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What Does Penn State D-I Hockey Mean for College Hockey?

In news that officially broke this past Friday, September 17th, Penn State will officially add Division I hockey to its lineup of collegiate athletics.  The announcement brings both a men’s and women’s program to the Nittany Lions’ athletic department and adds to the number of D-I college hockey programs in Pennsylvania, which currently includes Mercyhurst and Robert Morris.

The love of hockey in Pennsylvania is unquestionably stronger with the recent success of the two NHL teams located in the state – the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.  As far as the NHL’s Eastern Conference goes, the Keystone State has dominated the playoffs in each of the last three years.

However, the college hockey landscape will certainly change with the addition of a nationally recognized athletic program, such as PSU, to the region.

  1. It is clear that there is financial backing to the plan, which means more competition for the top recruits.  Alumnus Terry Pegula and his wife Kim donated a hefty sum, to the tune of $88 million, to fund a new men’s program and build a state-of-the-art facility.  That amount of money is no laughing matter for any school’s athletic program, even Penn State’s.  PSU is reporting that the amount is the “largest private gift in the University’s history.”  Money is never a bad thing to have to grow a D-I program essentially from scratch.  That sum will be especially helpful in showing a commitment to becoming a national powerhouse, such as with new facilities, training staff, coaching staff, player equipment, and travel amenities.  All of these material elements, plus many more, never hurt when trying to recruit the best players in the nation.  PSU already is capable of doing this in football, and now hockey will likely be the same.
  2. The new facility will rival those of any college team in the nation.  Plans call for construction of a 5,000-6,000 seat arena to be built almost immediately once a suitable architect is found.  The teams will open the 2014-2015 season in the new arena, playing in the Greenberg Indoor Sports Complex in the meantime.  The GISC, accommodating around 1,350 when filled to capacity, will no doubt undergo a few changes to make room for the crowds likely to attend the first games.  This means that there will no doubt be a request for NHL teams to come play in the new arena, perhaps as part of a pre-season game.
  3. Hockey will now have an even stronger presence in the State College region.  With the new complex to have two sheets of ice, the only one rink of this caliber apparently within an 80-mile radius, there is no need for hockey fans to travel quite as far as Philly or Pittsburgh to get a quick hockey fix.  Add on top of that, the current club hockey team is among the best in the nation, winning seven national titles.  Fans in State College will no doubt line up early and often to catch a glimpse of the new squad when they hit the ice.
  4. Penn State will join others in the state of Pennsylvania in welcoming the NCAA Frozen Four to the area in 2013 & 2014.  Can you imagine the home crowd if Penn State were to be playing for a national championship down the road in Philly in 2014?  Enough said.
  5. Penn State will be looking for a conference to join when the new arena opens and the team sheds its independent status.  This is easily the most significant ramification for all of D-I hockey.  It is no secret that the Big Ten is amongst the best leagues in college football and other sports.  With members Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio State already being among the perennial best in college hockey, a Big Ten hockey conference would surely be among the most competitive in the nation if were it to form in 2014.  The leagues that currently house these five teams would certainly be scrambling to replace the high level of competition that the teams provide.   Further, leagues such as Atlantic Hockey or the ECAC would love for a strong program such as PSU to join their schedules.  However, despite the lack of geographical proximity to the other Big Ten teams, the desire to create a college hockey super-conference might be able to overcome that concern.  As one commentator stated:

Sources indicated earlier this week that a 2014-15 start date for a Big Ten hockey conference was being discussed, but a conference statement Friday said the formation of a league wouldn’t happen “without a significant amount of discussion both internally with conference chancellors, presidents, administrators and coaches, and externally with the hockey community as a whole.”

At least one commentator is less than thrilled about a Big Ten hockey conference scenario.  He further added that another current member of the Big Ten, Indiana, is rumored to be the next college to add a D-I hockey program.  Although a bit far-fetched, one could only imagine if the others in the Big Ten, such as Nebraska (joining the Big Ten 2011-2012), decided to add hockey as well.  Top-level players would have plenty of choices if these top tier schools add to their programs.

These same factors will have the same effect on growing a women’s program as well.  With the women’s team at Mercyhurst already among the top in the nation, having another in-state rival will no doubt fuel rivalries for players, not to mention on the ice.

So while it is not time to send the D-I hockey crowns to State College just yet, with the proper resources and a solid following, you might just see PSU at the top of the men’s and women’s D-I college hockey rankings sooner rather than later.  The real question that remains is, who will join them next?

One thing is certain about the PSU program, as Craig Patrick, the former GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins stated:

“Adding Penn State’s brand to hockey will make Pennsylvania one of the top hockey states in the country.”

By Mitchell Bragg

Despite the struggles the teams from his hometown face on a yearly basis, Mitch still roots for all teams Buffalo. Outside of SAB Mitch is an attorney in Massachusetts & New York. You can follow him on Twitter via @mitch_bragg.

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