MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — If Penn State men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky looks over at the home bench during his team’s games this week at St. Thomas and feels a little bit of nostalgia, it will be understandable.
While the Nittany Lions have just one Big Ten win so far (Nov. 19 at Minnesota) and the Tommies have one win, total, in their opening two months as a Division I hockey program, Penn State is the solid favorite in this Tuesday-Wednesday series. But Gadowsky understands better than just about anyone what’s happening on the Tommies’ bench, in their locker room and behind the scenes in the first year playing at college hockey’s top level.
A decade ago, Gadowsky departed Princeton — where he had coached for seven years and led the Tigers to the NCAA tournament twice — to take on a huge challenge, shepherding the Nittany Lions on their journey from a club program to D-I as members of the Big Ten’s newly-formed hockey league.
It is far from an easy hill to climb, but Gadowsky and his assistant coaches made it look somewhat routine. The Lions won just eight games in their first season in the Big Ten. In their second season, they won 18. In their fourth year, the Lions won the Big Ten tournament. In Year 7, they won the conference title and looked like a legitimate NCAA title contender before COVID wiped out the 2020 playoffs.
Still, after walking away from a NCAA tourney team and established Ivy League name like Princeton to come to the middle of Pennsylvania and build something new, Gadowsky admits there may have been a few moments of deep thought.
“The whole staff was really hungry to do things the right way and enjoy the process. We talked a lot about patience. You’d be a little frustrated when you’d get beat up and it would be tough and we’d always remind ourselves to be patient and believe it was going to happen, and fortunately it did,” Gadowsky said on Monday, after the Lions practiced in Minneapolis. “Probably in the back of your mind you might hear a little voice, but then reason over-wins that and you get back to why you’re doing this in the first place.”
One recruiting advantage that the Lions and other members of the Big Ten hockey conference have is the visibility of their football programs. On Saturday afternoon TV, nearly every sports-minded kid in North America has seen the logo of the Nittany Lions, or Ohio State Buckeyes or Michigan Wolverines, and that visibility opens doors. While nobody is going to see St. Thomas and their very good football program on ESPN GameDay this season, the Tommies have a different advantage — geography — when it comes to recruiting. The Tommies play in the heart of Minnesota and the Twin Cities, which are among the most hockey talent-rich regions of the country.
“One of the huge advantages that St. Thomas is going to enjoy is that there are so many great players right in their area,” Gadowsky said. “They’ll be able to jump start a lot of great players in a hurry without a ton of travel. Every place has their advantages, and Penn State has a ton of them, but this is one that St. Thomas will enjoy and will take advantage of it.”
Curating a culture
St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten was an administrator at Penn State during the formative years of Nittany Lions hockey, and had a front row seat for all of the early challenges and opportunities. He said that having a new arena was a huge advantage there, and hiring the right person was critical.
“One of the best things that Penn State did was hire Guy Gadowsky because he put a lot of emphasis on the culture of the program and recruited student-athletes that he knew could be successful on the ice, but also would be successful building in the classroom and in the community,” Esten said. “When you have the ability to start from that place and you’re not being pressured to win right away, it gives you grace and time to build it.”
That is one thing that Esten has done with the Tommies in hiring and experienced coach like Rico Blasi first, and then giving him the patience to establish a program that might not be competitive right away, but will build a winning culture.
It harkens back to 10 years ago when Gadowsky talked much about establishing a culture and traditions within the Penn State program. State College is a small community in the center of Pennsylvania, and fan loyalty to the school and its teams runs deep. After every Penn State home game, win, lose or tie, the Lions players line up along the goal line on the end of the rink where their fellow students sit — called the “Roar Zone” — and all sing the school song together. That is another advantage to starting a new program, is the opportunity to establish a culture from scratch and do it your way.
“One of the fun parts of starting a program is you get to make sure it’s done right, right off the bat. That is probably the most fulfilling privilege of starting a program is being able to create the culture you want right from the start. Obviously that happens very seldom,” Gadowsky said. “There are parts that are even more fulfilling when you realize where you’ve come with a culture and the support you get.
"When you’re in the airport in San Francisco and someone comes up and says, ‘Great job, winning the Big Ten.’ That stuff is awesome.”
The early losses can be tough for the coaches and players to stomach as they pile up. But looking back on the challenges and the successes of the past decade, Gadowsky can look over at the Tommies bench and smile at what lies ahead for Blasi and his program.
“I’m envious. It’s a blast. It’s some of the best times, and he’s done such a great job at Miami that he’s going to kill it and he’ll have a great time doing it,” Gadowsky said. “Knowing him, I know he’ll do it the right way too. He’s not going to cut corners. There are some very interesting times ahead for him and he’s going to have to make sure he doesn’t get too impatient. If you can be patient and enjoy the journey of it, it’s a blast.”