The stands at Pegula Ice Arena bank sharply behind one goal, home of the steepest student section in college hockey, as steep as building code would allow. They call themselves the Roar Zone and when the white and blue rocks to its utmost, an opposing goalie might feel like the shouts are right atop him.
“Oh, it’s unbelievable,” said Patrick Koudys, a rising junior for the Nittany Lions. “Especially with the students bumping on one end.”
Two years ago, Pegula Ice Arena did not exist and the Penn State men’s hockey program was thriving at the club level, a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Then Terry and Kim Pegula – Terry owns the Buffalo Sabres and AHL’s Rochester Americans – committed $102 million to build a new facility, so upgrading divisions followed. The ascension was announced on Sept. 17, 2010, and made official for the 2012-13 season. Soon, with six teams fielding programs, the Big Ten offered to sponsor men’s ice hockey, and Penn State had a permanent home.
“It really was a no-brainer,” Coach Guy Gadowsky said Thursday by telephone.
Which is, in a roundabout way, how this week Koudys found himself attending his fourth Capitals developmental camp, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 back for another go. He met the media on Tuesday and tucked a tattered Penn State hat behind the podium. His teammate, Zach Saar, spoke on Wednesday. Four other teammates are attending four other development camps across the NHL. Though no Nittany Lions alumnus has ever reached that level, it’s a testament to the legitimacy Coach Guy Gadowsky helped establish.
“At first it was obviously a little growing pains, new guys, new everything, but I think we grew a lot as a team and as players individually throughout the year,” Koudys said. “We have to build off what we did.”
“Guys like Patrick Koudys I think were great with that,” Gadowsky said. “Everybody wants to win and no matter what situation you’re in, if you don’t, it can be deflating. At the start of the year, we went through a lot of negative results. Good information with those negative results, but negative results all the game. But the guys didn’t get down like you think they might. And it all paid off. ”
Koudys, a 6-foot-3 defenseman, transferred to Penn State from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, then played for the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the USHL while sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules. He appeared in all 36 games, one of four Nittany Lions to do so, ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 79 blocked shots and was named the team’s top blue-liner.
“He’s a bit of a ‘manimal,’ ” Gadowsky said. “He’s a man out there. Everybody you talk to who watches him comes up with that observation … I don’t know how to describe him in any other way.”
Once winners of four straight ACHA tournaments in the early 2000s, Penn State finished 8-26-2 last season, last in the Big Ten. Growing pains were endured, not only on the ice in the new league but in moving into Pegula, learning the building’s quirks and the opposing personnel who would soon visit it.
“It’s been a process,” Saar said. “I think I came in with really high expectations. You realize you can’t build things overnight. We’re working, step by step, to be a championship program.”
Saar came to Capitals camp as an undrafted invitee. The 6-foot-5 forward from Michigan, like Koudys, played with Muskegon before suiting up for Penn State. Gadowsky called early and often during the recruitment process, and after his on-campus visit Saar cancelled everything else. He knew where he wanted to be.
The son of a former Nittany Lions linebacker with three seasons left of eligibility, Saar netted the overtime winner to upset Michigan during the Big Ten tournament last season and made his living clogging up space in front of the net, near the Roar Zone. At a football school with a special affinity for non-revenue sports such as volleyball and wrestling, hockey has built a fan base: With a seating capacity topping 6,000, Pegula sold out every home game but one last season.
‘It’s awesome,” Koudys said. “There’s a lot of love for hockey there. It’s a great school for it and we love it there.”