The vision for Penn State hockey was rooted in Penn Hills


Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Division I hockey at Penn State University exists because of a lavish gift. Terry and Kim Pegula gave $102 million so a long-desired program could transition from a popular club to the real thing, a varsity sport that will skate against the Michigans and Notre Dames of the college hockey world.

The women's team played its first games as Division I last weekend, and the men's team played its first game Friday night. The sparkling new Pegula Ice Arena opens in a year across from the Bryce Jordan Center.

If giving so much money involved little more than a handshake, the story would stop here. It doesn't. In this case, the giving and receiving parties mattered as much as the facilitator, who found himself in the middle because of an obsession wrought from significantly thriftier origins in Pittsburgh.

One night in 1970, a boy named Joe Battista went to a Penguins game with his father. The team gave away free street hockey sticks to every kid who had a ticket.

Mr. Battista, who grew up in Penn Hills, couldn't put his down. He would never be the same, and neither would Penn State.

Over 30 years, he won hockey league titles as a Penn State club player, and six American College Hockey Association national titles as a Penn State club coach. He was beloved by players and fans. People would watch Friday night games, attend coaching clinics or send their children to his camps.

From the days when Mr. Battista sported an afro and a Penn State Icers jersey to now, with a balding head and suit with a Nittany Lion lapel pin, the associate university athletic director has dreamed of Division I hockey for Penn State. Two recessions derailed the plans, as did Title IX complications and the Big Ten conference. None of that compared with the real challenge.

True agony settled in when the lifelong goal nearly skated away again in 2010. One hundred and two million dollars hung in the air like a puck, as likely to go to Penn State as it was to remain with the Pegulas.

During this time, Mr. Battista came home to his wife, Heidi, and announced, "We're either going to have our dream come true, or I'm going to get fired."

Cold economic facts

Penn State hockey supporters have learned a tough lesson repeatedly this last century: The dreamer, at some point, must accept reality. No matter how many people schedule meetings with the athletic director, no matter how many letters are written, no matter how many students fill buses to watch a club team play two hours away, a fiscal wall still stands, impenetrable by nothing but currency.

Penn State played its first hockey game in 1909. Pittsburgh men had started the movement, their legs long familiar to the ice. According to information first uncovered by Lou Prato, who helped found the school's sports museum, the team lasted for two games.

Nine days later, the school's athletic association rejected a proposal to make hockey a varsity sport. A reader wrote to the State Collegian newspaper that, lacking usable ice near campus, Penn State would incur significant costs renting rinks. "Any other plan than the present one seems impractible [sic] if not impossible."

Hockey made a comeback, becoming a varsity sport from 1940 to 1947. They prayed for cold weather so the campus tennis courts could freeze and they'd have a place to practice. Predictably, the sport didn't last.

With a rink on campus in the '70s, a club team formed. Mr. Battista arrived in 1978, just in time for a Keynesian economics lesson.

Philip and Barbara Greenberg had spearheaded a $5 million tab for an indoor practice facility for football, track, baseball and other sports, as well as a bigger, renovated ice rink that could help the team transition to varsity status. But the United States suffered from severe inflation in the late '70s and early '80s. Interest rates reached upward of 20 percent. Penn State needed to borrow money to finish the ice pavilion phase of the project and didn't have enough.

The rink went from seating 4,000 to 2,200 to the current 1,057, according to Daily Collegian newspaper archives. The planned U-shape for the rink became an L-shape.

Mr. Battista played for a year and a half on the new ice. He graduated to a job with the Pittsburgh Penguins but returned to his alma mater in 1985. He'd spend the next 19 years as a coach and another four as the executive director of the Nittany Lion Club. Division I Penn State hockey seemed every bit as far away as it did for the Pittsburgh men in 1909.

"I had pretty much given up," he says. "I said, 'you know what I've spent, at that point, 20-something years of my life chasing this dream, and -- oh, well.' "

A bolt from the blue

He had tried. In the '90s, the club hockey team was set to become a charter member of what is known today as the Atlantic Hockey conference. Then Penn State joined the Big Ten, nixing those plans.

In the next decade, Mr. Battista tried to persuade the administration to try a private-public funding plan for a team and arena. The stack of pro formas he had piled thick into a binder mattered little. In essence, the decision boiled down to money.

They would need a varsity women's team for Title IX compliance. That cost money. They would need a bigger facility that could bring in reasonable revenues. That cost an insane amount of money.

Penn State had a worthy product. Ticket lines for Friday night men's hockey games would stretch outside and curve around the building in the early '90s. One time, they packed 1,600 into the sardine tin that is the Greenberg Ice Pavilion. Everyone loved it except the fire marshal.

Mr. Battista's friend Clark Dexter, who played for Penn State in the early '80s, said Mr. Battista had introduced film study for the players, scouting and recruiting. The club wasn't varsity, but it played with big-time intensity.

"He did a lot of things for that program," says Mr. Dexter. "I think with that he attracted a lot of people, one of them being Terry Pegula."

Mr. Pegula, a Penn State alumnus, had attended coaching clinics. His kids had gone to camps. If he stayed at his Centre County residence for a Saturday football game, he'd usually go to a hockey game the night before. One night in 2005 he contacted Mr. Battista.

"Out of the clear blue sky," Mr. Battista says. "Called me at my house. My phone number is not listed."

This Pegula guy, anonymous to Mr. Battista, asked why Penn State had no Division I hockey team. Mr. Battista's eyes glazed. If Penn State received a partial scholarship every time he'd heard this conversation, it would have a Division I team endowed for years.

They agreed to meet for dinner at Kelly's, in Boalsburg, and Mr. Battista recognized Mr. Pegula as a spectator, nothing else. The conversation teetered toward money. Mr. Pegula asked how much it would cost to transition to varsity. Mr. Battista told him $50 million.

"I think I can do that," Mr. Battista recalls his dinner companion replying.

Afterward, Mr. Battista returned home, a little perplexed, and did a Google search of the name Terry Pegula. He owned a company called East Resources, the largest private oil and gas company east of the Mississippi, and he planned to sell. Five stressful years of waiting ensued.

"Up, down, up, down," Mr.Battista says. "There were literally times when I questioned my faith. I would say, 'God, how could you be so cruel to make it look like it's going to happen and it's not?' "

Tipping point

First, Mr. Battista was slapped by an invisible hand. Mr. Pegula was ready to sell in 2008 when the world economy went sour, preventing him from gaining optimal profit. Mr. Battista worried if the man would be able to sell at a high enough price.

In the spring of 2010, he did. Royal Dutch Shell bought East Resources for $4.7 billion.

A period of dissecting the exact strategy for the arena and team lay ahead, along with convincing a public and academic community concerned with accepting so much money for sports, especially for a sport that isn't football.

"People don't just give us money and say, 'take the $100 million and use it however you want,' " says Rod Kirsch, senior vice president for development and alumni relations. "Ninety-nine percent of gifts are actually restricted by the donor for a particular purpose. It wasn't like we could devote it to student scholarships or some other type of building."

They almost didn't get the money at all.

By July of that year, Mr. Battista says he was pushing hard in both directions to try to facilitate the gift. Mr. Pegula scheduled a trip for him, Mr. Battista and former Penn State president Graham Spanier to visit the hockey facilities at Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio.

Perfect. This could seal the deal. Except Mr. Spanier's schedule was booked. He couldn't come. Mr. Battista says Mr. Pegula told him that if Mr. Spanier didn't think the trip was important enough to change his schedule, then the donation was off.

Mr. Battista calls the ensuing series of events his guillotine moment. He persuaded Mr. Spanier's assistant to rearrange the president's schedule without Mr. Spanier's knowledge or approval. It worked.

On the Miami of Ohio campus, Mr. Battista remembers Mr. Spanier and Mr. Pegula standing next to the school's arena. They admired the beautiful facility then remarked that theirs would be better.

"To me," Mr. Battista says, "that was the tipping point."

He approached Mr. Spanier at a social function not long after. Mr. Spanier had discovered Mr. Battista's trick. Before even saying hello, Mr. Spanier told him, "Don't you ever do something like that again."

Now that a century of misfortune has been reversed, Mr. Battista is convinced this is only the beginning. Mr. Pegula, who purchased the NHL Buffalo Sabres in 2011, has discussed wanting Penn State to be the center of an explosion for quality youth hockey in Pennsylvania and New York.

Mr. Battista wants the hockey team to be a revenue sport for the university. He says more than $10 million has already been pledged from others, and he believes fans will flock to the 6,000-seat Pegula Ice Arena to enjoy the crisp suites and the steepest student section allowed under building codes.

He visits the arena site nearly every day to watch the construction for a moment, the buzzing drills reassuring him this is all real, finally, gloriously real.

psusports - neigh_east

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter: @mdent05.


Advertisement

Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here