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Joe Battista: It’s Tough to be the 'Revolutionary' and 'Evolutionary'

by on February 29, 2012 6:00 AM

This past Friday night marked the final home game for the Penn State Icers, and it was our final game as an American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) non-varsity team. It was a very bittersweet night for me full of a lot of emotions and great memories.

It was the first time I have ever done the ceremonial puck drop. So in front of a standing room-only crowd, I walked out onto the ice with tears in my eyes. I looked up at all the ACHA national championship banners and over at the Penn State home bench where I spent four years as a player and 19 as head coach. I gave a nod of appreciation to the players and coaches and as I turned to face the crowd, only one thought stood out in my mind.

How embarrassing would it be if the old coach slipped and fell and made a complete fool of myself.

Seriously, it was a special moment for me because it gave me time to reflect back on just how far we had come as the Icers and the legacy of the ACHA and the role that I was fortunate enough to play in its creation and development. 

You see, I was born (some would say cursed) with the need to lead. I am a card-carrying “revolutionary” who welcomes a challenge and isn’t afraid of change.

Most people just don't like change. They covet order and routine and to live a simple life free of controversy and confrontation. 

Oh, but not me. I dive in head first and have spent a lifetime trying to be a difference maker.

However, I am still working on that “evolutionary” thing.  Perhaps because I spend so much energy and use up so much goodwill at times that I am just too damn stubborn and impatient to do what it takes to take new ideas from creation to sustainability. 

I sometimes forget that it's "ready, aim, fire" and not "ready, fire, aim" or worse yet, "fire, ready, aim." I have always been ready, willing and able to lead, but I am also a bit impulsive and impatient, which sometimes lands me in the boss’s office on the proverbial hot seat. I do realize my shortcomings, and as much as I try, I have simply come to grips with the fact that it just may be my destiny to be the "revolutionary" more than the "evolutionary."

Because I am who I am, I also know that people don't always like me or understand me. It's why I have the need for challenges and the excitement that comes with pushing the envelope. I also know that while I like to consider myself to be a leader, a visionary and a "revolutionary," others consider me to be one giant PITA (pain in the a—).

I will attempt to explain.

Beginning in 1978, I spent more than a decade playing in, observing, and coaching club hockey and trying to find a way to get Penn State to take a leap of faith and grant us varsity status. In the early 90s while coaching the Icers, I began to realize as long as we had the club tag, many people would dismiss us as a glorified men's league. 

After watching the infighting and posturing that took place at the loosely organized national level of club hockey, I helped get together the team of people who would become the 15 charter members of the ACHA.  It wasn't easy getting around the territorialism, the lack of standardized rules and a few of the existing power brokers who looked myopically at club hockey and not the greater purpose of giving more student-athletes a chance to play a better brand of college hockey.

After months of behind the scenes, discussions and knock-down, drag-out discussions (with me playing the role of instigator and change agent most of the time), we arrived at a consensus, and in 1991 we launched the inaugural season of ACHA hockey with men's Division I and II — about 35 schools signing on for the first year of competition.

It was a rocky first few years to say the least, and our attempts at unifying eligibility rules and policies and procedures were contentious and at times downright nasty. As one of the founders and drivers to organize the teams and leagues, I was sometimes looked at as a rabble rouser by some in the group who didn't like the young whippersnapper from PSU who wasn't afraid to speak his mind and challenge the status quo.

Well, I got my comeuppance during my tumultuous two-year stint as the second president of the fledgling organization. With policies and procedures needing to be written for the rules committees, eligibility committees, ranking committees, national tournament, etc., I struggled mightily as the administrator.

In part it was due to the relationships with the very people that I had challenged to help get the organization off the ground in the first place.  At the end of my term, a battle over the use of proxy votes led to a change in the leadership and, at least in my mind, we spent the next two years treading water. 

Thankfully, current PSU women’s coach Josh Brandwene, then the head coach for West Virginia’s men’s program, stepped up to the plate and helped take the ACHA to new heights. Now there is a guy that is an “evolutionary,” and that may very well be one of the reasons I hired him to coach our women’s team. 

What started off as 30 teams in two men’s divisions has grown to five divisions (three men's and two women's) with 450 teams from across the United States and is represented in every state except Hawaii.  That’s twice as many teams as the NCAA men’s and women’s divisions combined.  My hat is off to the current officers and coaches of the ACHA for their dedication and efforts to grow our sport and take a “revolutionary” concept and help it to “evolve” to its current level of popularity.

I am extremely proud that I was able to play a role in starting the ACHA. It’s an organization where thousands of young men and women are playing non-varsity college hockey in a more organized and structured association that allows them to represent their schools while playing the sport they love.

So is this need to lead and to be a “revolutionary” a blessing or a curse? Well it’s not dull that’s for sure.

My first real foray into initiating and organizing occurred in 1973 when I was in junior high school. I was among a group of die-hard street hockey players formed the Penn Hills Street Hockey League playing on all the local school parking lots.

I realized then that I really liked organizing new ventures. That league grew and flourished until it became a much more organized league playing at the Greater Pittsburgh Dek Hockey Center in Penn Hills, and it is still in operation to this day and hosts regional, national and international tournaments.

My next leadership moment came when I very surprisingly named the team captain of my high school hockey team as a sophomore. The seniors weren’t real happy about that announcement. Next, I became an officer of the school’s hockey club as a junior. I spoke on behalf of the team to the Penn Hills School Board (in front of a lot of people) and it helped to get us recognition for our high school team as a varsity sport, which we were granted for my junior and senior year.

In College it was president of the hockey club, VP of Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Honor Society, Lion Ambassador and captain of the hockey team. 

The need to be involved in creating new organizations didn’t stop after school.  After writing a proposal to then-Pittsburgh Penguins President Paul Martha in 1982 to create the position of director of amateur hockey development (which still exists today), I worked with a group of parents from several youth teams to help create the Pittsburgh Amateur Penguins Organization that fielded five teams from age 9-19 (which also still exists today). 

I also worked very hard with the local hockey associations and their officers to help initiate the Tri-State Area Hockey Association (TAHA), which consisted of: Western Pa. high school, travel, and youth hockey associations; the Western Pa. Ice Hockey Officials Association and the Ice Arena Managers Association. The goal was to have all these inter-dependent groups work together for the betterment of youth hockey in Western Pa. TAHA enjoyed about a 10-year run and helped foster better working relations between previously adverse groups.  Alas, too many parents with selfish agendas help doom its existence.

All of these experiences eventually led me back to Penn State to take the helm of my beloved Icers. While we enjoyed tremendous success on the ice and in the classroom during my 19 years, it did not come without a price along the way. Ask any number of my bosses what a “PITA” I really was to work with, as I questioned and challenged everything.

The more people told me we couldn’t, the more determined I became to find a way to get it done. I only lasted in the “evolutionary” phase of the Icers of that time due to the extraordinary mentorship of people like Dr. Ray Lombra, Dr. Paul Cohen, Vance McCullough and others who bailed me out of many a jam.

Perhaps it was my years as a coach that did help develop (too often due to trial and error) the skills needed to be a visionary and decision-maker (or as some might describe, an instigator and a bull in a china shop).  With every new season and every new weekend you were making decisions that impacted a student-athlete, their parents, their social network and your relationship with their high school and amateur coach for future recruiting relationships.

At the start of a new season you had 70-90 kids trying out for 28-30 roster spots.  Then every week for 20 weekends you had to post a dress list and essentially layoff eight-to-10 players for that game, all of whom believed they should be in the lineup. The trick was that you had to keep them positive and improving because the following night, or next weekend, or even the next season, you were going to depend on them to make a difference.

To be a coach you also had to get used to rejection, as well. You may evaluate hundreds of prospects each year and of the 50 or so kids you and the staff identified as legitimate prospects, you would be fortunate to get five-to-eight that would actually end up on your team.  You heard “no” a lot.

It's harder now more than ever in our instantaneous electronic world, where everyone's a critic and could do it better than the other person without really understanding the pressures and mitigating circumstances that lead to hard and tough decisions sometimes needing to be made in the blink of an eye.

Coach Joe Paterno's father told him to make an impact.  My father told me that no matter what I wanted to be, whether a doctor or ditch-digger, work hard to be the best one.

It's not easy to be the “revolutionary” and expose yourself to critics and even ridicule for having bold new ideas.  Every successful person will tell you that they had many setbacks and failures before they achieved their goals and dreams.  We live in a world today where people are so afraid to make a mistake that they simply won't rock the boat.  So they take the easy way out and in too many cases look back with regret for never having stretched themselves, pushed the envelope or taken the road less traveled, which makes all the difference.

I won't win many popularity contests and I know I rub a lot of people the wrong way at times because of my passion, intensity and persistence. We are each given gifts (or a curse), and one of mine seems to be to make waves and to be a change agent.

But I have also failed a lot. I make a lot of mistakes. I have used poor judgment at times and have learned the hard way that I am not indispensable (no one truly is). I create conflict and I push people to their limits, and at times I push too far.

But that is who I am. I am proud to be a "revolutionary." I am a dreamer who tries his best to make positive contributions and sometimes falls flat on his face in that attempt. But I was always taught by my parents, coaches and mentors to get back up and get back in the game. I have that 'put me in Coach' mentality in my DNA.

So while you may not always like me or my ideas, I hope you will understand that my motivations are based upon improving some part of the world that I can impact in a positive way.  I am not about money or material things. I am about relationships and trying to create positive memories.  It jazzes me that when I see my former players, that they hug me and want to tell me about what’s happening in their lives and that they want to give back to the program any way they can to make it better.  Many of them are a lot smarter than me so trust me, I listen to them.

My daughter loves to make fun of me because I use coach-speak and a lot of locker room sayings to make a point. I use phrases like "for the good of the order", "it's amazing what gets accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit", "create your own path", "it's me and you against the world, when do we attack!" and "I've always wanted to fight a desperate battle against incredible odds."

So yes, I am a dreamer. I make waves. I push people out of their comfort zones and I want to help others to become better.

You can call me a lot of things (and trust me, many have), you can laugh at me and you can tell me I ain't the brightest bulb on the tree (but hey, I already know that).  But don't call me boring, or vanilla or afraid to take a chance.  You may not always agree with me, but I hope you will respect me for trying to be a difference maker and for thinking outside the box. 

So be brave, take a chance, and make that change that will make a positive difference in your life and that of others.  But do it for the good of the order and not for selfish purposes.  People eventually recognize those who have been the real difference makers. 

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies "Patton” is at the very end of the movie when George C. Scott describes a scene of a Roman General returning from victory to a tumultuous parade. While riding in his chariot, a slave holding a golden crown above his head whispers in his ear a warning: "that all glory is fleeting."

For me, it’s not about accolades and material rewards. It’s sometimes painful and requires tremendous fortitude to be a “revolutionary.”

One of these days I may actually mellow enough to be the “evolutionary” as well.  But until then you can probably count on me to continue to live by two of favorite sayings: If you don’t make waves you’ll drown and let’s turn a “no, because into a yes, if.”

By the way, if you happen to be driving by the Pegula Ice Arena site on University Drive across from the BJC and hear a couple of explosions and feel the ground shake, there is no need to worry.

That’s just another “revolutionary” project that only took 34 years to come to fruition.



From ice hockey to Intercollegiate Athletics and Smeal, JoeBa has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities. Battista was an influential player in the effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley. He is now Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Buffalo Sabres.
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