Friday, December 30, 2011

Musings on Outdoor Ice - Circa 1971

We are just days away from 2012 and the Icers' return to action under the bright lights at Citizens Bank Park. Before heading off to visit my family over Christmas, I got together with senior Paul Daley to get his perspective on playing outdoors, and added reminiscences of JoeBa and yours truly about our experiences on frozen ponds.

I also got in touch with Dr. Larry Hendry, the first coach of the Icers, and asked him to provide a few words on playing "au naturel" back in the day.

Dr. Larry provided more than a few words. He found the time during a hectic Christmas that, as he put it, was "a challenge with three of the grandkids at 20 months to 3 years old. Our garbage disposal and dishwasher went out making for more fun. All in all, I wouldn't have it any other way."

Larry, on behalf of all of us in the Icers family, thank you so much, not only for what you have so eqolquently written, but for what you and the Icers pioneers did to set the stage for what we enjoy today.

Happy New Year everyone, we'll see you in Philly!

In the fall of 1971, some 200 ice hockey enthusiasts joined the Penn State Hockey Club and gathered together to play for the first time on campus since the early 1940’s. Most players had grown up skating outdoors on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers, given that indoor rinks were relatively scarce in North America.

The opportunity to play for the first time at Penn State on artificial ice was a dream come true when the University renovated a field house that was also shared with the track and baseball teams. Historically, numerous valiant efforts that had been made to establish hockey as a sport - including flooding the campus tennis courts - failed largely due to variable weather conditions.

The composition of the club was eclectic as undergraduates, grad students, staff and faculty were all welcome to participate. The club was organized such that there were multiple intramural teams and “A” (aka varsity) and “B” (aka junior varsity) squads. Although few knew each other, a strong bond quickly formed between club members as they shared stories about their formative years on the ice.

Everyone pitched in at every level from all night ice painting (five times during the season) to collecting dues and donations at a time when the club had virtually no resources. A high level of academic excellence was evident as students practiced in the evening with internationally known Professors who had lectured them earlier in the day. One line was composed of a freshman engineering student at center flanked by a Ph.D. student in Earth and Mineral sciences at right wing and a Professor of Chemistry at left wing.

While many of the players were from Pennsylvania, where ice hockey was struggling to gain acceptance, some veterans turned mentors were from rabid hockey bastions in Minnesota, Massachusetts and upstate New York. A half dozen very talented Canadians from Montreal, Calgary and Toronto shared experiences of playing pick up hockey at an early age from sun up to after sunset.

Some Penn State players actually played Division I hockey (St. Lawrence, University of Alberta, McGill University) and others had played on Junior A or semi-professional teams. Thus, contrary to what one might expect, the inaugural and subsequent Penn State teams were far from a “rag tag” group and presented themselves well.

My personal experience at skating was in one of the most unlikely of locations, namely, a pond adjacent to a boathouse in New York’s Central Park. When my brother and I were able to stand up on skates, my father, who was attending night school under the GI bill, would take us to the park on weekends. He would help put on our skates and then hit the books while watching over us from a patio overlooking the pond. Negotiating the rocks and stones along the shoreline to get to open ice was always a challenge as well as trying to keep skate blades from being caught in crevasses that pervaded certain sections of the pond.
Once warmed up, the sometimes-bitter cold was forgotten and the wonderful feeling of skating freely over the long expanses of the pond took over. When it was nearing time to return home, my father would lace up his racing skates and fly around the pond backwards while pulling us at terrifying speeds. It would be some years later that we found out that our dad had won several medals in speed skating events at Madison Square Garden while serving in the Army.

After completing graduate school in the winter of 1971, I joined the Penn State faculty. To my surprise and disappointment, hockey had not been played on campus for thirty years. Thanks to the efforts of many, hockey magically burgeoned at Penn State in the fall of 1971 and has remained in continuous operation for forty years.

The first team in 1971-1972 sported a won-lost record of 14-6. While all practices were indoors and only one game was played on outdoor artificial surface, many of the veterans told stories of their humble beginnings shoveling snow for hours just to be able to clear a surface to skate.

We often talked about our collective dream of having a Division 1 hockey team in Happy Valley. Today, we old-timers who are scattered far and wide across the continental US, Hawaii and Canada remain in contact and still reminisce about the “Miracle of ‘71”. Those of us who only played sparingly in our youth in front of a few fans (mostly family) remember vividly taking to the ice at the first game at the Ice Pavilion to a standing room only, packed house of thousands with many more fans in the parking lot trying to get in the door.

It goes without saying that we look forward to the fulfillment of the dream of D-1 hockey at Penn State along with the past 40 years of players, fans, coaches, volunteers and supporters. Those of us from the early 70’s who can’t make it will also be there in spirit as the team takes to the ice in the ground breaking outdoor game January 4 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia against the Neumann Knights.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like...Hockey!

Dear Santa,

I've been a very good boy this year, so I'm hoping that you will bring me just one gift for Christmas. Would it be too much to ask for some cold weather in Philadelphia the first week of January?

Let's face it, the weather is always a crapshoot when it comes to playing hockey outside. And while it's too early to accurately forecast what awaits for the Icers and Neumann Knights as well as the Rangers and Flyers, everyone involved with the NHL Winter Classic is hoping there will be cold and maybe even some snow like we saw in Buffalo, Chicago and Boston, and not the rain-soaked affair witnessed in Pittsburgh.

If the current seven-day forecast is any indication (and it really isn't), we'd better be extra nice so Santa brings a change in the weather.

Daytime temperatures in the upper 40s and overnight lows hovering around freezing could pose problems for NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his team. Earlier this week, they brought in the trucks and began turning Citizens Bank Park into a hockey arena. As always, the NHL provides 24/7 streaming coverage of their work:

For those of us north of 40, playing outdoors until we couldn't feel our toes remain one of the fondest memories of our mostly misspent youth. For me, my brother and our friends it was a wealth of opportunities. We enjoyed a small natural pond close to our house on the eastern edge of Toronto, a much larger pond provided when the owner of a nearby nursery flooded the field where his plants grew in the summer, and not one but two natural rinks at our elementary school.

Each fall, fathers and sons would construct a hockey rink with plywood sheets as boards and a pleasure skating rink surrounded by 1x10's. Once the cold weather arrived, our dads would haul out the firehose every night and flood the rinks. I swear the ice was smoother and faster than some of the arenas I've been in with the Icers.

Try doing that today and school officials and lawyers would double over with apoplexy. As Jenny Yuen wrote in a Toronto Sun article earlier this week
...a “community representative” needs to get the principal’s okay and a permit application needs to be filled out. It’s a long-winded process where the Toronto District School Board needs to sign off on it and meetings with city parks staff, janitors and the school board need to be scheduled with the community representative. The whole thing usually takes six to eight weeks and the application must be filed by Aug. 1 each year.

Ms. Yuen wrote about the many NHL stars that learned the game on ponds and backyard rinks. I can attest to that having shared the ice at Inglewood Heights PS with Brad Park. The Parks lived around the corner from us for a time, long before Brad became Hockey Hall of Fame member Brad Park.

We even played organized hockey under the sky at the Agincourt Lions Arena. I scoured the archives and found this photo from somewhere around 1970. Your humble hockey player is number 6 in red. I can still hear my coach screaming, "Hey Penstone, get two hands on the stick!"

JoeBa eloquently describes the joy of pond hockey in his latest column:
Skating outdoors is a throwback to a simpler day with no referees, no coaches and no parents. Just being able to breathe the crisp winter air and work up a sweat while playing the game I love is about as good as it gets. So I am envious of the members of the Icers who will get to experience the ultimate outdoor feeling by playing as a part of the Winter Classic.

I'm envious as well, but I'm hoping that we'll be able to call the game down at ice level on a cold night, with our noses running and the feeling leaving our toes. I'm not sure the Executive Producer sees it my way, but it sure would be fun.

The fun factor is not lost on senior Paul Daley, but Gunner knows that the Icers will have to take care of business against the Knights.

Lastly, Barbara and I would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah and a safe and Happy New Year. We hope to see many of you in Philadelphia!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lynchburg Letdown

It is difficult on this Saturday morning to find any positives out of Friday's 4-3 loss to the Liberty Flames.

Despite jumping out to a 2-0 first period lead, the Icers were out of synch most of the night, especially in the third period. The turning point to me came at the start of the third, when Penn State was unable to score with a lengthy two-man advantage.

Just like in the loss at Delaware, the Icers were guilty of turning the puck over in the grey zones at both blue lines. Too many turnovers led to too many odd-man rushes by the Flames, including the two third period goals that sealed the victory for Liberty.

The ugly scene at the end of the game doesn't deserve comment, other than to say that it spoiled what had been an entertaining game, especially for the hometown fans.

Here's hoping the Icers rebound this afternoon just as they did against Delaware.

As everyone knows now, the Icers will play Neumann U. at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on January 4. Director of Hockey Operations Bill Downey joined me during last night's first intermission.

Bill gave an honest assessment of the Icers' first period performance before talking about the outdoor game.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hello, Neumann!

The long-awaited news was delivered to us via Twitter this afternoon when Barb and I were about an hour outside of Lynchburg, VA.

Another of the "worst kept secrets" in college hockey became official today - Penn State will play NCAA Div. III Neumann U. as part of the NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

The #1 Icers will meet the 15th-ranked Knights at the home of the Phillies on Wednesday, January 4 at 8:00pm. The contest is part of the Winter Classic week.

Tickets are $10 and can be ordered online. Be sure to use PSU as the promo code.

Neumann is currently 5-3-0 heading into this weekend's series with Morrisville. The Icers are 13-1-0 as they ready for a tough weekend series against the Liberty Flames.

Ironically, the Knights and the Flames rosters are filled with foreign talent. Both squads are loaded with Canadians and each team has a player from Ukraine.

The center piece of the Winter Classic week is the meeting of the Flyers and Rangers on January 2. The Flyers and Rangers alumni will "battle" on New Years Eve day, and the third-ever AHL outdoor game, featuring the Adirondack Phantoms and Hershey Bears, will take place on January 6.

Thanks to the dedication of Comcast-Spectacor President Peter Luukko for spearheading the effort that will see us in Philly in the new year.

As Penn State becomes a Division I Hockey school, what better way to make a statement than to compete on the largest stage in the State of Pennsylvania when they face off against Neumann University at Citizens Bank Park.

There are a tremendous number of Penn State alumni living in the Greater Philadelphia Region who are looking forward to this game. We are thrilled to host this game as part of a week-long celebration of hockey in Philadelphia. It will be great for the City and great for the school. We’re really looking forward to welcoming Penn State Division I hockey to Philadelphia.

Coach Guy Gadowsky knows a little about playing outdoors, and what this will mean to the team.

Many of my fondest memories of growing up playing hockey come from playing outdoors. There is something really special about the feel of the air and the sound of the ice.

The Penn State hockey family is extremely grateful to Comcast-Spectacor President Peter Luukko for the opportunity to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime event. It will be an unforgettable experience for our entire team.

I know that I have great memories of playing on frozen ponds and the outdoor rinks in suburban Toronto. Guy hails from Edmonton - we can only hope it's not quite as cold in Philly as it gets in northern Alberta!

Bill Downey gets credit for his behind-the-scenes work, along with former teammate and Wells Fargo Center assistant manager Joe Sheridan. Billy is expected to join me during Friday's first intermission to talk about the plans.

Here's a look at the initial preparations for putting down the ice surface at CBP. Picture yourself sitting in the stands watching the Icers. Meanwhile, I'll try to picture where the Executive Producer and I will be.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Liberty Looms

The laughing is over after the weekend romps over Rutgers. The Icers were all business at today's practice as they began to get ready for the final weekend of action in the first semester.

Guy Gadowsky will take the team south of the Mason-Dixon Line to take on the eighth-ranked Liberty Flames on Friday and Saturday.

Head coach Kirk Handy has guided the Flames to the ACHA National Tournament seven times, including a second place national finish in 2006, since taking over as the bench boss in 2000. The Ontario native recruits heavily north of the border, with 13 Canadians on this year's roster.

As I always say, they may attend a Christian school, but the Flames don't turn the other cheek on the ice. It's a given that any team that plays Liberty can expect a tough, physical battle for sixty minutes.

The Flames are 13-5-1-2 on the season, including a 4-3 shootout loss to Arizona State at the Showcase, a 3-2 loss at Oklahoma and a pair of wins at Central Oklahoma.

The "seventh man" at the LaHaye Ice Center has helped the Flames to a 9-4-0-1 record, with Liberty outscoring the opposition 76-40. It's safe to say that the student body likes to vent some steam at Liberty games. They are as raucous as Gang Green at the Bird Arena.

I caught up with Coach Guy after today's practice, and also chatted with Tim Carr. Tim notched his second win and first shutout in Saturday's 9-0 win over the Scarlet Knights.

It was good to see Taylor Holstrom in full gear. Taylor has been cleared to practice with no contact. He told me afterwards that he hopes to be ready to return to the lineup in January.

I'd be remiss as a broadcaster if I didn't tip my cap to the Liberty video crew for their outstanding productions. Take a look at the highlight packages produced by their student broadcasters. Excellent work!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rutgers Romp

With no disrespect to Rutgers coach Andy Gojdycz, his team and Rutgers fans, this weekend's games with the Scarlet Knights were a foregone conclusion by about 7:15 on Friday night.

Dan Meisleman's power play goal at 2:32 of the first period on Friday opened the floodgates as the Icers scored 22 times in the 13-2 and 9-0 victories.

The Scarlet Knights simply had no answer for the speed and depth of the Icers.

The stats tell the tale:

The Icers outshot Rutgers by a combined 104-32
16 players (including P.J. Musico recorded points on Friday
15 players recorded points on Saturday
A combined 3 for 10 on the power play and 7 for 7 on the penalty kill

As Guy Gadowsky told me in Saturday's pregame interview, the games were not about padding the stats. He thought the Icers owned neutral territory on Friday. They did an even better job on Saturday.

Coach Guy highlighted the strong play of Nate Jensen and Michael Longo on Friday.

The buzz phrase of the day in hockey is "playing a 200-foot game." The line of Longo, Mike McDonagh and Tim Acker owned the ice every time they were out there.

Chris Cerutti also had a great weekend, notching his second and third goals of the season on Saturday. Chris is getting back to 100% after suffering the knee injury on the first day of tryouts. As he said following Saturday's win:

The first couple weeks back were tough to fight through. I took the brace off recently and it's been feeling a lot better.

Perhaps the only blemish on the weekend was the short-handed goal by Matt McDonald, who is far and away the best player on the Rutgers roster and is also one of the best in Division 1. Ironically, McDonald also scored a shorty against the Icers in last season's finale.

Saturday's second period was less than a thing of beauty, with lots of whistles and sloppy play. Perhaps that was a factor of Friday's result and the one-sided play in the first period. However, the Icers got over the lethargy in the final twenty minutes to put a bookend on the strong play in the first twenty.

The Icers will wrap up the first semester next weekend, with a tough road trip to Liberty University and the eight-ranked Flames. Kirk Handy's team has not played since taking two from Central Oklahoma in Edmond on November 18-19. The Flames will tune up for the Icers by hosting Div. II Virginia Tech on Monday night.