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Honoring the Past and Celebrating the Present

by on March 05, 2019 5:00 AM

Opening a reunion invitation immediately evokes a series of emotions. Some fond, some scary, and some uncertain. For example, when I received my invitation to my 40th high school reunion last summer, I was in denial. Forty years? No way!

On the weekend of Feb. 22-23, I actually experienced a reunion double whammy, and it was incredibly memorable. It marked a couple of milestones in my own Penn State hockey career that brought back a flood of amazing memories. It was the 40th anniversary of my 1979 team that won the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Conference (MACHC) championship during my freshman year as a player at Penn State. It was also the 30th anniversary of the 1989 team that won the International Collegiate Hockey League (ICHL) championship during my second year as the head coach of the Icers. Both teams were recognized at the Penn State vs. Wisconsin hockey game between periods at Pegula Ice Arena.

The weekend started with a visit with all of the young alumni from Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula for the Friday night game. We took a big group picture with Terry in his suite. Seeing the ear to ear smile on his face made me realize how much he enjoys being back with the guys whose lives he has impacted so positively with his vision and philanthropy in the building that bears his name. It also does my heart proud to see how successful these young men have already become. The group of recent alums included Max Gardiner, Nate Jensen, Eric Scheid, Luke Juha, Matt Skoff, Mike Williamson, David Thompson, Paul Daley, Michael Longo, Rich O’Brien, Ricky DeRosa, Patrick Koudys, Dom Morrone, Peter Sweetland, Kurt Collins, and George Saad.

I asked former defenseman and assistant team captain Nate Jensen what it means to be back in Pegula Arena. “Alumni Weekend and coming back to Penn State is one of the most anticipated weekends of the year for former players,” he said. “To be able to see some of our best buddies and some of the most influential people in our lives makes it such a special weekend. We are proud of what we have helped build and the successes the teams have had after us.” 

On Saturday, many of us participated in the annual alumni game (and were sore for days as a result). Of course, I don’t skate against the aforementioned young alums as we separate into the older alums and the younger ones. My group included guys like Roy Scott, Bill Charles and Bill Proudman, my 1979 teammates Randy Fardlemann, Rick O’Brien and Ramsay Barrett, and a lot of the guys from the 1988-89 era.

After the alumni game my wife, Heidi, daughter Brianna and I hosted the 1989 ICHL alums and their families at our home for a tailgate reunion before the PSU game. It was as though we were back in the locker room as the Icer family once again. As I briefly addressed the players and their spouses, I reminded them of the special place in my heart and in Penn State hockey history of this particular group. This team was .500 midway through the season when it caught fire. We won the school’s first ever ICHL championship, coming back from two goals down twice in an 8-6 final in front of a standing room only crowd at Greenberg Ice Pavilion. Of course, I didn’t make it through the talk without getting emotional, to no one’s surprise. So many great memories and so happy to see so many of the players once again.

Those who made it back came from as far away as Utah, Texas, Minnesota and Illinios. The list included captain Brian Stevenson, assistant captain Davis Mullholand, Joe Bennincasa, Bill “Doc” Savage, Bob Kokal, Lance Riddile, John Ioia, Ken Fatur, Geoff Martha, Jerry Moore, Gary “Midge” Hutchison, John O’Connor, Eric Zinczenko, trainer Rich Deivert, assistant coach Jeff Cook and the “Godfather of Icer Hockey,” faculty advisor Dr. Paul Cohen. I have always credited this team for sparking PSU hockey’s on-ice success, constant sellouts, and SRO crowds at Greenberg Ice Pavilion, which directly impacted our success recruiting and building a championship culture for many years.

What continues to impress me most about getting together with my former teammates and players is how successful so many of them have become. It brings such joy and pride for me to see them and to hear how much their time as an Icer positively influenced their lives.

I interviewed former Icer goalie Eric Zinczenko, who graduated with an economics degree in 1991 and hadn’t been back to campus in 28 years. He said it was an honor to walk around Pegula, that his family loved the new arena and that the whole experience was awesome. After touring campus and town, including a dinner at the Allen Street Grille with the corner window view, his 13-year-old daughter Ava announced that she now wants to go to Penn State because, “it just feels so right.”
Eric is the CEO of the Bonnier Corporation, a multimedia giant with brands such as Popular Science, Outdoor Life, Cycle World and Field and Stream. He said he is very passionate about authentic content from a trusted source and that he has faith in the consumer that they want to continue to get their news from vetted, professional journalists. Eric has attended the Stanford Executive Management program and is about to attend the Harvard Advanced Management Program, of which only 80 CEOs from around the world are selected to attend. Not bad for an old goalie, eh?

When I asked him what it was like playing at Penn State, he said he vividly remembers his pre-game ritual of going into the goal crease and shaving the ice with his skates. He had this feeling of stress being a starter because he didn’t want to let down his teammates, coaches or himself. He then added, “And I loved every minute of it!”  His favorite on-ice memory was a split save he made late in the semi-finals of our 1989 league championship against our archnemesis, Niagara College, to help preserve a 5-3 victory. “I looked over to the bench to see Coach Battista with his hands on his head and a look of relief and a big smile knowing we had the game in hand.”

Eric said he left here as a young adult and returned as a father and husband of a family of four. He said he was overcome with emotion and overwhelming pride when he went into the arena, seeing his name and photos, and being able to share that with his kids was special. As a student, he learned so much from economics professor (and former goalie coach) Dr. Ray Lombra, about monetary policy and banking which were the foundations of learning what it was like to be a CEO.

“While Ray helped me to be a better goalie, he saw me as more than just a goalie. He saw me first as a student and it helped me to stay focused on school.” Eric has such a sense of gratitude toward Icer hockey and Penn State because they played such a big part in his development as a person and a professional.

Former team captain Brian Stevenson, a 1989 graduate, returned to campus for the first time in 20 years and had a similar reaction when he entered Pegula Arena.  

“It was overwhelming. The arena is gorgeous. It’s a smaller version of the top NHL arenas,” he said. “The excitement and energy of the crowd were amazing. Such great memories as I was able to see photos of all the teams and teammates that I played with on the interactive video touchscreen. Getting to see my name on the wall marks your place in time.”

He said it was great to see us finally playing NCAA Division I hockey and that he was so proud to be a part of it.  Being back made Brian realize how many great coaches and players contributed to PSU’s hockey successes over the years.

Brian is currently a regional director for Boston Scientific after spending time with Nestle and Pepsi  “I get a lot of satisfaction out of coaching others to succeed,” he said. “It is very gratifying. There is nothing better than celebrating a championship with a teammate or feeling like you contributed to someone else’s success. Being involved with hockey taught me to be collaborative and work with others. I feel like I am a coach every day providing leadership on my team. I learned that you can’t treat all people the same because they are all different. The championships were special, but it was the everyday interactions that I remember the most.”

Geoff Martha, a 1992 Smeal College of Business graduate, is currently the executive vice president of Medtronic in Minneapolis and president of their Restorative Therapies Group. He met his wife, Stephanie, at Penn State and his daughter Emily is currently a sophomore at University Park.  Geoff supports the team philanthropically and enjoys seeing the current team every time they play at the University of Minnesota. Geoff was a freshman on the 1989 team but went on to become a team captain and, just as importantly, president of the Hockey Management Association which helped him with both his personal and professional development.

Next year we will celebrate our 1990 and 2000 ACHA National Championships and that pattern will continue for the next few years as we celebrate the 2001, 2002, and 2003 national titles. There are other milestone years just around the corner and lots of reasons for alumni to come back for reunions. There will be plenty of accomplishments to honor, a lot of memories to share, and much to celebrate.

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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