STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State's Division I ice hockey program went live in Happy Valley Friday night.
In front of a sold-out crowd, the Nittany Lions debuted under coach Guy Gadowsky. Amid all the pomp and circumstance, there was a game to be played, and though Penn State dropped a 3-2 decision to American International in overtime, it's clear the program is headed in the right direction.
"Actually, I'm thrilled right now. I thought we played great. We had no idea what we had," Gadowsky said. "We didn't know if we'd be completely overmatched. We had no idea. And I thought we played tremendous.
"This was just so fun I really felt alive. To see the student section and what they were doing, I loved it. I know we lost but I look forward to this year and I look forward to the future like you can't believe."
There was atmosphere aplenty in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, as 1,300 fans packed the stands and lined the balconies above the ice to watch the new squad. The long-awaited day was made possible with the help of energy company executive Terry Pegula, who owns the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and who made a $102 million donation to the program and his alma mater in 2010.
Penn State freshman Casey Bailey scored the program's first goal at the 4:37 mark of the second period, but American International junior Jon Puskar scored with 21 seconds remaining in overtime to break a 2-2 tie.
"I knew the place was going to be rocking," senior Ben Meisner, American International's goalie, said. "The fans were right on top of us. It's always fun as the visiting team to go out there and silence them."
Overall, though, the loss did not dampen an opening night to remember.
"The fans were unbelievable. It was pretty awesome the students were standing the whole game. We couldn't have asked for anything more," Penn State junior Taylor Holstrom said. "We knew it was going to be sold out. The way they were — the standing, the constant cheering — I was hoping it'd be just like the student sections at football games.
"So, that was pretty cool."
Pegula's donation also funded a new arena that will open in 2013, just in time for the first season of the Big Ten hockey conference. For now, the Greenberg will have to do as the Nittany Lions play a full season as independent. With the addition of Penn State to Division I, there are now 59 schools around the country with that designation.
The last school to establish Division I before Penn State, was Robert Morris.