The Penn State and Bowling Green men’s hockey teams aren’t guaranteed to meet in this weekend’s Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center, but they have already crossed metaphorical paths in at least one way.
Both programs have gone through transformations in recent years, with Bowling Green recovering from financial shortfalls that threatened to kill its storied varsity hockey team, while Penn State made the leap from a successful club tradition to NCAA Division I with the help of a huge donation from a well-off alumnus.
So the Nittany Lions and Falcons can both partially attribute their progress to the kindness of others, but their stories are much more than simple charitable giving.
For instance, because of Penn State’s ascent to D-I, the Big Ten hockey conference was able to come into being. While the new league has caused much upheaval (more on that later) across the often staid college hockey landscape, the Big Ten’s media muscle has already given an enhanced reach to this corner of the sport.
The $102-million donation made to Penn State athletics by Buffalo Sabres owner and natural gas magnate Terry Pegula not only bestowed top-level college hockey to Happy Valley, it also covered the expenses of the new Pegula Arena, an on-campus puck palace that houses the men’s and women’s D-I teams.
Prior to the Pegula windfall, the Penn State men claimed six American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I titles as a club team, including four in a row from 2000 to 2003. This was not a university devoid of on-ice success, but NCAA hockey is clearly a new frontier for the Lions.
Bowling Green has had a D-I team since 1969, but the Falcons fell from their perch as consistent Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) contenders in the early 1990s. Despite continuing to produce NHL players – Rob Blake, Brian Holzinger, Kevin Bieksa and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma among them – Bowling Green has been relegated to also-ran status since the departure of college coaching legend Jerry York for Boston College, where he has become the NCAA’s all-time wins leader.
Since the university threatened to cut the struggling program in 2009, the successful “Bring Back the Glory” fundraising campaign has improved the hockey facilities and inspired hope that the Falcons could return to heights not seen in 20 years. Fourth-year coach Chris Bergeron has yet to deliver a winning season, although his squad brings a 8-8-4 record into their matchup with sixth-ranked Boston College in Friday’s 4:30 p.m. opening game.
Bowling Green is 6-6-2 for third place in the new Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), which has been restructured after the Big 10’s advent brought the end of the CCHA. Senior Bryce Williamson leads the Falcons in points (17) and goals (eight); sophomore Mark Cooper also had eight tallies. Second-year goalie Tommy Burke has seen most of the action in the crease for BGSU, posting a .914 save percentage in 11 games.
Penn State (3-9-1) has had a rougher season under third-year coach Guy Gadowski, who took over the program for its final season of club hockey. The Nittany Lions were 13-14 last season as an independent, but they have stumbled to six straight losses entering the Three Rivers Classic, all against ranked opponents. They dropped their first two Big Ten games earlier this month in Wisconsin.
Sophomore center Eric Scheid paces Penn State with seven goals and 11 points. McKees Rocks’ own Matt Skoff has started nine games in goal, recording a .900 save percentage and all three Lions’ wins. Due to their newbie status in D-I, 18 of the 27 Penn State scholarship players are underclassmen. Those youngsters will try to top defending tournament champion Robert Morris for the second time this season at 7:30 p.m. Friday.