STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In the shadow of Beaver Stadium stands a sparkling rink with two sheets of ice that Terry Pegula hopes will be the incubator for the growth of hockey in Pennsylvania and across the United States.
Eight years ago, Pegula and his wife, Kim, gave over $100 million to Penn State University to fund the creation of men’s and women’s Division I hockey programs and a facility to make them competitive.
Those teams, which began competing in 2012-13, quickly achieved success. The women’s team won 17 games in its third season, and the men’s team won the Big Ten Tournament title and fell one victory short of reaching the NCAA Frozen Four last season.
When Pegula made the donation to his alma mater, the owner of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills wasn’t just thinking about trophies lining a case inside Pegula Ice Arena. Beyond football, he wanted Penn State to be proud of a hockey team.
“Part of my rationale was to grow American hockey,” Pegula said. “The Big Ten has a big name, it’s been a national brand, and I thought that would be a good thing for hockey to grow the sport domestically.”
That growth is already happening in what’s affectionately called “Hockey Valley.” Penn State’s Nittany Lion Development Program has grown from 35 children in 2014 to 150 today, and a youth association that had six teams is up to 10. USA Hockey reported almost 1,500 more people have begun playing hockey in western Pennsylvania from 2012-13 to 2016-17.
Ryan Patrick, the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Craig Patrick, played club hockey at Penn State and now runs its youth programs. He understands such growth wouldn’t have been possible without Division I programs and the buzz for children who haven’t thought about becoming college students yet.
“They go to a game and a little kid says to mom or dad, ’Hey, I want to do that,’” Patrick said. “And you start looking at our programs and we’ve got it all laid out from learn-to-play hockey up through travel hockey. It’s a nice progression and kids are jumping in and sticking with it.”
Men’s coach Guy Gadowsky knows Penn State will always be a football school, though traditions are certainly portable. Chants of “We are Penn State” fill the 6,000-seat rink where players wear white helmets with blue stripes down the middle, and fans in the “Roar Zone” get to torment the opposing goalie from close range from a wall that’s as steep as building code would allow.
“The hockey program is just trying to fit in to Penn State, and I think it’s a great addition,” Gadowsky said. “The fans here love physical, fast sports — which hockey is, obviously — and they love passion and hockey is all of that and the students have really taken to it. I think they’ve made Pegula Ice Arena the best atmosphere in college hockey.”
That was by design.
“Acoustically, I know there was some talk about designing the building so they could have graduations and concerts or whatever in there,” Pegula said. “And I said, ‘Ah, we want this place to sound like you’re inside a garbage can and somebody’s hitting it with a stick.’ It’s a loud arena.”
The chance to play in that arena drew leading scorer Andrew Sturtz from Buffalo, Chicago Blackhawks third-round pick Evan Barratt from suburban Philadelphia and top defenseman and Los Angeles Kings prospect Cole Hults from Stoughton, Wisconsin. Penn State has already produced an NHL player in forward Casey Bailey and this year has players from 10 states, three Canadian provinces and two countries — including Nikita Pavlychev, a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect from Russia.
“We’ve been fortunate to have some success very, very early, and that will also attract excellent hockey players that are looking to play college in this area and as far as Finland or Russia or Canada or wherever else,” Gadowsky said. “Certainly we want to get the very best student hockey players in our footprint, for sure. That’s a priority. But we’re also looking to get the very best in other regions, as well.”
Pegula thought Gadowsky was “the logical choice” as coach after building up the Alaska-Anchorage and Princeton programs. Penn State also hired longtime Princeton women’s coach Jeff Kampersal to take over for retiring Josh Brandwene. The men’s team was ranked 13th nationally going into a weekend series against No. 7 Ohio State, while the women’s team was 5-8-8.
Gadowsky saw plenty of Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers jerseys when he first stepped on campus and was impressed by the knowledge of local fans. Though Pennsylvania isn’t yet a hockey hotbed like Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota, Brandon Saad, Vincent Trocheck, Matt Bartkowski and Stephen Johns are from the Pittsburgh area.
“I hear from a lot of players that have been successful in the professional ranks that have said things like, ‘Boy, if Penn State had a Division I team, I guarantee I would’ve gone there,’” Gadowsky said. “I think everything Terry Pegula envisioned is starting to happen.”
In line with Pegula’s vision, Patrick said the goal at the youth level is to be a solid Tier II junior program that can play at district tournaments and compete for national championships. With an eye on trying to help speed up the already rapid growth of hockey across the U.S. , Pegula has big dreams about the sport nationwide.
“Maybe someday the Pac-12 will have a hockey conference or the Mountain West,” Pegula said. “Those are logical places (where) main conferences could expand into hockey.”
Penn State’s addition allowed the Big Ten to form a hockey conference, and now the program could serve as a model for others across the NCAA landscape.
In Hockey Valley, Gadowsky is proud of that and thinking about the next steps to add more banners to the rafters to go along with the Big Ten championship.
“I don’t think anybody would’ve thought that we’d be Big Ten champions this early into it,” Gadowsky said. “If we can have more success at the NCAA Tournament level, that’s going to raise the awareness of our program, of hockey in this area, even more. Very easy to say, very difficult to achieve.”