Penn State ready to go for first D-I season
On Sept. 17, 2010, Terry Pegula helped make college hockey history. The Buffalo Sabres’ owner joined a press conference at his alma mater to announce his $88 million donation to Penn State, building the school a new ice arena and creating the 59th Division I men's ice hockey program.
From there, the figurative ball began to roll and the buzz began to grow.
On April 24, 2011, the school named Guy Gadowsky, who coached Princeton to two NCAA tournament appearances, the team's first coach. He wasted no time in getting his first Nittany Lions team together, getting to pick from one of the nation's top club teams on his own campus.
In early September, Gadowsky named his first recruiting class, five sophomore transfers who will be the de facto team leaders for the new coach.
Former Mercyhurt forward Taylor Holstrom was the Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year in 2011, and fellow ex-Laker Nate Jensen's father, David, played for the U.S. Olympic team in 1984 before playing with the Minnesota North Stars.
"It's huge for us to have those five individuals with Division I experience," Gadowsky said. "[Holstrom], along with the other four guys, are going to be extremely important in helping our program make the transition from club hockey to Division I."
In their final season as a club team, Kirchhevel (57 points) and Holstrom (40 points) ranked among the national scoring leaders as Penn State went 30-3-0 en route to a top seed in the postseason tournament before losing in the semifinals.
Their success left a big impression on the coach.
"There are 16 players who played on last year's club team that will be on this Division I roster," Gadowsky said. "It was basically a year-long tryout last year. They had their goals in mind and worked extremely hard throughout the season and this past summer. I'm so excited for them. Every one of them has a tremendous story -- how they ended up playing Division I hockey. They’ve worked extremely hard to give themselves a chance to take advantage of this opportunity."
Among the holdovers are Tommy Olczyk, the son of former NHL player Eddie Olczyk; and goalies Paul Musico and Mathew Madrazo, who were among American Collegiate Hockey Association leaders in most categories and will duke it out with freshman Matt Skoff, an ex-USHL stud, for playing time. Olczyk, along with forward George Saad and Jensen, will be the team's captains.
Despite their gaudy statistics and on-ice accomplishments, Holstrom and his more-seasoned teammates know it will be an adjustment on the Division I level.
"The game is going to be faster, and I'm going to see if I remember how to get up to that speed," Holstrom said with a laugh. "A lot of these guys have really stepped up their game; we definitely have D-I caliber guys. We're young and skilled. We have a lot of guys that can score, some of these guys have the hardest shots I've seen, and we've really loaded up on size this year."
Gadowsky said, "It's not necessarily the speed of the athletes, but rather the speed of the decision-making. When you move up and play higher and higher levels of hockey, that's the biggest difference and the biggest change. Our biggest challenge all year long is going to be pushing our pace during practice. Opening night is Oct. 12 against a Division I opponent and it's going to be a different level and speed of the game."
While there is little at stake for the Nittany Lions in their first season -- they'll play 33 games as an independent in 2012-13 with no league postseason -- there is still plenty to look forward to. They'll get an early taste of Big 10 hockey, facing off against two of their future league rivals, as well as take the ice at two AHL arenas.
Those dates on the calendar are definitely circled for players like Holstrom.
"It's not till later in the season, but Michigan State (Jan. 25-26) and Wisconsin (Feb. 24-25) for sure, since they're the teams we're all going to be playing for the next three years," he said, pointing out their games against American International at Mohegan Sun Arena (Oct. 13), home of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and versus RIT (Oct. 20) at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena, where the AHL's Americans play.
The excitement goes far beyond the ice. Penn State held its first official practice, a midnight ice session open to the public on Oct 5. The 1,350-seat Ice Pavilion, where the team will play until Pegula Ice Arena opens in the fall of 2013, was packed.
Despite an eye toward the future in regards to games and seasons, the team is doing its best to temper expectations.
"We're going to be one of the hardest working teams in college hockey," Holstrom said.
Gadowsky said, "We were able to start building our foundation last year -- which is very valuable. Doing things the right way with high standards of work ethic and commitment is extremely important to us. I really do like their work ethic -- they're working extremely hard off the ice. I love their commitment to Penn State University and their passion for the school and the athletic department."
The passion is echoed around campus, as the fervor grows with opening night approaching.
"Riding the bus, I get it every day wearing my hockey jacket," Holstrom said. "People are asking questions, telling us about how they already bought their tickets, and T-shirts are popping up everywhere."
According to Gadowsky, tickets are nearly sold out, despite packages being sold in only five-game blocks. When student tickets went on sale at 7 a.m. on Sept. 12, a line had already formed at 5:30 in the morning.
The excitement is there, but the pressure will be measured accordingly.
"Every game we play is a huge opportunity to improve, and we're going to continue to work very hard to improve every day," Gadowsky said. "I don't think that, right now, it's fair at all to say 'this many' wins is going to determine whether we have success or not. We're going to judge our success by how strong our foundation is and how much we improve.
"It's such an exciting time -- it's a new program and we get to compete in Division I hockey. At the same time, you realize how much more work there is to be done, so it's very exciting and overwhelming all at once."