Guy Gadowsky Ushering In New Era Of Penn State Hockey
By Doug Leeson and Sara Civian
Through the doors of the pristine Pegula Ice Arena sits a man who offers something money can’t buy.
As Joe Paterno famously said, “To teach an academic subject is certainly not easy, but compared to coaching, it is. We can say ‘two plus two is four’ to every kid and be sure that we are right. But in coaching, we have to literally get to the soul of the people we are dealing with.”
Coaches at Penn State are held to extremely high standards and are always in the limelight. Penn State hockey’s head coach Guy Gadowsky knows this, and in his fourth year at University Park, he’s already left an impact with his players, the program, the fans, and the community.
It’s easy to point to his performance as head coach as the key cog in the hockey program’s transformation from club to an NCAA Division 1 team with a winning record, but Gadowsky maintains that “Penn State deserves the credit.”
A smile spread across Gadowsky’s face as he cited the Roar Zone as a big part of why he came to Penn State. Having heard about the hockey team’s passionate student section and the school-spirited student body, he said he “had really high hopes [about the Roar Zone]… It exceeded every fantasy I had about having a student section that motivates you.”
“I think they’re a huge part of the success we’ve had here,” he continued. “They motivate [the team] almost more than anything I can do.”
The impact the student section has on Gadowsky extends to his family’s dinner table, where his children love to recite a popular Roar Zone chant. “At the the dinner table, my kids sing the ‘I wanna know why you suck so bad’ chant… so it’s nice to have my seven-year-old daughter serenade me with that at the dinner table,” he chuckled, but then continued on a more serious note.
“I don’t know if you’re gonna get student sections selling out in three minutes at other schools. It’s not just the student section, it’s the alumni, it’s the whole place, it’s just so great,” he said. “Never say never, but I think the power of Penn State is a big reason for why we’ve been able to be so successful so quickly.”
After sincerely and generously crediting staff members, his players, alumni, students, and countless others for Penn State hockey’s success, he finally felt comfortable discussing his own contributions.
Gadowsky attributed his beginnings in Alberta during the Wayne Gretzky era to the emphasis of offense so evident in his coaching style. “I grew up in Edmonton in the eighties, [the Oilers] were a very offensive team. We try to do things to score goals and I think this team has been a perfect example of that,” he said.
Before he was a coach, however, Gadowsky paid his dues out on the ice. He spent four years at Colorado College, and was the team’s captain his senior year. Soon after his college playing days were over, Gadowsky had the honor of representing his country in six international games. He scored three goals and three assists for the Canadian national team. Gadowsky knew at the time that he was part of a top-tier team. “It was high-end players with very cerebral coaches,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
His days wearing the Maple Leaf behind him, Gadowsky moved on to spend three seasons playing and then coaching in a less conventional outlet — the Roller Hockey International league. He played for the RHI’s San Jose Rhinos before he transitioned to coaching the Oklahoma Coyotes, later returning to the Rhinos. “It was held in NHL buildings, it was on ESPN, it was something I just thought I’d try to be a part of,” said Gadowsky of his endeavors.
While he had a great time playing on ESPN with the Rhinos and playing on an international scale with Team Canada, his favorite experience as a player was with the Prince Edward Island Senators in the 1994-95 season, where his desire to coach rather than play flourished.
“The coach was really courageous in how he tried to motivate the team win after win,” he recounted with a clear admiration.
At the age of 27, he already knew that he wanted to be a coach, and seeing how his own coach prepared his team for every game inspired Gadowsky to go after his goals.
After finishing his final season with the WCHL’s Fresno Falcons in 1996, Gadowsky hung up his skates for good and assumed his position behind the bench with the same team. He spent three years coaching the Falcons, earning a winning record each season. He left as the winningest coach in the program’s history.
Having gotten a taste of what the world of coaching is like, Gadowsky stepped up to the NCAA level as he coached the University of Alaska-Fairbanks from 1999 to 2004. His first experience coaching college student-athletes was a success, as he inherited a team with an 11-22-1 record, and in his third season at the helm, led his team to a 22-12-3 record. He earned his first conference coach of the year award in 2001 for the CCHA. Under Gadowsky, the University of Alaska Nanooks set school records for team grade point average, wins, and game attendance.
The next step in Gadowsky’s career took him all the way across the States to Princeton, New Jersey. Once again, he inherited a struggling program and turned it around. The Tigers, who went 5-24-2 before Gadowksy’s first season in 2004, ended up being one of the most feared programs in college hockey by the time his stint was over. Princeton, under Gadowsky’s leadership, made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2008 and 2009 — first by winning the ECAC Tournament, then through an at-large bid. He also won another conference coach of the year in the 2007-08 season. Those seasons were the most successful of his career, and although he saw lots of former players go on to have successful NHL careers, a job opportunity in early 2011 was too enticing to turn down.
After transforming the Nanooks and Tigers from teams ranking in dead last of their respective leagues into programs with winning records, Gadowsky headed west to Penn State to take over for its final season at the club level. He led the Icers to a 29-4-1 record and a fourth-place finish in the ACHA conference. The next season, Penn State made its long-awaited jump to Division I play, where it went 13-14-0 during Greenberg Ice Pavilion’s swan song. During that season, Gadowsky met some of the players that would play a huge role in helping the team recognize its potential.
The next year, Pegula Ice Arena was open for business and the Big Ten Hockey Conference was in its first season of operation. Penn State struggled, playing more than half of its season against traditional powerhouses and conference rivals in Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, as was expected from the young program. Gadowsky’s team went 8-26-2, but showed flashes of its potential, especially late in the season. Ten of its losses came by a mere one goal during the regular season, and it went on to upset Michigan in double-overtime in the Big Ten Tournament. Returning almost all of its players, the team went into the offseason with confidence and came out of the gates flying the next year. While not many fans or analysts had high expectations for the Nittany Lions’ progression, Gadowsky knew that it was only a matter of time.
“I think it was gradually coming. I think last year we improved so much and I think everybody wanted to continue that progression and I think it happened,” Gadowsky said. While he noted the win against a then No. 4 Umass-Lowell and the sweep of Wisconsin as highlights this season, he marks the entire season as an improvement in itself, with no particular turning point. “Along the way we ended up beating every team in the Big Ten so I don’t think it was one turning point at all, I think we just tried to continue to improve,” he said.
This most recent season, now even more comfortable and confident with his team, Gadowsky was able to destroy all expectations with an 18-14-4 record. He was finally able to make his team’s identity concrete, as the Nittany Lions gained a reputation across all of college hockey as a team that will always outshoot its opponent, will always play physical, and will never give up. For the third time in his career, and in the third different conference, Gadowsky was named coach of the year. The most characteristic games of a Gadowsky-coached team came this season when Penn State took on Ohio State and Northern Michigan and came back from huge deficits.
On Jan. 9, the Buckeyes came to Pegula for its first game since late October. The Nittany Lions came out flat, and heading into the third period, trailed 4-0. At that point, Gadowsky’s troops had had enough of losing and turned on the offense. A furious finish that included a Casey Bailey hat trick tied the game at 4-4 in what was the loudest period in Pegula Ice Arena’s history. However, his team would ultimately fall 5-4 in overtime, the product of another slow start that would plague the Lions in the second half of the season. But when Gadowsky’s team had to pile on shots and goals, it would do just that.
Two weeks later, the Northern Michigan Wildcats came to Hockey Valley expecting an easy time against a team that was just 2-3-1 in its last six games. Both games that weekend started off imbalanced, as the Wildcats led 4-1 on both Friday and Saturday. On Friday, Gadowsky led his team to a customary comeback and won the game 5-4 in regulation. On Saturday, the game ended in a 5-5 tie, but had it not been for the same coaching inspiration Gadowsky inherited a decade-and-a-half earlier in Prince Edward Island, the Wildcats could have buried the Nittany Lions rather than collapsing. Instead, the team persevered, Gadowsky was named coach of the year, his star player Casey Bailey was signed by the Maple Leafs, and the team broke every program record for success.
Sadly for Gadowsky and Co., the season came to a screeching halt in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament as they were bested by the Buckeyes. Despite the sour note to end the year on, he said he is “looking forward to being part of a program that has good roots and a positive tradition.”
“Part of the reason that they [Big Ten teams] have that respect is the number of championships they’ve won, the number of NHL alumni they’ve had,” Gadowsky said. “It’s not gonna happen instantly at all but we’re definitely taking the right steps and our start has been tremendous.”
As for the future, Gadowsky understands that winning seasons prompt certain expectations, but gradual improvement is still his primary goal. “We don’t want to get complacent at all,” he said. “We want to continue to improve overall and I know that as we get better and better people want to know what we’re shooting for.”
“We’re here at Penn State,” he said with unwavering pride. “We all know what the ultimate goal is.”