Building for the Big Ten

Penn State hockey coach Guy Gadowsky and his squad are ready to play in their new digs and a new conference.

Sporting Penn State polos and khakis, the six players followed their coach's lead inside a crammed Pegula Ice Arena media room Monday. They talked of playing aggressive and physical, and of the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten Conference and inside Pegula.

One described them as spoiled to play in the $102 million, 6,000-seat arena moments after their leader had exuberated excitement and awe about the newest building on Penn State's campus. They followed his lead, much like they have all fall.

Penn State men's hockey coach Guy Gadowsky has yet to interact, coach, or hit the ice with his team this fall. That won't happen until the Lions, set to open their second Division I season Oct. 11 against Army, hit the ice for a midnight practice Friday. Yet, even though he hasn't been around, his presence has been noticeable.

It's come vocally, in the sense that he, along with assistants Keith Fisher and Matt Lindsay, have laid out the critical points their players must hit on during captains' practices organized by captain and sophomore forward Tommy Olczyk and assistant captains Nate Jensen, a junior defenseman, and George Saad, a senior forward.

It's come personally, in the sense that Gadowsky, entering his third year at the helm of the program, spent two years toiling to ingrain the foundation he rarely elaborates on yet finds so important to the success of his program.

It all culminates in the curious intrigue that surrounds the Penn State men's hockey program as it enters year one of its stay in Pegula, begins play in the brand-new Big Ten Conference, and begins to build on the hockey legacy found throughout Pennsylvania thanks to a pair of professional teams and at PSU due to the success of the club program that proceeded it.

Gadowsky has said on multiple occasions he has no idea what to expect from the 2013 version of his team, yet adds the expectations are high. So it goes for a program with resources that outsize any newcomer to the Division I hockey scene, and one steeped in tradition.

"As far as the team on the ice, we really don't know. We're allowed very limited time with them on the ice (in the offseason), so our viewings are very limited," Gadowsky said when asked to compare this year's Lions to the 2012 version at the team's media day Monday. "As a program, those two years that we had leading up to the Big Ten were extremely important.

"We talked a lot about building a foundation, and that's certainly something our players really understood. In terms of that, how we represent ourselves, our work ethic on and off the ice, in the classroom, is all at a much better level."

Three years ago, Gadowsky took a plunge in coming to Penn State from Princeton, sans any guarantee that the structure that now stands at the corner of Curtain Road and University Drive would even exist. It now does, and so does the prospect of playing at the highest level of hockey, and in the newly established Big Ten to boot.

The hallmarks of a Gadowsky built team quickly became evident over his first year here, which was at the club level, and last fall, the program's first at the Division I level. They would be physical, aggressive, big and tough. They would own the attacking crease and protect their own. Fast play would be a staple, and intelligent players a must.

Size was always a talking point, but recruiting has helped clear that up. Of the seven players arriving in the Class of 2013, just one, forward David Goodwin, is under 6-feet. There were just three players in the last class to fall under that mark, one that isn't of vital importance but is certainly beneficial in what promises to be a bruising Big Ten slate.

Then, there was the need to address defensive depth. At times last season, State would skate with just four defenders, a plight so debilitating that Gadowsky said it forced his defensemen to play less aggressive, which doesn't mesh with his style of hockey.

Recruiting addressed that, too. Two defensemen, 6-2, 217-pound David Thompson of Glen Mills, Pa., and 6-3, 206-pound Mike Williamson of Leduc, Alberta, will make certain of that. So, too, will the addition of redshirt junior Patrick Koudys, a 6-3, 210-pound transfer from RPI.

The return of 5-11, 198-pound Canadian Luke Juha, who missed most of the 2013 slate with an abdominal injury, will help, too. Gadowsky said Juha is fully recovered from the injury, leading Penn State to begin the season with one of the deepest defensive pairings Gadowsky has had.

"In terms of the depth, it's night and day. Last year, we had two main guys go down for a long period of time," Gadowsky said. "Basically, you're adding four guys instead of three, so that's probably one of the aspects that the coaching staff is most happy with."

"They make my job a lot easier, just doing the little things," goaltender Matthew Skoff added. "The more depth we have at defense, the more I'm going to be happy."

Skoff is one of three goaltenders in the mix to start, and Gadowsky said he was unsure if his team would use a rotation like it did last fall. Then, Skoff alternated with now junior P.J. Musico. That pair is now joined by freshman Eamon McAdam of Perkasie, Pa.

No Penn State players were named to the Big Ten preseason players to watch list, something Gadowsky contributed to few of the other Big Ten members seeing his athletes in action. He also noted that critics will want to see if his players, including 27-point scorer and forward Casey Bailey, and leading goal scorer David Glen, among others, will be able to put up those numbers again against a full Big Ten slate.

Whether they will be underdogs is not something any of the players in attendance Monday cared to dive into. It's not important, they said, adding that the three wins they secured against future Big Ten opponents in 2012-13 were confidence boosters.

It all gets set aside Oct. 11, when the puck drops at Pegula for the first time to start the 2013-14 campaign. The Penn State players and coaches are ready for their first season in the new digs and the first season of the new conference.

" It's an honor to be in the Big Ten," Jensen said. "You're going against Minnesota, Michigan, and they have great traditions and a lot of success already. We're obviously the underdog, and I think we're going to surprise some teams this year."

"It's not going to be like we are going to come into their rinks and just be shell shocked," added Skoff, noting that many of the Nittany Lions played against stars of other Big Ten team in the junior ranks. "Last year, we surprised a lot of people in the hockey world. I think we're going to get some serious winning down here."

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