Upstart Penn State hockey team takes on Vermont in Philly

Posted: January 18, 2013

STATE COLLEGE - Nestled near the Lasch Football Building on the east side of Penn State's campus is the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, home to the men's hockey team.

About a 2-minute walk away is the state-of-the-art, 200,000- square foot Pegula Ice Arena, currently under construction, where the Nittany Lions will play next season in their first year in the Big Ten.

Formerly known as the Icers, the Lions are generating Frozen Four dreams in Happy Valley, which draws heavily from two hockey hotbed fan bases in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

On Saturday, the upstart squad will be showcased in Philadelphia against Vermont in the Wells Fargo Center, the nightcap to the Flyers' long-awaited season opener against the Penguins.

"Philly is our largest alumni area . . . there is nothing about this that isn't exciting for us," first-year coach Guy Gadowsky said after practice Wednesday.

Entering the homestretch of their inaugural season as a member of the NCAA, the Lions are 8-12. Their statement win was in Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center on Dec. 29 in front of more than 10,000 onlookers against Ohio State in the teams' first-ever match.

Now, they're set to play in their second big city in the last 3 weeks. For several of the Lions, it's a homecoming.

"My family actually got a box for the game and invited a bunch of friends," said freshman defenseman Connor Varley, who hails from Lansdale and attended both La Salle and North Penn high schools. "I'll definitely have a lot of people there."

Historically, of course, Penn State has been known for its football prowess, but given the NCAA sanctions, Bill O'Brien's team can't compete for a conference or national championship for the next 3 years. But the excitement for the opening of the Pegula Ice Arena and Big Ten play is palpable in State College.

Billionaire alumnus Terry Pegula committed $88 million for construction of the rink, which will open in September. The main rink will have a capacity of 6,000, with a 1,000-seat student section, and a community rink will hold 300.

"It's gonna be awesome. The drawings, the mockups are unbelievable," said Peter Sweetland, a sophomore defenseman from Newtown who played at Pennsbury High. "We can't wait to get in there . . . it's gonna be one of the best arenas in college hockey."

Next season will be the Big Ten's first in college hockey, but it won't be starting out small. The conference will be made up of Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Since 2002, Minnesota has won two national championships while Wisconsin and Michigan State have each notched one; currently, Minnesota is the No. 1 team in the nation.

Right now, Penn State is an independent. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are members of the Central Collegiate Hockey Conference and Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

"The Big Ten programs have really historically dominated college hockey," Gadowsky said. "The schools are very recognizable worldwide, so you're going to see some of the best college hockey there is."

As the Lions build their program, Vermont presents a chance to earn a win in front of a larger crowd. The Catamounts are 6-11-4, and Penn State has a major alumni base in Philadelphia.

Still, Gadowsky says the progress of this year's team cannot be judged by wins and losses.

"However, I don't think anyone expected us to have eight wins, so in that sense, we're extremely happy with the wins we've had," he said.

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