In the grand scheme of Penn State hockey’s history, a 10-12 season that included an uncertain 0-5 start, an unscheduled COVID-19 break in the middle and a brief but entertaining end will be remembered as a thing that definitely happened and perhaps not much else.
After all, without fans at Pegula Ice Arena and games only occasionally making it to the TV [always on the radio though] one is reminded of trees falling in the forrest.
Of course the season did happen and it did count., Equally true, the questions yet to be answered coming off of that season are all too real for a program following up the worst season it has had in over half a decade. Whether or not this particular piece of trivia – the record – really matters is up for debate, but in the eyes of coach Guy Gadowsky the oddity of circumstances doesn’t negate the lessons learned along the way.
“I pouted for a long time and threw a lot of those experiences the pandemic bucket and saying that’s what it is,” Gadowsky – who was critical of himself all season – said earlier this week about the challenges he faced this year. “But the truth is after you sit and look at it, I could have been a lot more innovative, I could have figured things out to, to achieve what we had to achieve to coach the right way, and I didn’t.”
Gadowsky is perhaps a bit too hard on himself in this self-evaluation. The Nittany Lions did start 0-5, and while Penn State’s head coach may have felt he needed to do a better job at the helm, he was also replacing the vast majority of an incredibly deep and experienced team that had either graduated or gone pro following the conclusion of last year. In “pandemic sports” it was proven time and time again that teams with roster continuity and experience were playing far better than the ones who lacked those traits. Simply put, in a socially distant world, the teams that had already spent tons of time together were the ones finding ways to win. Most of those variables were out of Gadowsky’s control.
Penn State entered 2020-21 picked to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten and managed not to do so, playing pretty decent hockey right before COVID-19 issues within the program paused the season for nearly a month with an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament. It certainly could have been better but if there was ever a year for the program to have a down year, it may has well been the one nobody could see.
Nevertheless, Gadowsky – whose wife and daughter road out a portion of the pandemic in Canada – feels how he feels.
“I think [Director of Hockey Ops] Alex Dawes said, ‘You know the one thing – looking at all the issues that we had the one thing that would be the biggest negative is if we don’t learn from this.’ And I think he’s right and I think there was a long time where I just put everything in the pandemic bucket and was pouting but I have learned a lot, we’ll continue to evaluate and learn more […] We’re done pouting, we’re learning.”
The learning will come in handy this summer as Penn State looks to hit reset and wash the thoughts of 2020 away, in particular as Gadowsky and his staff look to replace the production of former captain Alex Limoges and talented forward Aarne Talvitie.
In turn Penn State finds itself in flux for a second-straight offseason, trying to negotiate a roster that struggled to score goals in 2020 [2.95 per game was 24th in the nation, almost two fewer goals per game than the year prior] but will now have to do so without two of its more consistent offensive weapons.
There are options to be had, Kevin Wall and the duo of Connors both McMenamin and MacEachern both seem poised to take on bigger and more consistent offensive roles as their careers move forward. In reality though it is a wait and see approach for Gadowsky and his staff. For a program that has spent much of the past few seasons knowing exactly what it has, the Nittany Lions find themselves in an interesting place, aware of who needs to make the next step, but uncertain of who actually will until the puck drops again.
“We are waiting,” Gadowsky said. “[…] there’s nothing guaranteed in this, we’ll see who puts in the work, not only physical work it’s mental work and it’s what kind of commitment you want to come back with and not only commitment to yourself as it as an athlete, but your commitment to this team. Because if the whole team is going in the right direction, boy, you get a lot of individuals that look good and and vice versa.”
“So a lot of it is questions, they’re going to be going to be honest for the coaching staff right now there are probably more questions than we’ve had in the past […] Yeah, we’re gonna wait, we are, I can’t put it any other way.”
The good news for Penn State, given a normal offseason and a normal lead up to a normal year, the Nittany Lions have been plenty good.
And while Gadowsky might hard on himself for how 2020 unfolded, it’s unlikely that pandemic-hockey will be an issue he will need to deal with again.
[Knocks on every piece of wood available]