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January 26, 2017

Penn State hockey's rapid rise from upstart program to one of country's best teams

The No. 4 Nittany Lions will face Princeton in South Philly this weekend

Hockey Penn State
012617_Guy-Gadowski-PSU Craig Houtz/Penn State Athletics

Penn State hockey coach Guy Gadowsky talks to his players during a recent game.

On Saturday night, a hockey game will be played at the Wells Fargo Center. And, in a rare turn of events, fans cheering on the team in orange and black will be among the minority.

That's because the team in orange and black won't be the Philadelphia Flyers. It will be the Princeton University men's ice hockey team. And to find out the reason their fans will be in the minority, look no further than the team opposite them for this weekend's Philadelphia College Hockey Faceoff (7 p.m.).

When we first started, a lot of our first recruits took a leap of faith ... And a lot of them were told, ‘Why would you go to Penn State? You’re going to get killed; you’re not going to win a game for four years.'

“You know what, I expect a lot of blue and white," Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky told PhillyVoice. "Even though we’re playing a team that’s black and orange, we’re expecting a lot of blue and white.”

Of course, he can always just tell his players those wearing orange and black are Flyers, not Princeton, fans.

“I think I’m going to steal that from you,” he said with a laugh.

Penn State, who recently reached No. 1 in the USCHO rankings for the first time in school history before falling to Ohio State this past weekend, is still in its infancy as a Division I hockey program. Prior to the 2012-13 season, Gadowsky's second at the helm, the team played in the ACHA, not the NCAA. They then spent one year as an independent Division I program before joining the Big 10 for the 2013-14 season. 

In Year 1, Penn State finished an 8-26-2 overall record, good for 6th place in their conference. The next year, the Lions improved to 18-15-4 and finished in 4th place. Last season, they jumped to third place with a 21-13-4 record.

This season, Gadowsky's team is 16-3-2, in second place in the Big 10 behind Minnesota, and is currently ranked fourth in both the USCHO and USA Today polls.

That's a long way to climb so quickly, no matter the sport. As recently as 2010, it was still unknown whether or not the University would even be able to make the jump to Division I hockey. 

And, as it turns out, they owe a bit of gratitude to their opponent this weekend.

“All our coaches came from Princeton, the entire staff. ... And I think that taught our coaching staff a lot in terms of you can have the best students and the best people and they can still be very successful at hockey," Gadowsky said when asked if there was a program he tried to at emulate Penn State. "And that’s something we made a commitment to take to Penn State. So I’d like to think we actually modeled much of what we do at Penn State from Princeton.”

  • Defenseman David Thompson | Glenn Mills, Pa. (Rustin)
  • Defenseman Kevin Kerr | Bensalem, Pa. (Holy Ghost Prep)
  • Goalie Peyton Jones | Langhorne, Pa. (Holy Ghost Prep)
  • Forward Ricky DeRosa | Aston, Pa. (Cardinal O'Hara)

It's been almost six years since he made the move from Princeton to State College, but Gadowsky still sees some similarities between his current team and his former team.

“Well, they’re a team on the rise right now," he said. "They have a good feeling because they’ve had as much success here recently as they had in the previous few years. So they’re feeling pretty good about themselves and they’re playing at the Wells Fargo. 

"There’s a lot of Penn State fans in the Philly area, but there’s a lot of Princeton fans too. I think it’s a great opportunity for them and us. I think it’s going to be a pretty emotional, very high-energy game.”

We spoke with Gadowsky at length about his team's rapid rise, what made that possible, and how he plans to continue this success moving forward. Here's more from the Penn State coach.

PhillyVoice: When you took over at Penn State in 2011, did you think a No. 1 ranking would be possible by your fourth season in D-I?

Gadowsky: “No. No. [Laugh] I don’t think anybody did. But the University itself deserves this credit because they have supported this program tremendously and, in turn, you look at the atmosphere that’s been created by the beautiful building [the Pegula Ice Arena], number one — actually no, I would say No. 1 is the student body. The Roar Zone, the student section is the best I’ve seen anywhere. And then it’s a beautiful building and the community has really gotten behind us. And that’s created something really, really special. We’ve sold out over 50 games in a row now. The atmosphere is phenomenal and fun, and also motivating to our team. That’s such a huge factor in all this.”

How has that success helped with recruiting?

“When we first started, a lot of our first recruits took a leap of faith because there was no building there. We told them we thought we’d have a good following, but no one knew for sure. And a lot of them were told, ‘Why would you go to Penn State? You’re going to get killed; you’re not going to win a game for four years.' So those were the questions we had, but they were answered pretty quickly. The building, when it did come, is beautiful and gorgeous. The Penn State student body, the alumni, the community have really taken to it and made it a tremendous atmosphere. And finally, we were able to get pretty good players — really good players — to come here and we were able to win on a national level. So those questions were answered pretty quickly. And that, obviously, combined to make it even more attractive.”

How important is having a strong recruiting base in the Philly area (and the rest of PA, NY, NJ)?

“For sure. We’ve always said from Day 1 that we want the very best Pennsylvania players. And Pennsylvania hockey is growing and growing and getting better and better, and along with it, I expect Penn State to get better as well. I think it goes hand-in-hand. I think the success of Penn State hockey is motivating for youth hockey in Pennsylvania and the success of youth hockey in Pennsylvania is good for Penn State Hockey. So I think we’re sort of on this path together.”

Kind of a similar philosophy to what Snider Youth Hockey has done in Philly? It's different, obviously, but in terms of getting more young people involved in the game of hockey...

“Absolutely. I hear that all the time from coaches and parents. I hear that all the time. And this gift by the Pegulas for this arena was not just for the varsity teams on campus. This was for all the hockey players in the Center County region. So it’s been great for youth hockey here and motivational for the program. There are a lot of people that love Penn State all around Pennsylvania and even a little beyond, and to have a Division I program that’s playing in the BIG 10 and having success is just that much more motivation for these players to love Penn State and love hockey.

“I think that aspect is really big here in Pennsylvania, but to be fair I’ve got to tell you, we get call from parents and coaches from all over North America saying they’ve heard about the atmosphere and that they’d love to come down and play a game and then be able to see you guys play. We get that all the time.”

Have you been following what Dave Hakstol’s been doing with the Flyers?

“Oh, a lot. We’re actually from very close to one another in the Edmonton area. So we grew up aware of each other and I’ve followed his coaching career. He did a tremendous job at North Dakota and he’s someone I consider — you know, when I have questions — to be a great coaching resource."

Now that you’ve reached a No. 1 ranking, is winning the title a realistic expectation? Is that the next step for you guys?

“I don’t think it’s fair for us to talk about that because we [as a team] never have. We just really want to improve all the time. That’s where all our efforts are put forth. Specifically this year, we have 13 new faces in our lineup. The only goaltender that had started a game for us was supposed to return but he signed early with the New York Islanders. We had so many questions, so it wasn’t like if we get this many wins, that’s going to be a success; we just wanted to improve. And now that we’re at a point in the season where no one expected, I don’t think it’s right to start re-evaluating our own goals now. We’re just going to continue to do what we’ve done all year and that’s just to try to improve.”

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin