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The Coolest Place in Town: Pegula Ice Arena is about much more than Penn State hockey

by on February 01, 2019 10:29 AM

Every four years, people around the country fall in love with ice sports such as figure skating, hockey, and curling during the Winter Olympics, and then most seem to forget about them a few weeks later.

That is no longer the case in “Hockey Valley,” where the Pegula Ice Arena has turned this town into a place where skating and hockey practices are bustling year-round and the sports are a big part of the public conversation during the winter months.

It is easy to see why, as Nittany Lions’ games at Pegula are a high-speed sight to behold with talented student-athletes and rowdy fans cheering them on. It is one of the hottest tickets in town in the coolest building on campus.

And for those who are inspired to do more than cheer and actually get on the ice, Pegula is seemingly busy around the clock with activities for students and townies alike on two state-of-the-art rinks. So, if you are looking for fun, strap on those skates – for some activities, you won’t even need them – and get on over to Pegula, where you will find something cool to do all year-round.

‘A resource for everybody’

In the middle of a conversation on the community rink, Beth Eckert twirls around on her skates beautifully and then continues talking as if nothing spectacular has happened. She has been skating since she was 4 years old, and has been a part of the Penn State figure-skating community since the 1990s, when she started taking lessons as an adult. She says that when she used to tell people that she was a figure skater, they would ask where there was even a rink in town.

“But since Pegula was built, that is no longer the case. Everybody knows about this place, and it has brought a lot of excitement,” says Eckert.

Opened in 2013, after an $88 million donation from namesakes Terry and Kim Pegula, the state-of-the-art arena replaced the old Greeberg Ice Pavilion and allowed Penn State to enter the world of NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey after years as club sports. The teams took off like a slap shot, and the excitement has only grown as the men’s team has seen sustained success under coach Guy Gadowsky. But the arena also has opened up skating opportunities for the whole community.

“When Mr. Pegula made his donation, it was with the whole community in mind,” says Pegula operations manager Deb Campbell. “He wanted it to be a resource not only for the hockey teams, but for everybody.”

Campbell, also a “hockey mom,” is in charge of the events at Pegula year-round, and with two rinks, event rooms, graduations, and birthday parties, there is a lot going on. Last year there was even a wedding on the varsity ice, with the bride and groom wearing skates as they said their vows.

Penn State Club Curling, one of three curling clubs in town, started when members were inspired by the 2018 Winter Olympics. In that short time, it has grown into the largest curling club at the collegiate level, with more than 50 members and more than 100 interested participants, says team member Nichole Kanady.

And the fun of curling will soon be open to anyone who wants to try it, as the facility is looking to add open curling times in its schedule.

The rinks are available to rent for hockey, skating, or broomball, which sounds like about the most fun thing on ice for people without skating skills. In broomball, players slide around in sneakers and play hockey with broom-like sticks. Goal!

“And a little-known secret is during the hot summer months, this is the coolest place in town,” says Campbell, as the facility is open with programs and there are often smaller crowds as students are away and ice sports are not on everybody’s mind.

Hockey family

Youth hockey in State College has grown exponentially since Pegula opened, and it’s no wonder, says hockey director Ryan Patrick. The Nittany Lion Development Program started in 2014 with 45 kids on the ice. By last spring, the program had grown to more than 150 youths and it keeps getting bigger. Patrick said that the number of youths in the Nittany Valley Youth Hockey Association has doubled in that time.

“Kids come to the Penn State games with their families and they have fun in this great atmosphere and want to try it,” says Patrick. He’s been involved with hockey his whole life and at Penn State since 2014. He loves the game and works to make sure that all kids who want to try it get a chance, including his daughter, Molly, and son, Declan.

Because the cost of equipment is a big investment, Pegula offers a few days where kids can come and try the sport at no cost, to see if it something they want to take up.

“If a kid wants to get out on the ice, we are going to do our best to make it happen,” says Patrick.

There are many new initiatives within USA Hockey focusing on keeping the game fun and safe for the kids, he says. Youths can participate in developmental lessons and then work their way to become part of the travel teams with the Nittany Valley Youth Hockey Association, and on to the State College High School Hockey Association as they get older.

Putting on pads seems to be half the battle for the little kiddos, taking almost as long as their time on the ice. But once they get on the ice, it is big smiles from the kids and the parents watching from behind the boards.

“It is a lot of work, but it is worth it,” Colleen Patrick says. She did not grow up in a hockey family, but enjoys the role of being a hockey mom and seeing the joy on her kids’ faces. Two-year-old Sean is building up his confidence on the ice and even Colleen has promised to strap on some skates soon to see what the fun is all about.

Ryan Patrick says it is great to see girls such as Molly inspired to get on the ice by the Penn State women’s team, and that teams at all levels get the support of the whole hockey community at Penn State, with coaches and players often helping in youth development.

Zen place

Jess McCormick says the sound of the skate blade cutting through the ice is contagious. When she talks about the thrill of skating, it is easy to see that she loves it. Growing up in Quebec, skating was a part of life, a part of the Canadian culture.

“Pretty much every little girl skated and every little boy played hockey. Football is an American thing; we had skating,” McCormick says. After years of skating in competitions and teaching, she is now director of figure skating at Pegula, and she loves how all the programs work together to teach skating.

Attendance at the Learn to Skate program classes has risen more than 40 percent since 2015, to 915 in 2017-18. McCormick says many adult men come so they can learn to skate with their kids who are getting into hockey.

Figure-skating students of all ages and levels practice at the arena, gliding on the ice with grace and confidence.

The Penn State Figure Skating club team has doubled in size over the past four years to 49 members, says McCormick, and is hosting a regional competition March 1-3 that is free for the community to attend.

On April 14, figure skaters from the area – and special guests – will put on their annual spring performance, showing off their skills for the community.

Gary Mitchell, president of the Nittany Valley Figure Skating Club, calls skating his Zen-like place, where he can let go of the issues of the day and focus on one thing. Mitchell, a retiree, says he started taking lessons as an adult with his wife about 25 years ago. Now he performs along with Eckhert and other adults in the fall and spring shows at Pegula, and loves the figure-skating community.

Mitchell comes often to the “coffee club” skating time for adults on weekday mornings, where they can skate and enjoy the company of fellow skaters. The session is home to both experienced skaters and beginners, all of whom enjoy a warming cup of coffee afterward.

Hockey for all

There are many hockey leagues for Penn State students that run throughout the school year. The coed Nittany Hockey League gives adults looking for exercise, competition, and camaraderie a chance to get out on the ice. 

League president Ed McCash says that because hockey players are taught good skills and sportsmanship, the violence that used to be associated with the sport is fading away. That has carried over into the adult league, where no longer are folks coming to the arena looking to prove who the toughest person on the ice is.

“It’s not like the movie Slap Shot … or the Broad Street Bullies (as the Philadelphia Flyers were once known). We are playing the game, having fun. You know, we all want to get up and go to work in the morning,” says McCash, who noted that the gliding nature of skating is easier on joints than sports such as basketball.

The league plays through the year with a few breaks and is open to adults who can skate, want to play hockey, and have a good team attitude, he says.

Every time Cindy Wolf heads out on the varsity rink with the Happy Valley Beavers, a special hockey team for those with developmental disabilities, she gets a little emotional. To see her two children play on the very ice on which the Nittany Lions skate means a lot to her and her teams. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that they had no place to play.

“There just was no ice time before Pegula,” says Wolf.

“For some, it starts with just putting on the pads, and for those with sensory issues, that can be a lot. … Later we get out on the ice … there is often something calming for them about being on the cool ice,” says Wolf. “To see these athletes figure it out and learn to pass to each other and cheer for each other, it is so wonderful.”

The team has grown from its inception in 2014 and now shares ice time and resources with the Happy Valley Sled Hockey Team for people with physical disabilities. Sled hockey allows players to glide on a sled and use a stick to propel them and to handle the puck.

‘King of the Rink’

Hodge Barton glides over the ice, twirling past first-time skaters and speeding kids on hockey skates during open sessions at the community ice center. If someone is struggling, the former State College Area School District teacher offers a few pointers to help them out, and he is patient as they learn the thing he has loved since he was a kid. When Barton first saw the ice in Pegula, he was amazed.

“I felt like I died and went to heaven,” he says.

Barton grew up in Pottstown, one of nine children, and skating on local rivers and ponds in the winter was free entertainment for him and his siblings, and he loved it.

Eventually, he came to Penn State 1972 and hasn’t looked back. He had to give up other sports after a few knee injuries, but skating still worked as the gliding doesn’t bother his knees.

Now 72, Barton is out on the ice six to seven hours a week, and is glad to have Pegula to call home. Open skate times allow anyone a chance to get on the ice. Skates are available to rent and there are staff on the ice to keep things from getting to out of hand.

The atmosphere is fun, with pop music and kids of all ages smiling and laughing, and you might just get some pointers from the “King of the Rink” himself.

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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