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Penn State Men’s Hockey: Ready to Go, Nittany Lions Hopeful for Bounce-Back Season

If you take things all the way back to the 2019-20 season, it has been a long few years for Penn State men’s hockey. Things were more normal then, the Nittany Lions set to host an NCAA Regional in Allentown, a not-so-darkhorse favorite to make the Frozen Four with an outside chance a real national title dreams.

And then the world stopped. COVID-19 came roaring on through and everything changed.

For Penn State, the program’s most talented and deepest roster was sent to the winds. Players vented their frustration during the team meeting that the announcement was made. The tournament was not to be, the season was over, everything was done. It would hurt now and hurt in the future. Years later that moment has still taken its toll on Penn State hockey. Maybe not directly, but it was the moment that killed the program’s momentum. Everything had in one way or another gotten better each season. Things were always going up, and then they weren’t.

Of course, Penn State was always destined for things to not go swimmingly at some point. Every program has its ups and downs; it’s part of life and the NIttany Lions simply hadn’t been around long enough to experience them. Then as Penn State struggled to score during a truncated 2020-21 season and struggled to stay healthy — COVID going through the locker room — and as the team battled to find its identity through virtual meetings and split practices, it felt like the the program was miles from what it was just a year or two prior.

Last season was better in many ways, the first real bit of normal the program had experienced since 2019 and the first real season for a roster full of players that hadn’t been part of something normal in equally as long. But for better or worse, the Nittany Lions struggled to find their footing early in the season and struggled to find the back of the net all year long. For a program that had built itself up on the backs of goals and shooting and aggression, the punch was gone. Things felt normal, but that certainly wasn’t. And the why, that was the real challenge in need of an answer.

A 27-31-1 record was the result over that two year span. Some good, some bad, but mostly a longing for something better.

Months later there is optimism in the hallways of the Pegula Ice Arena again. More time has passed, more practices have taken place and there is more normal. Most importantly there is more culture.

Because somewhere in this strange 24+ month span, the Nittany Lions lost a little bit of what it once was, a little bit of that something special in the locker room, and for coach Guy Gadowsky the challenge was as much about building that back as it was anything that happened on the ice.

But now there is belief that the culture is back. At least there is excitement that it is and that having that secret sauce could be what a talented group needs to reintroduce the Nittany Lions to the nation. Sure they were picked to once again finish near the bottom of the Big Ten but that’s a tale as old as time. More importantly, Gadowsky thinks this team is ready, and being ready is half the battle.

“There is this feeling that we’re ready to go,” Gadowsky said last week. “And I think like I said, when we started last year, I don’t think we could honestly say that we were ready to go. We had way too much to do. We had too many questions and we didn’t have the trust in our culture yet. But I think now that we do. So there’s that feeling of let’s see what we can do now. There’s that feeling that is actually tangible, at least from the coaching standpoint. I don’t know if I can answer from the locker room but from a coaching standpoint, yes.”

As for the locker room, turn to captain Paul DeNaples who has seen it all in his time at Penn State. A quiet leader, DeNaples knows what he’s looking for out of his teammates, but his hope is that he won’t need to say much.

If a team can lead itself, it makes a leader’s job all the easier.

“I think the locker room is really good,” DeNaples said. “I think we’ve got a lot of maturity in there bringing in transfers, having a lot older guys. And I think our freshmen that just came in are very, very mature guys. They are the most mature class I’ve seen here at Penn State. So it’s really good. Everyone’s got the same mindset and goal. And I think we’re in a way better place than we were at the beginning of last season.”

Of course, like in most sports everyone is happy when the season has yet to begin. Every player is happy about things when they haven’t been scratched yet. Things are easy when you’re undefeated because the season hasn’t started yet.

All the same if you know what you’ve been missing, you know it when you see it.

“If you don’t have to say many things to them,” DeNaples said about how he knows this team is in the right place. “They show up and you’re not like ‘OK, do this, do this and do this.’ If you have guys that come in and do their work and know what needs to get done. They ask questions when they need to ask and not to assume things. Those are the guys that mature guys and we have a bunch of them.”

Penn State takes the ice at 7 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday in the first series of the season, games against Canisius, but also against the Nittany Lions themselves, looking to defeat the ghosts of their past and chart a new course toward the future.