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The Philadelphia Inquirer

 

STATE COLLEGE - As he crossed Boston's busy Commonwealth Avenue the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2010, Joe Battista somehow detected his cellphone's beep amid the midday urban hum.

Battista, the longtime coach of Penn State's club hockey team, then spearheading the school's fruitless efforts to build an arena and upgrade to Division I, had just visited Boston University's facilities.

At tour's end, he shook the meaty hand of his famous guide, Mike Eruzione, and wistfully told the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's captain that perhaps one day Penn State would experience its own "Miracle on Ice."

Minutes later, checking his phone in the middle of the busy thoroughfare, he was stunned to see that the miracle had happened.

"Just signed agreement," read a text from Terry Pegula, a wealthy PSU alumnus. "Great day for hockey in Happy Valley!"

With those two terse sentences, Penn State hockey, which had existed in near-anonymity as a club sport since 1971, was catapulted into the big time.

Pegula, a natural-gas developer from Carbondale, had just signed off on an $88 million contribution to his alma mater. The gift, which soon grew to $102 million, would not only allow Penn State to add men's and women's varsity hockey but to construct a campus arena, the last and largest hurdle in its long journey to Division I.

Now, only seven years later, as Penn State prepares for both the Big Ten tournament opener Thursday night with Michigan and a likely NCAA tournament appearance, that transition can be judged a spectacular success.

Pegula's name adorns an arena whose glass facade shines like a jewel near the Bryce Jordan Center. Hockey tickets are tougher gets than those for football. The 5,782-seat arena has been filled to 104 percent capacity this season and the men's team's sellout string stands at 58 games.

In just their fifth Division I season, fourth in the Big Ten, coach Guy Gadowsky's Nittany Lions are 21-11-2 and ranked 15th. And, while their stay was as brief as it was astonishing, they were in mid-January the No. 1 team in the nation.

"Maybe that No. 1 ranking was premature," said Battista, who as a coach and fund-raiser was the main mover in the transition. "But who cares? It certainly didn't hurt recruiting or interest."

Gadowsky's ability to find players and, more important, to persuade them to come to a school with little hockey tradition has been a key factor, as has the arena and the passionate, noisy fans who fill it.

But the most essential element in Penn State hockey's rapid ascent was Pegula's checkbook.

"We always believed hockey would be incredibly successful here," Battista said this week, "but there were so many barriers. The only way it was going to happen was with that kind of gift from the Pegulas.

"Not everybody was thrilled about it. There was an awful lot of pushback. People were jealous that a gift of this magnitude was going to an athletic program, to hockey."

'What will it take?'

An old dream began to glisten with new possibility one night in the fall of 2005, just as Battista, in the last of 20 seasons as Penn State's coach, was about to sit down to dinner with his family.

Someone named Terry Pegula was on the phone.

"He says, 'I don't know if you remember me. My son came to your hockey camps,' " Battista recalled. "Then he said, 'Why aren't we playing Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin?' "

The coach reeled off a litany of reasons - budget constraints, Title IX issues, the lack of an adequate arena - before Pegula cut him off.

"I'm in town now," he said. "Do you know Kelly's Steakhouse in Boalsburg? Be there in 15 minutes and I'll buy you dinner."

Then he hung up.

A graduate of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Science, Pegula had turned a $7,500 loan from family members into a gas-drilling enterprise that he would sell in 2010 for $4.7 billion.

At Kelly's, the two men greeted each other. Battista ordered a filet mignon. Before it arrived, the hockey-mad Pegula had moved the point of the meeting to the front burner.

"He said, 'What will it take?' " Battista recalled. "I thought I'd make it a short conversation, so I said $50 million. He leans back, puts his hand on his chin, and says, 'I can help you with that.' "

It would be five more years - years of frantic activity and deep disappointment, of jealousy and optimism - before that promise became a reality.

Pennsylvania was no hockey wilderness. Interest in the sport had exploded with the NHL's 1967 expansion to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. At one point, with minor-league teams in places such as Johnstown, Reading, Erie, and Hershey, Pennsylvania had more pro hockey teams than any other state.

But the intercollegiate athletics arms race grew so extreme that by the late 1990s it was clear Penn State wasn't going to add hockey without a major contribution.

That unexpectedly became a possibility when fracking opened up a huge vein of natural gas in the Marcellus Formation - the heart of which was in northwest Pennsylvania.

Suddenly, Pegula and other entrepreneurs in the state were billionaires and on the radar of Penn State's fund-raisers.

"The development people knew Terry and had contacted him," said Battista, "but I don't think they understood his passion for hockey."

When Pegula's interests and intentions became clear, an advisory panel - Battista and four associate ADs - began exploring a Division I transition. A new arena was its major priority so, with Pegula's generous promise as its foundation, administrators planned a new facility that would open the Division I door.

Then in 2008 the optimism abruptly ended. A stock-market crash had forced Pegula to reassess his philanthropy.

"That was the most heartbreaking moment," Battista recalled. "Everything was off the table. Nobody was giving away $100 million."

The economy recovered, and on Sept. 17, 2010, 23 days after Battista's text message, Penn State announced that Terry and Kim Pegula were donating $88 million for men's and women's varsity hockey and a campus arena.

The timing was good. Had the gift been negotiated a year later, it could have been snuffed out by the 2011 Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal.

"We were getting ready to break ground when that happened," said Battista. "It was a difficult time for everybody. But those of us involved in this project can be proud that we still got it done. Pegula became a shining light during the most difficult time in the school's history."

Once the arena was underway, Penn State searched for a coach. Utilizing 30 different criteria, they interviewed dozens of candidates.

Gadowsky, a 44-year-old Western Canadian then coaching at Princeton, quickly moved to the head of the pack.

Pegula, by then the owner of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, met with Gadowsky in a Wells Fargo Center box before a 2011 Sabres-Flyers game. (Since then, Pegula has bought the NFL's Buffalo Bills.)

"He nailed the interview," Battista said. "After they'd talked for 20 minutes, Kim Pegula came up to me and said, 'Guy's our guy.' "

Gadowsky brought not just hockey and leadership skills to the job but an ability to connect with students, alumni, administrators and, most important, recruits.

"One of Pegula's visions was that this building would be a catalyst for youth hockey in this area," Gadowsky said. "But having said that, we weren't yet at the point where we could take the best Pennsylvania kids and compete against the Minnesota Gophers or Michigan Wolverines.

"We knew other schools were telling our recruits they'd be crazy to go somewhere to get killed for four or five years," Gadowsky added. "We needed players who weren't afraid of that challenge, who actually embraced it."

Gadowsky's first team played at the club level. Then came a year as an NCAA independent. In the three seasons since Big Ten play began in 2012-13, his Nittany Lions improved steadily, 8-26-2, 18-15-4, and 21-13-4, respectively.

At first, he went with a mix of leftover club players and Canadian kids other schools had overlooked. Then he began making inroads in Canada, where players often commit to schools as young as 14.

His 2016-17 roster contains five Pennsylvanians - including three from suburban Philadelphia - but also eight Canadians, two Russians, and a Finn.

Dylan Richard, a senior forward from Alberta, was playing junior hockey there when PSU assistant Keith Fisher approached. Richard came for a visit and, although it was just a skeleton, Pegula Arena's promise sold him.

"Our junior team was so successful that it was weird to commit to a program where people said we weren't going to win," said Richard. "I was looking at pretty good programs, but it was a special opportunity to come here and build a program in a top-notch facility. I'm so happy I did. Look at what we've built."

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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Photograph by: YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
 
March 16, 2017
 
 
 

 

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