Metro Exposure – South Philly Style

Metro Exposure – South Philly Style

One major hurdle that’ll certainly come to pass for the Penn State ice hockey program when it upgrades to varsity status beginning next season will be to get the word out. For years, PSU’s version of collegiate hockey has been a finite cult following with rabid and loyal fans but not well known to many outside of Centre County. The Icers have been incredibly successful, but most of that success has fallen on deaf ears simply because club sports are not watched and/or followed by many outside of the club’s club. width=

In early January, the first step to remedy such an issue will take place. It’s often difficult to envision how small steps can lead to larger leaps, but it must start somewhere.

When the University of Connecticut decided to move into the Football Bowl Subdivision – the fancy, proper name for major college football – in the early 2000s, some scoffed at the notion and the motion. How the heck would UConn, a school known for its basketball prowess, ever possibly compete upon such a late arrival to the party?

Well, here’s how. It began with baby steps. First, the university rounded up funding for a new stadium. Then a coach was put in place, followed by gaining a conference affiliation when the Huskies began to compete in the Big East in 2004. Slowly but surely, former head coach Randy Ensall began to recruit quality players and formed an identity for the program while the troops on the ground began to sell tickets and trump up interest.

By 2004, in only its third season at the highest level, the Huskies reached a bowl game, in which they posted a 39-10 victory over Toledo. Again, baby steps. As interest grew and those in the area began to take notice, more tickets were sold, more donations from alumni were made and a modern football training complex, complete with everything that the other Big East schools had, was built.

Suddenly, it was actually real; the University of Connecticut had a major college football team. Flash ahead five years from that first bowl appearance to last season. If you weren’t watching, UConn played in a BCS bowl just under one year ago. By virtue of its Big East title (we’re not here to dispute the validity of that league’s automatic bid, which is a complete joke, so don’t start arguing), the Huskies faced off against Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl.

So in a span of less than 10 years, the program went from competing in Division I-AA to competing in a BCS game.

 width=Penn State will undoubtedly be able to make similar strides with its program. Today, in December of 2011, it is almost impossible to envision the Nittany Lions playing in the Frozen Four with the likes of Michigan State, Boston College, Minnesota and the other powerhouse programs in collegiate hockey. But it can happen and eventually, it will happen.

What’s the first step? Well, that’s already been handled thanks to Terry Pegula. However, in terms of media relations and forcing its way into the public eye, that first step will occur on January 4 when PSU will take on Division III’s Neumann University on the outdoor rink at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Fans of the National Hockey League are surely aware of the Winter Classic, which has surged into the national spotlight as the centerpiece of the regular season schedule. Former sites for this contest, which will take place for only the fifth time after it began in 2008, include Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. The spectacle of an outdoor hockey rink laid out over the field of a Major League  width=Baseball stadium is, from this viewpoint, very overrated. Actually, it stinks. The sightlines are terrible, the temperature is brutally cold and after the first five minutes, the novelty wears off when you can’t feel your toes.

But the concern here is not whether or not the actual game itself is interesting. Rather, the fact that “Penn State Hockey” will be included on the Winter Classic’s event program and website is the first major stride toward relevance. Getting the word out to the general public must start somewhere, and there’s no better place than to be included as part of the biggest event of the year for the biggest hockey league in the world.

“There are a tremendous number of Penn State alumni living in the Greater Philadelphia area who are looking forward to this game,” said Comcast-Spectacor’s President Peter Luukko. “We’re really looking forward to welcoming Penn State Division I Hockey to Philadelphia.”

That’s not a bunch of bull. Knowing Peter personally, he’s a genuine guy but also no dummy. He didn’t need to go out of his way to include Penn State in this bonanza. But his team decided to do so because the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will be the biggest starting point for recruiting once the program gets its feet wet. In big business, one hand always washes the other, and there will be plenty of opportunities for a globally-known university such as Penn State and a globally-successful media giant such as Comcast (which owns the Flyers) to make money together down the road. Luukko had the foresight to jump on that boat very quickly; there’s a reason his private office bathroom is bigger than most apartments in State College.

Penn State has held annual summer hockey camps for kids of all ages since the late 1980s. Don’t be surprised if in three years, Flyers players begin to show up at “Penn State Ice Hockey Camp, sponsored by Comcast-Spectacor.” And certainly, once Pegula Ice Arena is up and running, PSU students who partake in the ongoing on-campus war between Flyers fans and Penguins fans will gather to watch Flyers-Penguins preseason games live from University Park.