October 12, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

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The Best Parts of Penn State's New Arena Are Things Money Can't Buy

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Terry Pegula (l.) and Joe Battista help drop the ceremonial first puck, with the help of Penn State's Tommy Olczyk.

Terry Pegula (l.) and Joe Battista help drop the ceremonial first puck, with the help of Penn State's Tommy Olczyk.

He waited almost three years for this moment, but really, he'd been waiting most of his lifetime.

Joe Battista, the godfather of Penn State hockey — the long-time former club coach who moved into the athletic department's administration, and then helped put together the move to Division I — was ready for opening night at the arena he oversaw the creation of.

He had just one last word for coach Guy Gadowsky.

"We just can't take too many penalties because the guys are so jacked up," Battista said.

Penn State of course did just that, taking nine minor penalties and a major.

"Anything we tried to do to keep them from being hyped was totally thrown out the window when Terry Pegula came in," Gadowsky said. "The guys were ready to chew nails after he left."

Pegula, the benefactor that allowed all of this to happen, was supposed to speak to the team earlier in the day, but a busy slate of events pushed him back to 6:45, just 75 minutes before the start of the game. Once he did speak, he left an impression.

But the penalties were a minor blip in an otherwise unbeatable evening, with 6,370 packing Pegula Ice Arena for the an inaugural 4-1 win over Army.

"Some of that is just poor technique too, and we have a lot of work to do," Gadowsky said. "But I think you can attribute a lot to emotions — I hope."

Pegula was allowed his time with the team, of course. The Penn State graduate and hockey fan who decided to drop some of his pocket change — over $100 million — to fund men's and women's hockey and a new arena, also set off a chain of events that changed the face of college hockey.

Not since the Louisiana Purchase has the stroke of a pen changed the landscape so much.

But he wasn't always a billionaire. And to his credit, he acknowledged how grateful everyone should be, including himself. Pegula asked the players, in his pre-game talk, to work hard, stay humble, and not take for granted the gifts they have gotten.

"He's just such a humble guy," Penn State freshman Dave Goodwin said. "He has a lot going for him in life. He's so humble and passionate for hockey and Penn State. It was an amazing experience being in there. ... I'll never forget the pregame for this game."

Said Penn State goalie Matthew Skoff, "We're going to keep our promise of how we'll keep honest and not take advantage of the situation we have."

For anyone who always believed — knew — that hockey at Penn State was an automatic home run, Friday's game was just icing on the cake. After all, it had already proven itself during last season's first as a Division I team, playing mostly in its old barn, but also selling out places throughout the state, like Wilkes-Barre, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It was a season-long travelling show that demonstrated how hungry the massive state-wide alumni base of Penn State was for hockey.

And then Friday topped it all. It was simply electric, from start to finish. It was not so much evidence of Penn State's dream, but rather the embodiment and the culmination of the dream. No longer was there "tastes of what's to come," it was here.

"To come away with the victory obviously felt great," Gadowsky said. "But the star of the show was definitely the student section. Right from the start — walking out on the bench was a phenomenal feeling."

Defenseman Nate Jensen got things rolling with an early rocket of a goal. The lead could've been bigger if not for the penalties.

"After the first period, we came in the locker room, got the jitters out, talked to each other, and came out in the second period," Jensen said. "You get jitters, you get nervous for those kind of games, but it was fun though."

The building, which also houses a community rink, looks modest from the outside, almost like a large university's library from a distance. It certainly, despite the large amount of cash donated to build it, doesn't have the opulance of North Dakota's Ralph Engelstad Arena.

That is reserved for the players' facilities downstairs, where the training room is state of the art, where the locker room stalls have individual power sources, where the coach's white board has been supplemented by a super hi-def video touch screen. The list goes on. It has set the standard that every other Big Ten school, at least, will look to match.

The arena itself is no more extravagant than any other modern facility built in the last 20 years. What will make that special is the people — the students with the steep section, the "Roar Zone," behind one goal, the chanting and singing, the pride.

The type of things that money can't buy.

And in Penn State's case, it doesn't need to buy it. It came with the land. From opening warmups, to 6,000 people singing the national anthem in unison, to the first goal that came just minutes into the game, the crowd was on fire all night. They had turned Happy Valley into "Hockey Valley," and they let everyone know it.

Said one observer, "It's like they've been doing this for years." And of course, in many ways, they have. The club team was very popular at Greenberg Pavilion. But just like the team itself, they have taken it to a new level.

"The first time when we went out for warmups and looked up, I forget, I blacked out, it was insane," Goodwin said.

Gadowsky allowed himself a lot of time to look around — such as when he saw the students crowd-surfing the Nittany Lion mascot up their section.

For all the buildup, the game almost didn't happen. With the U.S. Federal Government shut down, it threw the status of Army's athletic programs up in the air. Army didn't find out for sure until mid-week that it could make it.

But ultimately, Army coach Brian Riley — himself from a legendary college hockey family that goes back to the 1940s — was glad his team made it, despite the loss.

"I would've hated to miss out on this night," Riley said. "What they have, what they're gonna build here, is something that's going to be truly amazing. And certainly the Pegula family, with this donation — I told Mr. Pegula this morning, on behalf of all of college hockey, I thanked him, because, wow, this is going to be pretty neat.

"We would definitely come back. How we were treated by everybody. And for them to be so patient and understanding. ... It didn't affect us in a negative way. I think our guys will tell you they loved it. This is what college hockey should be about."

And it is. Putting aside the repurcussions of the move; putting aside the politics of money in the NCAA; and putting aside all of the other ancilary issues; Friday night was special, not just for Penn State, but for the sport.

Sure the deck was stacked in its favor — it was opening night, everyone has been building up to this moment, it's Homecoming weekend with 90,000 crazy tailgaters set to watch a football game across the street against Michigan on Saturday. But make no mistake, there isn't anyone who doesn't believe this will be par for the course.

"I can't wait to get back. I can't wait to do this again," Gadowsky said. "It's so motivating to play. It's great to look at and you feel it, but what it does for you is special.

"It doesn't remind me of anything. This is a whole new different deal. ... That's why a lot of us came here, because of the passion of the student body and alumni. It was so great to see that, and when you score a goal, you feel it coming like an avalanche."

The way the Big Ten should feel about Penn State hockey.

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