ESPN Broadcaster Enjoys First Visits to Happy Valley
Famed ESPN broadcaster and hockey guru John Buccigross recently visited State College on consecutive weekends to cover a few Penn State men's ice hockey games.
Even though he was born in Pittsburgh, spent the early part of his childhood in Indiana, Pa. and had watched minor leagues games in Johnstown, it was the first time Buccigross had visited Penn State.
In addition to saying that Penn State students were very hospitable at Café 210 West and pointing out that Damon's Grill served good mozzarella sticks, he had plenty of other thoughts about Penn State ice hockey, the Pegula Ice Arena and how his father, a Boston Bruins fan who didn't wear a mask as a high school goalie, influenced his lifelong passion for hockey.
CENTRE COUNTY GAZETTE: I read that your recent trip to State College was the first you had visited Penn State. What were your impressions as you arrived into town and saw the campus?
JOHN BUCCIGROSS: Pennsylvania is a beautiful state. I was born in Pittsburgh and lived in Indiana, Pa., until I was 11, and then I moved to Ohio, in Steubenville. My dad grew up in Boston and he took his two weeks vacation every year and we drove to Boston, from first, Indiana, and then Steubenville, so I've driven across Route 80 pretty much every year of my life since I was 2.
And then even after college, I would drive back to see friends in Ohio and go to Pittsburgh, so it's a road I've driven hundreds of times, but just never stopped at Penn State, so it's kind of neat.
Actually, since I-99 was built, I go that way when I go to Pittsburgh now, so the last five or six years, I've driven by Penn State, but again, just didn't have a reason to stop, but it was great to finally be here and I was very impressed by the community; about what I thought it would be. Indiana, Pa. was a little college town with IUP, so I get it, and it felt like home and it felt like it made sense.
CCG: How much had you heard about the Pegula Ice Arena beforehand and what were your impressions of the facility after arriving and taking a look around?
JB: Just watching games on TV, obviously everybody was raving about it and so I had seen the shots, the scenes and the announcers talking about it and the intermission stories they did on it and the different interviews they did with people and so they talked it up pretty big, so I had pretty high expectations. It's like when you go to a movie where you have high expectations, usually you're disappointed, but they were met, for sure.
CCG: Were there any features that surprised you or especially impressed you, maybe something you weren't expecting to see at a college arena?
JB: That's a good question. I don't think so, it's just the student section was so wonderfully done. I've seen other student sections that are good but it was so nice and vertical, it goes right to the ceiling. The urinals are very wide, that was really quite surprising, so that was nice. The bathrooms are gigantic; you could play mini-sticks in the bathroom.
The concourses are really nice and big; I've been to other college hockey rinks, and they're nice but the concourses are small, bathrooms are small. Even these chairs right here (reclines in chair in media room), they're so comfortable, they recline a little bit, very nice.
A lot of the rinks nowadays, they have good jumbotrons, they have comfortable seating, the 5,000-6,000 seat arenas are a perfect size for hockey and those schools that play in the bigger ones, it's just not quite the same. .... Pegula is going to cause a lot of arena envy, especially for, I think, Ohio State is the one place I see. ... I think Ohio State's going to see this and say, "We need to have an on-campus arena like Pegula," and I think you'll see that because of this place.
CCG: Calling a game at Pegula, what made the game atmosphere unique and separate from other arenas?
JB: It's all theirs, from top to bottom, the name they have up there is cool, "The Roar Zone." I love how they put the platform for the cheerleaders and the band's right behind, it's very organized, yet organic at the same time and just the enthusiasm they have for the team, despite the poor record, is really pretty cool.
There's a bit of innocence to it, and I hope it's always there and it should be, because that's what's great about college. You have new kids every year and they're going to see this and that junior in high school or that senior in high school will say, "I want to go to Penn State and be a part of that." He likes hockey, he might not play, but he wants to be a part of that.
And they talk about giving athletes tours and they have their days. If I were giving a tour to a student who was going to be in turf management or the meteorology department, I'd bring him to a hockey game and say part of that experience is to go in that Roar Zone. I would make that — whether you send them a DVD or you bring them in person — if a kid's on a tour today, they should bring them to a game and show them the Roar Zone, even if they just pop in and then pop out as part of the tour, because that would be a good sell.
CCG: The team's record is a little deceptive in that Penn State has been in so many close games. What is it that tells you the team's competitive and will continue to improve?
JB: They're going to get better and better players. To be right in the middle of western Pennsylvania, eastern Pennsylvania, a little bit of New Jersey and of course underneath the great western New York hockey scene. Right in the middle of that is going to be good because it'll be easier for those kids to visit. But then also they'll draw on some Canadians, too, with Guy and his pipeline of players. ... They're going to get some high-end talent, soon.
CCG: I think before this season, I was like a lot of other hockey fans in the area. I followed the Penn State teams and occasionally watched the NHL, but now I have a new appreciation for hockey. Is that somewhat indicative of what's happening across the national landscape of college hockey? Are you noticing any trends?
JB: Well, obviously television drives everything. And once NBC Sports Networking started showing games, because they don't have a strong inventory of professional sports, CBS Sports Network, those are two smaller entities, they'll show games.
And then of course you have the Big Ten Network come along. The Big Ten, I think, is going to have a great ripple effect for all of college hockey, not only on the ice but also with television, because now the Big Ten Network is showing high-quality games. So suddenly ESPN gets in the game this year and so we're showing Big Ten games now. You've never had more high-quality broadcasts going on than you do now, and no better way to get the word out.
CCG: Looking into the future, do you expect the Big Ten Conference to look differently in the next three to five years, possibly with more teams?
JB: They'd love to. Unfortunately, you need that angel donor like Terry Pegula to come along and drop $100 million for a rink and for scholarships, but it's not easy. I'm sure they would love for Northwestern or Illinois, which makes sense in that state that's produced really great hockey players; a Nebraska, that has a bit of a history. I'm sure they would love it, the more, the merrier. I'm sure they would hope in three to five years, they would add at least one and hopefully two. To get up to eight, that would be a little stronger.
CCG: I recently spoke with Penn State's women's coach Josh Brandwene, and he said hockey became a lifelong passion for him very early in his life. Was it the same way for you?
JB: Yeah, my dad was originally from Boston, and he played high school hockey. He was a goalie who didn't wear a mask back in the day. When he was a young man and I was a young child, the Bruins were really good, and that was his boyhood team and they were winning Stanley Cups in the early 70s, so that always put an inedible experience on me.
So yeah, hockey's always been a major four for me. Whatever season it was, that was my favorite sport. I collected hockey cards, played hockey, watched hockey on TV. My dad would take us to games in Pittsburgh a couple times a year, some minor league games in Johnstown, where "Slap Shot" was filmed. For a lot of people, it's a fringy, freakish sport, but for me, it was just like the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. It was just a natural favorite sport for me.
CCG: Anything else about your visit that you'll remember?
JB: I understand Pennsylvania pretty well, and the landscape, and the topography and the people and had a great time at the café. 2-on-1, was it?
CCG: Café 210?
JB: Yeah, Café 210. I had a great night there, the kids were great. Damon's last night, mozzarella sticks were good. The college towns are the best towns. I like them all, and so I fit right into a place like this.