Friday, July 27, 2012

Penn State: Light in the Darkness

It's hard to get past it in hindsight.

At the press conference in State College, PA that began the shake-up of the college hockey universe on September 17, 2010, the benefactors of varsity hockey at Penn State, Kim and Terry Pegula, sat flanked by two individuals for whom it made perfect sense to be there - athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier. Both men discussed the excitement they felt to be making a step forward, bringing big time college hockey to a sixth Big Ten campus in two years' time.

Fast forward almost two years. Watching the announcement now, knowing the secret both men had been hiding for over a decade, and the impact isn't quite the same. Now, with Spanier fired, Curley on a leave of absence and under indictment, and the school's premier athletic program under a crippling sanction announced earlier this week by the NCAA and the Big Ten, varsity hockey at Penn State will take the ice for the first time in three months under a cloud of shame that now hangs over the entire school.

And the school itself may not yet be out of the woods. As former NCAA.org blogger John Infante says, Penn State may yet be subject to sanction by the federal Department of Education for violations of the Clery Act, which requires schools receiving federal financial aid to publicly report any crime on or near campus. The potential penalties include significant fines or even a prohibition from receiving federal aid, a move which would be akin to a "death penalty" for the entire school.

Could the Penn State scandal have an impact on college hockey? Some have asked if the harsh sanctions applied to the school's cash cow athletic program could produce problems for its 28 other varsity programs, potentially including the new kinds on the block in men's and women's hockey. The short answer, at least as it pertains to hockey, is: probably not. Hockey in Happy Valley is fortunate to be the child of private investment, for both scholarships and new facilities. Construction continues unabated on Pegula Ice Arena, which is slated to be done in about a year, just in time for the start of the hockey version of the Big Ten. The only real fallout from the NCAA sanctions (and the scandal itself) is how potential recruits view the school's reputation in the future.

The only thing hockey fans would have to fear is that "death penalty" from the federal government - an occurrence that would potentially undermine the school in a fundamental manner to make athletics there very difficult to maintain in any real capacity. That would probably lead to some very intense pressure by the other Big Ten schools on fellow conference institutions without varsity hockey due to the irreparable destruction of existing hockey conference bonds making status quo ante bellum highly unlikely (no fewer than 19 programs are slated to change conferences next year).

Honestly, though, it's not even worth pondering that scenario for a couple of reasons. First, it's more frequently an exercise left to those who continue to resent Penn State for helping to alter the college hockey landscape that people had gotten used to; really, those resistant to change. Second, Penn State is likely "too big to fail," as Infante said of them, and it's unlikely the government would intentionally cripple such a large school, putting literally tens of thousands of students' academic careers into chaos.

I prefer to turn the question on its head. Perhaps college hockey can have an impact on the Penn State scandal.

There's no doubt that Penn State is enduring the darkest moments in its 157-year history. Powerful people at the school chose to look the other way while a monster committed unspeakable crimes against the most innocent members of society. Those people have now been removed, responsible parties punished or on their way to punishment, and the program which benefited most from the cover-up has been set back at least five years, and likely well over a decade.

But hockey is a unique sport. It's quite niche, given the fact that the usual east/west split is the Ohio/Pennsylvania border rather than the Mississippi River, and the fact that Alabama-Huntsville continues to be viewed as something of an oddity. Small schools regularly compete with large schools, and sometimes, they even win. And above all, it can be akin to a family, something which anyone who's been to even one Frozen Four can attest. Scholarship scandals tend to be on the rare side, and sanctions are unusual - only two Division I programs have ever had to vacate Frozen Four appearances, and none since 1992.

So we think back to that day two years ago when Penn State and the rest of the college hockey world was excited for varsity hockey in State College, a place that had already proven itself with rabid support for a club program and represented the first major university coming into the sport in decades. Look past the guilty parties that were part of that announcement and see through to the promise of a brighter future for a place in need of some serious healing. Consider Guy Gadowsky, the man who made Princeton hockey relevant again, who always brings to town a team that plays a style that's fun to watch.

Penn State comes to the Capital District in late November to take on Union, right after Thanksgiving. RPI has that weekend off. Let's head up Route 7, welcome college hockey's newest kids on the block, and hope and pray that the potential for excellence on the ice in central Pennsylvania can be the start of a new and positive chapter for a once-great institution that lost its way.

And, while you're thinking about Penn State, why not surf on over to Thank You Terry, a Penn State hockey blog worth bookmarking. Headed up by the very well written Kyle Rossi, if you've got any misgivings about Penn State's hockey future, you'll be sure to lose them by checking out his excellent advocacy.

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