[COLUMN] A Thank You To My Favorite Classroom: Pegula Ice Arena
“I’m not even sure why it matters to me so much how things end here. I guess it’s because we all want to believe that what we do is very important; that people hang onto our every word; that they care what we think. The truth is, you should consider yourself lucky if you even occasionally get to make someone — anyone — feel a little better. As my mind drifted to faces I’ve seen here before, they all came at me in a wave of shared experience. And even though it felt warm and safe, I knew it had to end.”
— J.D., Scrubs
I once read that sometimes all you need is 30 seconds of insane courage. For me, this would come in the form of a 2 a.m. text. I knew Onward State’s then-Managing Editor, and for once, I knew exactly what I wanted.
“You need me covering Penn State hockey,” I wrote. “I know I can do it.”
Sent. I threw my phone across the room and didn’t look until the morning.
“We already have our guy.” Message received.
“Their guy” was Doug Leeson, and his brilliance is only matched by his kindness. To this day, I have no idea why he decided to take a chance on me, but I’ll never be able to repay him. Doug, you’re two years my junior and taught me more than I could ever learn in a class. You started my story.
I can’t remember exactly what was on my mind but I know I felt inadequate. It was February 6, 2015, and I stepped into Pegula Ice Arena for the first time. I got my bag checked and went up the elevator with no idea how much impact the two men providing those services would have on my college career. To the bag-checkers and elevator attendants of Pegula: You guys embodied consistency for a girl struggling with the incongruity of her early 20s. I wrote this with you in mind — Penn State is home to the best hockey arena around, but it’s hardly about the steep student section or the sleek layout. For me, it’s about the behind-the-scenes people who make it feel like home every weekend.
I rounded the corner to Section 120, aka the “kiddie press box.” Say what you will about being left-of-center, I still think it’s the best seat in the house. So does the usher I shared so many laughs with. Thanks for looking the other way every time I cheered in the press box (to potential employees reading this, I swear I’ve kicked the habit), and sorry for whatever you’ve seen on my computer over the years.
The Nittany Lions ‘feasted on Badgers’ that night for a then-program record 14th regular season win. Man, how far they’ve come. Looking at that gamer, despite Doug’s best efforts in editing it, it becomes clear to me why my approaching last game in Pegula is so emotional.
I grew up in this arena, on a timeline comparable to the team’s. Sure, my writing improved, but that could’ve happened in any classroom. I learned how to handle the fact that 115,000 people had a front-row seat to my mistakes in real time. Here’s something I wish I knew all along: Slipping up is inevitable and doesn’t mean you’re a failure. After all, someone who’s made no mistakes is either a liar or isn’t trying hard enough. Maybe this gradual understanding is why I cringe when people are so quick to write off Penn State based on losses against Minnesota, one of the best teams in the nation. My nights in Pegula taught me no team or person is impermeable to mistakes, and in my case, most people would forget I tweeted the wrong score in a few hours.
The big mistakes stick with you, though. The greatest lesson I learned in Pegula didn’t even have anything to do with hockey. It wasn’t about the time I called Zach Saar out for no good reason and he called me out right back or any of the factual errors I’ve made. It was about the person I wanted to be vs. how I was acting. To Darian Somers and Co.: Thank you for teaching me all the wrong ways to go about a media rivalry. Sports, at their core, are supposed to be fun. Being mean to you was fruitless and silly. I now understand why the Daily Collegian hockey beat refused to speak to me for months after I wrote this, and I thank you for helping me learn how to be critical without malice. I’ve never been good at unkindness.
If Onward State never took a chance on me, you’d find me in the Roar Zone every weekend. I’m sure you have heard and seen the best student section in college hockey, but you probably don’t know how wonderful the people behind it are or the hours they put into just being fans. To Kyle, Chris, Sam, Anna, Kara, and the rest of the folks who are still here when the visiting goalie still sucks, thank you for making this experience magical. Thanks for being so pleasant to work with; for becoming my friends at the fine line between conflict of interest and shared experience.
As I approach my last game in the first venue of my sports writing career, I can’t see myself getting this lucky with a team and its staff again. To Guy Gadowsky — thank you for being so easy to talk to, for talking earnestly after tough losses, and for fielding one million questions about the USCHO rankings when it’s clear you don’t give a damn. I will never forget the way Brian Tripp says Luke Juha, the passion he exudes for what he does, or his general kindness to me when I was starting out. John Hanna — you are the best SID I could’ve asked for to end my time at Pegula — you run @PennStateMHKY like a boss, you’ve been beyond helpful despite my constant need for single-game credentials, and your suit game is unparalleled (the whole Boston thing doesn’t hurt, either).
To the team, the season is far from over, but you obviously realize how difficult it is to leave Pegula. From Casey Bailey to Andrew Sturtz to Denis Smirnov, watching Penn State hockey make history every weekend was the highlight of my college career. You don’t even know it, but you were always there for me. You provided an instant getaway, no matter what was happening outside Pegula’s doors. For 60 minutes on any given winter Friday, all that mattered was what happened on the ice. The quote I started this farewell off with rings true here — I consider myself lucky if I made any of you feel a little bit better at some point.
This should never be a beat writer’s job, I know. I pushed this feeling aside all season and remained objective to tell the true Penn State hockey story. But it’s a good one, no matter how you spin it. You all have given me so much. I can’t help but hope you’ve enjoyed my coverage.
I’m not delusional — I know hockey isn’t the biggest sport at Penn State. For me, it was never about that. It was about giving real fans and a growing program the coverage they deserve. Looking back on it all, I can only hope I didn’t let you down.
So I guess this is goodbye, Pegula. Who knew it would be so hard to let go of a building — one that didn’t even exist when I got to Penn State. You were a bit distracting, your WiFi wasn’t anything to write home about, and somehow I was always five minutes too late for your free food. But you’ll always be my favorite classroom.
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About the Author
We dance in 275, Penn State!
We dance in 275, Penn State!
Underwood is bringing her “The Denim & Rhinestones” tour to Happy Valley next spring.
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