With New Arena Opening, Penn State Excited to Join Big Ten Brothers in New Era
by Nathan Wells/CHN Reporter
An amusing thing happened when sitting down to talk with Penn State redshirt junior defenseman Nate Jensen and junior forward Tommy Olczyk about the upcoming hockey season, as Minnesota announcer Frank Mazzocco joined for a bit.
In a way, Mazzocco coming over was fitting. Sitting inside the Xcel Energy Center, a location with a rich collegiate history, few have been around the college game longer than the long-time play-by-play hockey voice. Even he wanted to find out and learn about the Nittany Lions and what the team, entering just its second season playing Division I hockey, is all about.
He wasn’t alone. This year is different and Penn State is a big reason why. Whether it is players, coaches or media, Penn State consistently comes up in college hockey circles throughout the run up to the regular season. Some are upset. Others wonder what to expect. Some are even excited to go out to State College and play there.
“The thing I’m looking forward to the most (about the Big Ten) is playing the new teams — Penn State, Ohio State,” Minnesota co-captain Nate Condon said. “Seeing their rinks and going to their venues is going to be a lot of fun for us.”
Penn State hockey is a curiosity.
Even in year two of the program, Penn State is a good representation of the Big Ten when it comes to hockey — new and without history. In a college hockey landscape that prides itself on tradition, no one knows what to expect on the ice. Not even Nittany Lions head coach Guy Gadowsky.
“No idea. I mean we’re new,” Gadowsky said when asked what to expect from his team in year two and PSU’s first in the Big Ten. “It’s a new conference. We’re new. We’ve never been in a conference. So very difficult for me to say this is what you’re going to get. We don’t know.”
Thankfully, Olczyk and Jensen are up to the challenge along with the rest of the Nittany Lions. They’ve had practice. It has been close to three years since billionaire Terry Pegula donated $102 million to construct both a team and on-campus arena. Since that time the story has stayed the same nationally. Questions about Pegula, also the owner of the Buffalo Sabres, and his 6,000-seat namesake Pegula Arena hang over like a cloud. They come up as often as questions about the team and what to expect on the ice.
At times, the two Nittany Lions players sound like pitchmen for a product. Maybe it’s all the questions, but they’ve bought into Penn State hockey and the university enough where actively going around and talking about PSU is second nature.
“Penn State, they do everything big there,” Jensen said. “I think the atmosphere is incredible and will transfer over for hockey.”
Despite being non-traditional when it comes to college hockey, Pennsylvania has a rich hockey tradition. Penn State is smack dab in the middle of the commonwealth. Both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have an NHL team (along with the cities hosting back-to-back Frozen Fours). Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Hershey — besides hosting Penn State games last season — have long AHL histories. Each is two hours away from State College.
The hope for the Nittany Lions is that in an area divided by hockey, the university can unite.
“There’s so many kids at (Penn State) that love hockey. We have kids from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, three teams in New York and New Jersey,” said Olczyk, an Illinois native who is entering his second season as Penn State captain. “They can all put their differences aside and cheer for the Penn State hockey team.”
“I’d say the biggest difference between Minnesota and Pennsylvania is Minnesota has a bunch of people that know the game and Pennsylvania is die-hard fans,” added Jensen, who is from Minnetonka, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. “They bleed their team.”
So far the sell job at State College has worked. Student season tickets have completely sold out this season and just getting a ticket into Pegula is a hot commodity.
That’s great for both Olczyk, an accounting major, and Jensen, majoring in energy, business and finance (self-described as “It’s pretty intense”), given how long they have been on board. They're just two of seven players to have been with the program since before the Division I era.
Prior to last season, which Penn State played a 27-game independent schedule that featured highs (a 3-2 record against Big Ten opponents, including an upset overtime win against Wisconsin in Madison), and lows (losses to Division III Buffalo State and ACHA Arizona State), Gadowsky coached Olcyzk and Jensen on the club team.
While coaching a program without history, Gadowsky, whose previous head coaching experience includes an NCAA tournament appearance with Princeton and success with Alaska, has found players. Jensen transferred to Penn State after his freshman season at Mercyhurst. Other transfers have come from places such as Alaska-Anchorage, RPI and Minnesota. This year’s recruiting class includes two drafted players — the first two drafted from Penn State in program history.
“We have a lot of guys with some experience and our freshman class was playing at the highest levels before school so they’re going to be able to adjust quickly,” said Olczyk.
Still, the curiosity remains. For all the pitches, for all the selling, there’s still a major question when it comes to the newest college hockey team. The Big Ten Conference and playing in a new arena certainly help the Nittany Lions, but it only goes so far. What kind of player wants to buy into Penn State?
Beyond the talk about Pegula and the “as steep as code allows” seats, that’s the biggest off-the-ice question. It’s one which doesn’t get asked enough. But it’s also an answer which Olczyk and Jensen don’t have to sell. Both live it. Both are guys who want to make their own history rather than live off of it.
The funny thing is that they could.
Both players come from hockey families. Jensen’s father Dave played at Minnesota and professionally for the Minnesota North Stars. Olczyk’s father Ed spent 16 years in the NHL and is currently an analyst for the Chicago Blackhawks and NBCSN. His older brother, Eddie, finished a four-year career at Massachusetts last season.
The elder Jensen and Olczyk also share a history. Like their sons do now, the two roomed together for the 1986 World Championships and were both members on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Neither Nate nor Tommy found out about their fathers' shared history until they met at Penn State.
“It was a surprise,” Jensen said.
So will this year. Regardless of how things go, the time for having to sell the program off the ice and ties to Pegula is nearing an end. Hockey is a small community at times and seeing players like Jensen and Olczyk live it on a program looking to build from the ground up shows that. The questions this time next year have more to do with how the Nittany Lions play on the 200x85 ice sheet than the actual arena.
With players, coach and a community bought in, Penn State can begin to go from being a curiosity for the rest of us nationally to joining in the hockey community and building its history on the ice.