Penn State History Lessons: From The Icers To Hockey Valley
When you think about hockey at Penn State, you think of Guy Gadowsky, Andrew Sturtz, and two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. You think of the Roar Zone, Auntie Anne’s pretzels, and the rest of Pegula Ice Arena, which is perhaps the crown jewel of college hockey.
But before its days in the marquee world of the Division I college game, Penn State got its hockey fix in a much different way. The club-level Penn State Icers dominated the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) during their 41 years. The Icers won 944 games during this period, most of which came under the direction of head coach Joe Battista.
While Battista’s time as a player and coach for the Icers brought the team tons of success, his impact on the university stretches far beyond the club hockey team.
The Beginning Of The Penn State Icers
Penn State alumnus Roy Scott created a petition in 1970 to bring a club hockey team to Penn State, as Happy Valley was dying for some form of organized hockey. There was a varsity hockey team at Penn State in the 1940s, but a lack of facilities led to the demise of the program.
Three thousand signatures later, university higher-ups agreed to bring hockey back to Penn State. Scott went on to play for the newly-formed Penn State Icers during his college career. The Icers played at the original Ice Pavilion on campus from 1971-1978, but construction on the new Greenberg Ice Pavilion forced the team to play its home games in Mechanicsburg, PA, a town 97 miles away from State College, for two seasons.
Penn State went 13-6-0 in its inaugural season, winning its first-ever game over the Hampton Leafs by a final score of 8-6. The only two losing seasons in team history followed the inaugural season — the Icers went 10-11-0 and 8-15-1 in 1972-73 and 1973-74, respectively.
The rest of the 1970s saw the team enjoy plenty of regular season success, but it couldn’t take that next step and become a national champion. The turn of the decade saw the Icers move into a new home, the Greenberg Ice Pavilion. The rink has since been converted into the Morgan Academic Center for student-athletes, but before it was renovated, Greenberg served as the home of seven national champion hockey teams.
The First Championships
The Penn State Icers’ first national championship came in the 1983-84 season. The Icers defeated Arizona 7-5 on March 10, 1984, to capture their first-ever championship under the direction of head coach Jon Shellington.
Joe Battista may not have been the best player on the Icers, but he’s arguably one of the most important individuals in Penn State hockey history. He took the Icers’ head coaching job following the conclusion of the 1986-87 season and ran with it for 19 seasons. Battista finished his coaching career with an unprecedented 512-120-27 record and six national championships.
Battista’s first game in charge of Penn State came on October 30, 1987, when his Icers took down Conestoga 5-4 in Kitchener, Ontario. The Icers erased an early 2-0 deficit and took advantage of Conestoga’s 40 penalty minutes with three power play goals to capture the first victory of the most successful era in team history.
The Pittsburgh native’s first national championship as a head coach came in 1990, when his Icers defied the odds as a No. 6 seed to take down Ohio and Iowa State in the Final Four. The team finished runner-up in the 1993 and 1995 national tournaments, but it would get back to winning championships in the late 1990s.
Rise And Fall Of A Dynasty
The 1997-98 Penn State Icers won their third national championship in program history with a victory over Ohio. The team finished the season with a 31-5-1 record, but most importantly, the season was the beginning of one of the greatest dynasties in club hockey history.
Penn State returned to the 1998-99 national title game, but lost to Iowa State in a victory that would eventually be vacated because the Cyclones fielded an ineligible player in the title game. The Icers made up for the loss by winning each of the next four national championship games over Eastern Michigan, Delaware, Illinois, and Ohio.
On top of that, the team returned to each of the next four national championship games, but lost to Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Oakland. For those of you counting at home, that’s ten consecutive national championship game appearances for Penn State.
The last of these ten national championship game appearances came without a familiar face behind the Icers’ bench. Joe Battista left his post as Penn State’s head coach following the 2005-06 season, shifting his attention to a much larger project.
Bringing Division I Hockey Back To Penn State
Joe Battista’s retirement as Penn State’s bench boss didn’t end his involvement with the university’s hockey program. Now that he did not have the responsibilities of head coach, he focused on bringing Division I hockey back to Penn State.
A feasibility study was conducted at Penn State to determine whether or not Division I hockey would flourish at Penn State in the late 1990s, just as the team’s dynasty was kicking off. A research proposal was put together in 2004, but Division I hockey became a real possibility in 2005.
Terry Pegula, a Penn State alumnus who’s now the owner of the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills, called Joe Battista during his final season as the Icers’ head coach and asked why there was no Division I hockey program at Penn State. Battista didn’t recognize Pegula’s name at first, but agreed to have dinner with him to discuss Penn State hockey. The two spent the next five years working to bring Division I hockey back to Happy Valley, forming what Battista calls “Team Pegula.”
Battista, Pegula, then-university president Graham Spanier, and other Penn State administrators took a trip to tour the hockey rinks at Miami (OH), Notre Dame, and Minnesota in 2010. The group planned to make a stop in Boston as part of the tour, but Pegula verbally committed to donate the money necessary to bring Division I hockey back to Penn State after visiting the Golden Gophers’ 3M Arena at Mariucci.
As Battista recalls, Division I hockey officially returned to Penn State on August 25, 2010, when Pegula signed the agreement to donate $88 million to fund the construction of Pegula Ice Arena.
“I was actually leaving Boston University after talking to [1980 US Olympic Hockey captain] Mike Eruzione,” Battista said. “I told him that we were hoping for our own Miracle On Ice soon.
“After that conversation, a text from Terry popped up on my phone while I was standing on Commonwealth Avenue. It said, ‘Just signed Hockey Agreement. Great day for hockey at Penn State.'”
“Team Pegula” had accomplished its mission of bringing Division I hockey back to Penn State. The donation was officially announced on September 17, 2010, construction on the rink began in mid-2013, and Pegula Ice Arena officially opened its doors on October 11, 2013.
The Division I program needed a leader to take the reins and build the program from scratch, so the search for a head coach was initiated as soon as the agreement was signed in August 2010. Terry and Kim Pegula interviewed Guy Gadowsky, an established college coach with more than 10 seasons of Division I experience, at a Stanley Cup Playoff game between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers in 2011.
The Pegulas quickly realized that Gadowsky was the man for the job, and he and his assistants at Princeton — Matt Lindsay and Keith Fisher — took over the club team for its final season of play. The Icers went 29-4-1 in that final season, giving fans a glimpse of the future Division I team.
Without Joe Battista, Terry Pegula, and the Penn State Icers, Division I hockey simply would not exist at Penn State. The success of the Icers set a standard for hockey at Penn State that continues to be upheld inside the doors of Pegula Ice Arena.
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