When Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula made an initial $88 million contribution to Penn State University in 2011, the campus-wide anticipation for the first game of the 2013-14 college hockey season began in earnest. The donation was made so the school could establish two NCAA Division I hockey programs, both of which would play in a new, state-of-the-art arena.
Two years after Pegula's game-changing contribution to Penn State, that day finally is here.
The Nittany Lions open their second season as a Division I program Friday against Army. In the process, they'll open the doors of Pegula Ice Arena, a 6,000-seat, multipurpose facility that is the talk of college hockey.
But Penn State's season opener won't just unveil the newest building on campus; it will usher in a new era of college hockey, as the team begins competition in the newly-formed Big Ten Conference, a grouping that comes into the season already boasting three of the nation's top 10 teams in USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine's preseason poll: No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 5 Minnesota and No. 10 Michigan.
The task of balancing the prominent campus buzz with the challenge of winning in a competitive new conference falls on Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky. He's looking forward to it.
"It's an interesting emotion," Gadowsky told NHL.com on the eve of his team's season opener. "For two years that's why everyone came here -- to be a part of Penn State University, be a part of Big Ten hockey and get a chance to play in front of the best student body in the world in this beautiful arena. You know it's coming for two years. Now the reality sets in and it gets you amped up."
Despite being new to Division I hockey, Penn State made major strides as the 2012-13 season went on. The team finished 13-14-0 and struggled through a midseason stretch during which it lost seven of nine games. But with the team's freshmen starting to generate chemistry and confidence, the Nittany Lions pulled out a series of late-season wins, including a big victory at Michigan State and a season-closing overtime upset of 16th-ranked Wisconsin.
Heading into a landmark season where they'll be competing in a new conference and in a new building, the lessons learned last season should come in handy for Penn State.
"I think we made huge improvements throughout the season," said sophomore forward Casey Bailey, who led the team in scoring last season with 27 points. "Having us younger freshmen coming in, it took us a little while to build up confidence. Once we had that confidence, we really took some strides. That was a huge reason why a lot of us came here. We knew we would get an opportunity to represent Penn State in their first season as a Division I program. That's something we have a lot of pride in."
Gadowsky isn't targeting a set number of wins for his team this season. He previously coached established programs at the University of Alaska and Princeton before arriving at Penn State, a new program that offered a unique opportunity and a slew of unique challenges. After more than a decade coaching college hockey, Gadowsky took over the burgeoning PSU program in 2011 and immediately started work to build a team that could compete in time for the opening of Pegula Ice Arena. It was a unique challenge that few coaches in any sport encounter. But just 18 months after taking the job, the big day is here and Gadowsky, who brought both of his assistants from Princeton with him, is ready to roll.
"It's a great opportunity for all of us in the program, everyone from the student athletes to the staff to our alumni and supporters," Gadowsky said. "It's going to be great for college hockey. The guys we have here are those who embrace an extreme challenge. We're not naïve as to how great these programs are in the Big Ten. We have a lot of respect for them. But at the same time, we want guys who are hungry for that extreme challenge and really take pride in building something that will compete in this tremendous league."