Nittany Lions ice hockey settles into its first season in the NCAA
People tend to forget that Penn State has sports other than football (or even a diverse selection of academic offerings, but that’s another story).
Penn State is like many schools in eastern America in that its football program has achieved a following that can be described as either cult-like or a second family, depending on who you ask. Penn State is also the only such school to recently have its entire football program embroiled in a tragic child molestation scandal, which saw all of its victories vacated from 1998 to 2011. So much of Penn State’s culture is tied to its athletics that their success and growth would seem imperative to morale in the wake of 2011’s events.
Ice hockey is on the rise at Penn State, which should add a new dimension to the school’s sporting world. Both its women’s and men’s ice hockey teams, previously known as the Lady Icers and the Icers respectively, will join Division I of the NCAA for the 2012-13 season, after competing in club leagues for most of their history. The men’s hockey team had a previous iteration that played as Division I until 1946, but the club was restarted in its current form in 1971. The women’s team has only existed since 1996. From now on, both teams will be known as the Nittany Lions, following their admission into the NCAA, and, hopefully, into the hearts of PSU’s athletics fans. The women’s team has already been added the College Hockey America (CHA) conference, and the men’s team will join the Big Ten this year. In addition, Penn State is building a new, 6000-seat arena to accommodate the teams and, hopefully, their many fans, called Pegula Ice Arena.
Thi about an average size for a college hockey venue, while the smallest football stadiums in America hold about 30,000. Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, for comparison, has held over 110,000 fans at once. The ice hockey team at Penn State will likely never garner the attention or following that the football team has, but if they ever fill all 6,000 of their new seats, they will certainly accomplish what they set out to do–be a true NCAA hockey community. An open practice was held in University Park on October 5th, the Lions’ first practice of the season, and 500 members of the Penn State community showed up to watch. Not a bad start.
The first men’s game as an NCAA club was played on October 12th at Greenberg Ice Pavilion against American International, in front of a sellout crowd of 1300. While they lost 3-2 in overtime, they outshot their opponent 63-29. The next day, playing at Mohegan Sun Arena, home of the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Wilkes-Barre, PA, the Nittany Lions men went to overtime again. This time, they won, with freshman David Glen of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta netting the winner in the first minute of the frame.
The women’s team started strong with a victory over the University of Vermont in Burlington, but has since lost three straight, including being shut out twice in a row on home ice by Syracuse.
It’s too early to tell how competitive they will be over the course of the season. But the level of anticipation seems to indicate that it will either be a huge success, or colossal disappointment. This time last year, with their last season as club teams getting underway, little details were getting everyone excited. New transfer students with Division I experience had already been recruited, and the men’s team’s anticipated move into the Big Ten was already much-talked-about as the move to make that conference the most visible platform for NCAA hockey. College hockey seems highly visible in New England, with many NCAA Division I and III teams for both genders located in the northeastern US–but the rest of the country is missing that level of exposure. The Big Ten, with the addition of Penn State, makes ice hockey an official league sport, and will increase the public interest in college hockey on a national scale. Many other men’s Division I teams will be changing their conference alignment by the 2013-14 season.
Whether you think that Penn State athletics are your lifeblood, or the most annoying thing in the universe, it’s impossible to deny that their entry into Division I hockey is going to bring excitement and change to the game.