Penn State hockey a hot property
The Penn State men’s hockey team has played before a sold-out crowd at the home of the Philadelphia Flyers this season and posted impressive numbers for games at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ arena. On Friday, the Nittany Lions will host Ohio University at Giant Center, the 10,500-seat home of the AHL Hershey (Pa.) Bears.
Not bad for a team playing its first NCAA Division I season after more than three decades as a club team.
While waiting for the opening of the Pegula Ice Arena next season, the Nittany Lions have sold out nine of their 10 games at the on-campus, 1,350-seat Greenberg Ice Pavilion, which opened in 1981. Because the team has
|The team looks to have little trouble selling out Pegula Ice Arena, which will open next season with a capacity of 6,500, 16 suites and 600 club seats.
Penn State defeated Vermont before a sold-out crowd of 19,529 on Jan. 19 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The game was made possible by the cooperation of Comcast-Spectacor President and COO Peter Luukko, whose son, Nick, is a sophomore defenseman for Vermont.
The dearth of hockey created by the NHL lockout helped boost ticket sales, with more than 16,000 tickets sold before the league and NHL Players’ Association agreed in principle on a collective-bargaining agreement on Jan. 6. It also helped that Philadelphia is the largest base for Penn State students in the country.
The start of the NHL season then helped convert a large crowd into a capacity one. The Flyers and Penguins played a season-opening matinee that ended at 6 p.m., two hours before the Penn State-Vermont tilt.
“A bunch of NHL fans turned the day into a doubleheader and bought the rest of the tickets,” said Penn State associate athletic director Joe Battista, the former coach of the club team.
Penn State, which is playing as an independent this season before joining the Big Ten’s new hockey conference in 2013-14, participated in the Three Rivers Classic at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center last month, drawing a total of more than 23,000 fans for games against Ohio State and Robert Morris. This coming Friday’s game in Hershey — which is expected to draw around 5,000 — is a natural, Downey said, because of the school’s large alumni population in the area and the nearby Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State College of Medicine, and Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
Looking ahead, the team figures to have little trouble selling out its new Pegula Ice Arena, with a slated capacity of 6,500. Included within the arena will be 16 suites, 500 standing-room spaces, 600 club seats and a student section that hangs over the goal where the Lions will shoot twice. “It’s the steepest rake allowable by code,” Battista said. “That should be fun for the opposing goalie.”
The university owned and operated arena, which will have a “community” sheet of ice next door to the main rink, will be utilized year-round. In addition to the men’s and women’s Penn State teams, ice shows will be booked and community-level hockey and figure skating programs developed. The university hopes to host the Pennsylvania state high school hockey championships.
The arena was made possible by an $89 million gift by Terry Pegula — owner of the Buffalo Sabres and a Penn State graduate — and his wife, Kim. An additional $14 million was donated by the Pegulas for endowed scholarships supporting the college’s hockey players.
Dasherboard, on-ice and Zamboni advertising sales for the new arena have been strong. Greg Myford, Penn State’s associate athletic director for marketing and communications, said he expects all those sales points to be sold out prior to the start of the arena’s inaugural season. Deals for in-arena advertising have been signed with Toyota, Tim Hortons and Esmark, a Pennsylvania industrial company that is a top sponsor of the Penguins.
“We’re seeing some companies that have been with us a long time in other sports show great interest in hockey,” Myford said. “We’re also seeing businesses new to us but associated with hockey, like Tim Hortons, want to be our partners.”
Learfield Sports, the multimedia rights holder for Penn State’s athletics department, is leading the sales efforts.
More than $5 million has been raised in private gifts, halfway to a goal of $10 million by 2014. Considering that many Division I schools spend $1 million annually on their hockey programs, hockey could become a revenue-generator for Penn State. Football and basketball are the only sports at the school that currently make money, according to university officials.
“We want to break even at the start,” Battista said. “If we can continue to raise private funds, we could come out ahead.”
The new arena and the continued growth of the hockey program suggest many possibilities. Among those discussed: an NHL team (perhaps Pegula’s Sabres) having training camp on campus; NHL exhibition games; possibly even the Penn State hockey team playing an outdoor game at Beaver Stadium, which holds more than 107,000 fans for the school’s football games.
“There are people around here who’d like to see an outdoor game here tomorrow,” said Battista, laughing. “We’re going to wait four or five years, when we’re ready.”
The Nittany Lions’ hockey development has been a shot in the arm to the university at large, which continues to work its way back from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It also helps the visibility of NCAA hockey.
“Having a high-profile school like Penn State make a significant investment in hockey is a major statement about the future of college hockey and hockey in the U.S.,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., which promotes the college game through grassroots and communications initiatives. “When you see the crowds Penn State is drawing, other schools that aren’t offering Division I hockey have to take notice about the impact the sport can have on a school and an athletic department.”