The memory is vague, but it’s there. It was 2012 and I was fishing for loose change in my pocket as I walked around trying to figure out where the hell Penn State’s rink actually was or if it even existed at all. Was I a clueless freshman or was the Greenberg Ice Pavilion really that inconspicuous? That detail is lost to history.
I handed my 10 dollar (!) ticket over and got as comfortable as I could in the stands. To be honest, the 1,300ish-seat rink resembled my high school’s — Tommy Olczyk describes it better than I could. I didn’t care, though. I didn’t show up for a glamorous spectacle. I just wanted to watch some hockey.
My freshman year at Penn State was beyond confusing. I come from a Boston suburb where everyone cares about the Bruins, the Patriots, the Sox…and college hockey. No one cares about college football. It’s a joke. Imagine my culture shock when I came to Penn State the year after the Sandusky scandal. It felt like everyone was speaking a different language. The nation did not understand Penn Staters, Penn Staters were furious with the nation, and I had no idea what to think. I was scared and lonely. But I loved hockey.
I remember calling my dad right after the game, ecstatic I had something to talk about that wasn’t Joe Paterno or failing an exam. “Dad, Casey Bailey is going to be someone in the hockey world someday.”
He knows now. So does the NHL.
The story is almost unbelievable. It’s a story of shooting till something sticks. It’s Terry Pegula’s belief in a club hockey team and Guy Gadowsky’s knack for rebuilding. It’s about the Roar Zone, Timber, and million-goalie rotations. There’s a chapter for Bailey, Olczyk, David Goodwin, Andrew Sturtz, and every single player on the ice. All of this and then some brings Penn State hockey from club team to No. 10 in the nation. This was never luck or an accident.
Five years later as a super senior, there’s no place I’d rather be than Pegula Ice Arena on Fridays and Saturdays. Soaking in the Roar Zone’s tireless chirps and watching the foundation built in Greenberg turn into national prominence is worth it. It’s worth missing every pregame in the world, it’s worth the heart attack of nearly absorbing a puck to the face, and it’s worth the fact that I have to stick my head in a freezer after every game because my homeostasis is definitely not normal anymore. Penn State hockey gave me something I can never repay it. Pegula feels like home, and I’ll never forget Greenberg for helping that lost freshman from Boston feel normal.
I know it’s not just me. To see the same people bickering in Flyers and Penguins jerseys around campus come together in the Roar Zone feels right. The Nittany Lions are giving a market starved for hockey more than most anticipated. Gadowsky might get mad at this one, but it feels surreal refreshing the USCHO poll every monday until Penn State moves up again. I know it doesn’t matter, especially before Big Ten play…but it does. And a glance at my Twitter feed flooded with others doing the same shows me how far the program has come. This ranking doesn’t mean much tangibly, but it represents a team that stared expectations in the face and decided it wanted more. As I watch the Roar Zone intimidate every goalie in the league, I just hope it never forgets how this all started: ugly, with a lot of character (as Olczyk put it).
The media doesn’t forget — lately there’ve been press room rumblings of what “Penn State hockey” means. Does it change a little bit every time Sturtz nets another gorgeous highlight-reeler or when Peyton Jones starts in net for the entire series? Sure, a little, but if the shot count and Timber are any indication, the brand will always have a little Greenberg grit.
Penn State hockey is more than just a team for me. In a way, it reflects what the American dream used to be: Just work hard, Goddammit. Keep shooting at the net and something’s bound to happen. Keep going even though it’s 5-on-3 hockey and you probably ran out of oxygen. Keep winning even though Bailey’s gone. Practice hard no matter who your opponent is this week. Pegula and the Roar Zone make it easier, but you just can’t go from club to top 10 in five years without the fundamentals. We’re all witness to unprecedented success built on pure determination.
I was disappointed in Friday night’s first period against Alaska-Anchorage, and so was Gadowsky. Penn State pulled off a 6-3 win. It’s such a strange juxtaposition of expectations. I’ll never forget how it felt to just shut off my brain and shut out everyone’s talk of the Sandusky scandal my first night in Greenberg. I was relieved to just have a hockey team to cheer on — everyone expects that team to win big these days. Now that I’m up in the press box, there’s no cheering allowed. I’ll let you in on a little secret, though: The lost girl from freshman year found herself, but she hasn’t forgotten who helped her do that. Smiling’s allowed in the press box.