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Happy Valley Hockey: An Excerpt from the New Book on the Rise of Penn State Hockey

by on November 22, 2017 1:17 PM sports editor Ben Jones has spent the past six years covering Penn State's hockey. It's a journey that saw the Nittany Lions go from a club team to the NCAA tournament and just a few goals from the Frozen Four. 

And now you can read about that journey. From an icy pond in the early 1900s to the first goal at Pegula Ice Arena and beyond. All of that and more can be found inside his book Happy Valley Hockey available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle apps and devices.

The following is an excerpt from the book.

.....On Saturday, night the intensity and the stakes were and even greater. If Penn State hockey was going to make the NCAA Tournament, it could happen in the next few hours. Fans were living and dying on each shot and pass. It wasn’t the playoffs, but it sure felt like it.

Penn State struck fast as Smirnov scored just 3:17 into the game and the Nittany Lions’ defense shut out the Gophers for the first period. Twenty minutes in the books, 40 to go for history. Then Goodwin made it 2-0 as Penn State continued to pound the puck on goal. In total, Penn State would finish the night with 45 shots to Minnesota’s 29. The game sat at 2-0 after two periods.

But as everyone in the building knew, Minnesota was far too good to assume the Gophers were down and out. Their fear was confirmed as Minnesota tied the game at 2-2, and the crowd went silent. But with just under two minutes play it looked as though destiny had come calling. Smirnov, who had become one of the best freshmen in the entire country, went hard to the net with the puck and was taken down from behind. The crowd was livid, and slowly but surely the referee pointed to the center of the ice. A penalty shot awaited.

Penn State had struggled at shootouts in the past, so ironically, if the Nittany Lions were going to punch an NCAA ticket that night, it would have to come from the one thing an explosive team wasn’t particularly good at.

Penn State’s bench was in a brief panic. Smirnov had just skated the length of the ice, and now would have to do it again, with the season on the end of his stick. Gadowsky offered to call a timeout to give his freshman a chance to rest, but Smirnov waved him off. By the time Smirnov got to the puck at center ice, a packed rink of just over 6,100 was silent. As he skated down the ice somehow it got even quieter. The seven seconds it took him to cover the length of the rink felt like seven hours for each and every fan in the building.

But as he calmly slipped the puck between the legs of Eric Schierhorn and into the back of the net, the building erupted with the loudest cheer in the short history of the program. The metal rafters shook, the glass rattled and Smirnov jumped straight into his teammates’ arms on the bench. Pandemonium at the rink. For the next minute and a half the crowd roared each time Penn State cleared the puck out of the defensive zone. The job seemed all but complete with four seconds remaining as the teams prepared for a faceoff in Penn State’s zone.

Later Gadowsky would say that his players did their job, but the one thing that could happen, did. Justin Kloos got the puck off the draw and fired it just under the crossbar past Jones with three seconds to play. The tie game crushed Penn State’s bench and sent the crowd into a very different kind of silence.

The game went go to overtime, and the heartbreak was total as Rem Pitlick beat Jones for the game winner three minutes later. A shell-shocked Penn State team skated off the ice as Minnesota celebrated its improbable win. The Gophers had been taken to task and and yet somehow sat at the end of the weekend with two wins and in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten Title.

After the fact, it was a matter of damage control. Heartbreaking losses late in the season can linger in the psyche of a team for far longer than usual. Gadowsky and his players insisted that it wouldn’t happen, but the concern amongst the coaching staff was real.

“That’s the type of game you’re going to see in the Big Ten Tournament,” Gadowsky said as he paced the locker room. “And if you get your heads up and look at it and how we get this much better you’re going to be a lot better for it. And the next time around we’re going to win that fucker.”

Down the hallway and hours later, Gadowsky was still troubled by the tying goal. And so he sent film of the last-second faceoff to Dallas Stars’ coach Ken Hitchcock. The two had become close during Gadowsky’s stay at Princeton thanks to an odd twist of fate. At the time Gadowsky’s staff was looking for a little extra help, and so on whim he called Hitchcock, then head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers to see if he had any staff to spare as the NHL waded through its lockout. “What if I came down?” Hitchcock said, he too without much to do, unable to legally work with his current team.

So Hitchcock did. The first time to a throng of media members; the result of which was Hitchcock sneaking into subsequent practices to avoid detection, advising almost quite literally in secret. When Princeton was on the road, Hitchcock would receive game tape and review it, offering up his insight just days later.

“I thought he’d be here for a week, and he was there the entire year,” Gadowsky said. “He’d go to at least one of our games a week, usually two. If he couldn’t make an away game, we’d send him the tapes. If I had any questions he’d come in hours before practice and just sit there. I’d shut the door and take the phone off the hook and just ask him every little question. It was an amazing learning experience as a young coach. It was phenomenal.”

In the wake of a defeat Gadowsky felt partially responsible for, he needed that guidance again. "Guy has become a tremendous student of the game,” Hitchcock said years earlier. “His best attribute is that he asks for help and asks the tough questions to get to the next level as a coach." With the Penn State film in his inbox, Hitchcock offered up his thoughts the very next day.

It was also a moment that would define Penn State in another way. The feeling inside the program was that Penn State had played well enough to win on two different occasions and had twice come away with late defeats. As the Big Ten Tournament closed in, even if it meant a harder road, coaches and players hoped for one final shot at the Gophers.

“It would be nice.” Sturtz would say with a smile.


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