, during the first round of the NHL playoffs.
“Going out to eat during the playoffs was very difficult because they were packed with Penguins fans and Flyers fans,” Gadowsky said. “This state really loves hockey.”
But Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are both about three hours away from Happy Valley. So Penn State jumping to Division I gave those hockey fans a closer outlet for their hockey love.
And Gadowsky said that the biggest boost in college hockey is yet to come, as Penn State joins the newly formed Big Ten hockey conference next season, with other national names Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
“Four of the other Big Ten programs are in the top eight of national championships won, and their alumni are littered all across the NHL,” Gadowsky said. “So every time a fan comes to see Penn State play a Big Ten school, you’re going to see future NHL stars and you’re going to see programs that have been tremendously successful.”
This year, Pittsburgh’s Jesse Root scored both game-winning goals in the regional round to send his Yale Bulldogs to his hometown for the Frozen Four. But Gadowsky and Schooley hope those kind of players will stay closer to home in the future.
“You already have a lot of great young players coming out of Pennsylvania. Many have gone to a lot of great universities across the nation,” Gadowsky said. “But I think with the emergence of Penn State and the emergence of the Big Ten conference, I think you’re going to see more of our great hockey players from this state stay home.”
“We always like to have a Pittsburgh flavor on our hockey team,” Schooley said. “We want to keep the best Pittsburgh kids at home playing Division I hockey.”
While keeping players in Pennsylvania is an immediate goal, the long term goal is to ultimately add more teams in the state.
Gotkin hopes the state adds at least one more team.
“Then we can have our own Beanpot,” he said.
“I think in Pennsylvania, it’s going to explode” Jamison said. “I always look at schools and think about what it would be like if they had a Division I hockey program. I’m hoping that there’s going to be a few more. You have the Philadelphia area as well, and I’m sure some of the schools out there are going to make the jump up eventually.”
Next weekend, hockey fans in Pittsburgh will get to see the highest level of college hockey up close and personal, as a champion is crowned at Consol Energy Center. It may be the first year the trophy is awarded in Pennsylvania, but next year the state will double up: Philadelphia will host the 2014 Frozen Four.