Penn State is growing into ‘Hockey Valley’

AP
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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.”

Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

“Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

“Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

“Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Robertson will finally be there now.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

TORTS REFORM

Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

“I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

BIG MO

The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

“He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

PLAYOFF ROTATION

Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

“I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

“He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

“This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

LAMBERT ISLAND

Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

“Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

MORE NEW VOICES

The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

“He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.