Terry Pegula really wanted a new hockey arena at Penn State — that much was made clear by his $102 million gift to construct a new facility. But it would be impossible for Pegula to want it as much as Joe Battista, the man who has clung to his dream of a Division I hockey team at Penn State with a state-of-the-art arena since he put on his Icers jersey in 1978.
Battista, an associate athletic director, was drawn to the university 35 years ago because of a rumor that Penn State would have a huge, new hockey arena. Yeah, the school’s engineering program also impressed him, but man he thought it would it be cool to skate in a new arena.
After the economy took a turn for the worse, plans for the 4,500-seat ice complex spearheaded by Philip and Barbara Greenberg were no longer a realistic possibility. So for Battista’s first two and a half years, home games were played about two hours away in Mechanicsburg and practices were held, weather permitting, on a temporary outdoor rink.
The Greenberg Ice Pavilion eventually opened in January 1981, but it was much smaller than the original design. Battista played for a year and a half at the new rink, capable of seating only 1,050 plus standing room.
For the next three decades, Battista wanted two things for Penn State: A new arena and Division I hockey. Once the Pegula Ice Arena opens next month across from the Bryce Jordan Center, both of those dreams once thought of as insurmountable will come true
“I always believed in my heart that the state needed its flagship university to sponsor big time college hockey,” Battista said. “I was so inspired by the 1980 US Olympic team’s ‘Miracle on Ice’ gold medal win that the goal of achieving NCAA Division I status became our dream.“
His love for hockey has been the driving force for his efforts. It all started when he was given a free hockey stick during a Pittsburgh Penguins game at age 10. The associate athletic director jokes that his father called the stick the most expensive “free” item he ever received because from that point on, Battista couldn’t turn away from the high-priced sport
After a stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he returned to his alma mater in 1987 to coach the Penn State club team known as the Icers, a position he held until 2006. It was a decorated tenure, as Batista won six American College Hockey Association national titles along the way.
It looked like the club hockey team would become a charter member of what is known today as the Atlantic Hockey conference in the early 90s. Those plans had to be put on hold after Penn State joined the Big Ten.
Over the next decade, Battista asked administrators to help with a private-public funding plan for a varsity team and new arena. The Greenberg Ice Pavilion was in need of major renovations, by Battista’s estimation it would cost between $10 to $12 million.
“I felt like putting that kind of money into the current rink just didn’t seem right,” Battista said. “I worked on several possibilities like a joint public-private joint venture rebuild interest locally especially as the Penguins and Flyers were both experiencing renewed successes. The timing just seemed right.”
What Penn State needed was money — more than donors or the university had to offer. On top of the costs for a new arena, Penn State would need to fund a women’s team because of Title IX requirements.
Battista, the ultimate dreamer, was beginning to lose hope.
Even though he didn’t have a Division I hockey team yet, he was at the helm of a winning machine — and that was enough to attract some big names, including Pegula.
Battista said his patience and persistence began to wear out in 2006, his final season as a coach for the Icers. From there, he was hired as the director of the Nittany Lion Club, a fundraising organization that supports athletics.
“It turned out to be the best move for me personally and professionally and allows me the time and resources to really get to know the Pegulas,” he said.
Pegula called Battista at his home in 2005, asking why Penn State didn’t have a Division I hockey program. At this point, Battista didn’t recognize Pegula’s name but agreed to meet for dinner.
When Battista mentioned how many millions he believed it would cost to fund a new arena, Pegula didn’t look alarmed. Battista recalls Pegula merely looking at him and saying “I think I can do that.”
Battista was in disbelief at first. He said he thought someone was playing a cruel gag on him until he went home and Googled Pegula’s name. Finally after years of striving toward this goal, it looks like Battista’s dream was within reach. But he was going to have to wait a little longer.
Pegula planned to sell East Resources, one of the largest private oil and gas companies in the country. Because of problems with the economy, it wasn’t until 2010 when he was able to sell it, for a cool $4.7 billion.
With that, Pegula was able to put an $88 million donation on the table, eventually adding another $14 million to make his gift to Penn State an unbelievable $102 million. And yet, there were times when Battista didn’t believe it would ever happen.
But the bad luck the Penn State hockey program had endured for decades is gone now — the 200,000 square foot, 6,000 seat Pegula Ice Arena a pillar to Battista and his dream.
Battista estimates he will have about 10,000 thoughts running through his head during the season opener, which he expects to be a full house. He said he hopes he can savor the moment for at least part of the big day.
To Battista, the opening of the highly anticipated Pegula Ice Arena is only the beginning of a dynasty of great hockey coming to Penn State. The future will be “as wildly successful as myself and other passionate hockey enthusiasts have always predicted it could be,” he said.
“Hockey Valley isn’t just a slogan, it symbolizes all the struggles we have overcome and the exciting future that awaits,” Battista said.
And what a future it will be.