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NHL Players, Coaches Have Eyes on Penn State

on October 03, 2010 2:00 PM

Despite having to wait for the 2012-13 season to drop the puck, the Penn State hockey community is awash in excitement and anticipation. But they aren’t the only ones following the birth of a major Division I hockey program.

The $88 million gift from Terrence M. and Kim Pegula (the largest private donation in Penn State history) will be instrumental in establishing a state-of-the-art arena and NCAA Division I teams for men and women. The National Hockey League has taken notice, and the players and teams from Pennsylvania are watching with a keen eye.

Prior to the Sept. 17 announcement, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden sat next to the donors at the Penguins’ Summer Sticks charity golf outing.

“Terry was actually going the next morning to make the announcement,” Reirden said. “I had discussed my beliefs in college hockey and how fortunate we are to have someone like him to be able to kick off major Division I college hockey in Pennsylvania.”

For the Growth of the Sport

For years, the only Division I hockey program in Pennsylvania has been Robert Morris, and the Pittsburgh team hasn't made much noise at the collegiate game’s highest level.

When Penn State finally joins them, it has the opportunity to make an impact on both the Atlantic region and the national scale.

The addition of any Division I program in college hockey is beneficial for all growth of amateur hockey, Reirden said. But with the lack of teams in the area, the Penguins coach thinks the addition of Penn State will benefit hockey in the entire East Coast.

When Philadelphia native and Penguins hopeful Eric Tangradi was a young prospect, there were no local teams that inspired kids to play somewhere, he said.

But Penn State’s program could help change that.

“When I was growing up, there weren’t many options,” he said. “Penn State, being a Division I program, will definitely help kids and help teams in the area to develop players and hopefully strive kids to want to play Division I hockey.”

That lack of direction and exposure to the college game is part of what factored into Tangradi’s decision to play major junior hockey for the Ontario Hockey League, he said.

However, the development of Penn State’s program could help prevent some of the area’s top players from leaving for Canadian major juniors or other top NCAA programs, said Tangradi, who spent most of the 2009-10 season with the Penguins AHL affiliate.

Reirden echoed Tangradi’s belief in the potential benefits for regional hockey.

“It’s a program with the name of Penn State,” said Reirden, who both played and coached at Bowling Green State University. “I think the sky is the limit in terms of how this could put a whole different spin on college hockey. As a hockey fan, I’m really excited, but as a former player and college coach, I think it’s great for hockey.”

The hope, according to Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk, is that the region will start developing players who grow up dreaming of playing collegiate hockey in State College.

“You get a lot of kids from around Michigan and Minnesota whose dream is to play for the University of Michigan or the University of Minnesota hockey team,” he said. “Now we don’t really have that big-name school in this area, but to have a Penn State come along and be able to do that, it’ll definitely give people something to shoot for and it’ll help grow hockey in this area for sure.”

Building a Team from the Ground Up

The checklist is short but the assignments are long.

The arena needs to be built, a coach needs to be found, and, most important, the players need to be recruited.

The recruitment of the top players in college hockey starts as early as the age of 15 and sometimes younger, Reirden said.

As a result, Penn State will have to play catch up in the chase for the finest young players. While elite prospects may initially be hard to come by, it will take a special breed of recruits who can come in and make the program their own, Tangradi said.

“Personally, I would take pride in being in the first class of Penn State [hockey players],” he said. “I think it would be extremely special to be a freshman coming into a new Division I program and being able to play four years and really know you were a part of something special.”

Reirden is more than familiar with what lures a hockey player to a collegiate team.

The facilities and the quality of the education players are going to receive in the classroom are equally important in the recruiting process, he said.

“In those two situations, Penn State has certainly put themselves in a great spot to have success, because that’s what the kids look for today—and the parents, as well,” he said.

Another major factor, especially at a developing program, is the opportunity to play early and mature as a young player.

Early playing time at Bowling Green was part of the reason Reirden attended the school, he said.

That very opportunity will be present for the first group of Nittany Lion players, a fact that could draw players from across the nation, Toronto Maple Leafs center Christian Hanson said.

“For a lot of kids, it’s where will be the best opportunity for them to develop as a player and move on,” Hanson said. “I think if Penn State has the ability to offer that to kids, then regardless of where they are from, it’s going to be a program they are looking at.”

Hanson, a Pittsburgh native, played four years of Division I hockey at Notre Dame. But had Penn State been a competitive program at the time, he “absolutely” would have considered it, he said.

Van Riemsdyk, a Middletown, N.J., native and former New Hampshire Wildcat, shared that sentiment.

“[Penn State] is pretty intriguing with the size of the campus and it’s got a pretty good reputation,” he said. “It would’ve been a place that I probably would’ve considered and at least taken a look at.”

Changing the Landscape of College Hockey

Penn State’s announcement to join the Division I ranks of college hockey make it the sixth Big Ten school with a men’s program, but there is no Big Ten hockey conference.

At least not yet.

Joining Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), and Wisconsin and Minnesota of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), Penn State represents the final piece of the puzzle, as six schools are required to form a hockey conference.

While the team plans to play its first two seasons as an independent, rumors are already swirling as to whether the Nittany Lions will join a pre-existing conference or work with the other Big Ten programs to align with a new Big Ten hockey conference.

For many years, hockey traditionalists have speculated that a Big Ten conference could negatively impact the college game.

In the long run, Hanson said he thinks a Big Ten conference could work for college hockey, but not right away.

“You look at college hockey as opposed to college football,” he said. “Football teams only play 12 games a season. They play each other once. In college hockey, you have a 32-game regular season schedule, plus all the out of conference games.

“So if you’re to have a strictly Big Ten conference with six teams and you’re trying to play a 30-game conference schedule, you’d be playing the other teams in your conference six times and I think that’s quite a bit right out of the gate.”

If a few more teams from the Big Ten were to establish Division I hockey programs, a Big Ten conference would be more viable, Hanson said.

Should that happen, it would be interesting to see how it all shakes out, van Riemsdyk said.

“The Big Ten having its own conference would be pretty good and it might help some other teams fall into place,” he said. “Maybe if teams leave for the Big Ten conference, it’ll open the door for other teams to join the CCHA or WCHA.”

While the prospect of a Big Ten conference might be appealing, Penn State’s ultimate conference affiliation shouldn’t affect a potential prospect’s decision.

“Because growing up here, you’re a Nittany Lion fan and now you have the chance to play hockey for them,” he said. “It’s a great thing for hockey.”

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