One Last Roar

Dear Nittany Lions Family,

When I tell people the story of the Penn State men’s hockey program, I like to say it was like going from the outhouse to the penthouse. Let me explain.

The story begins with a locker room.

Now, I can’t really remember what my expectations were in terms of this locker room, but I have to admit that I was taken aback the first time I saw it on my recruiting visit to Penn State. It was the sort of standard-issue locker room you’d see in your local community rink, just not as big and probably a little dirtier, too. Not wearing sandals in there would have been a mistake. I remember thinking to myself, How in the world are 25 or so college-aged guys going to get dressed in here? That question got answered during our first Senior Practice in 2011. All the rookies had to grab their gear from the main locker room, walk through the bathroom to the visitor’s locker room and get dressed in there. Even on game days.

Only four years ago, this was ground zero for the Penn State hockey men’s hockey program. A lot has changed since then. Back then, Penn State was still just a club-hockey school. We played in a rink that had the charm of a dive bar rather than a college arena. This majestic palace was called the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, and I’ll never forget it. It sat about 1,300 people, but it didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for them. The lights were this odd shade of orange, so it looked like someone had sprayed self-tanner all over the rink. It was so ugly, but it also had a lot of character.  

When I entered Penn State, we were a club team, but when I graduate this spring, the other seniors and I will leave school proud to say that we played a big part in building the foundation of Nittany Lions’ D-I hockey program.

It didn’t happen overnight. The first change anyone noticed was probably the biggest: a state-of-the-art hockey facility. We never would have been able to upgrade from the orange glow at the Pavilion to our new arena if it hadn’t been for the Pegula family’s generous donation. Their vision, along with the guidance and support from the school, far surpasses anything my teammates and I could have dreamed of. On my recruiting visit to Happy Valley, I remember seeing plans for what the arena would become. Blueprints, that was it. Instead of a flashy visit to brand new facilities — like you’d have done at another college — they were selling me on a promise of the future of Nittany Lions hockey.

The Pegula Arena was a nice change from the Pavilion. We’re grateful for more than just the building itself, though. The magic of the new arena starts with the student section. We’ve always had a great hockey fanbase, but now we could fit more people into a nicer space. Don’t get me wrong — we’ve always appreciated all the fans we could get, especially at the Pavilion. But suddenly, instead of playing in front of a few of our buddies and some girls in Alpha Phi, we were averaging 6,030 fans.

To my rowdy fellow students who packed the Roar Zone, I just want you all to know: We heard you. Every time. Every chant. Every song. And I love you guys.

Thanks for being there through thick and thin. Thanks for getting extra pumped when I scored (which we know didn’t happen that often). And thanks for coming through every time we got ahold of you with a new sign idea. You were an opposing goalie’s (I’m thinking of Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand) worst nightmare.

As great as the atmosphere was, we would have been more than happy with the arena itself. We felt so spoiled by how professional it was. When my dad (Eddie Olczyk) walked through for the first time, he said it was probably better than five or six locker rooms in the Show. But there was more to come. Nothing gets a group of hockey guys giddier than any kind of new thing. Suddenly, we had a cutting edge training room and weight room, a lounge with a big flat-screen TV, a locker room that we actually wanted to change in and a study room, which got pretty crowded during exam weeks.

Being able to move into a place like that with teammates and friends that had taken the same risk as I had … I honestly don’t have words for that (and if you know me, you know that never happens). For all we knew, the plans of Penn State’s D-I hockey team could have fallen through, but I had a good idea before I made my commitment that wasn’t going to be a problem. Our head coach, Guy Gadowsky, played a huge part in getting me to believing that.

I remember the first time I spoke with Gads on the phone back in May 2011. It was after my fourth year of playing junior hockey for the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL. I was 20 years old and I still hadn’t signed with anyone to play college hockey. I had talked to my dad’s good friend, Ben Bouma, a Penn State grad, about what was going on at Penn State in terms of its hockey program, but after having played in the USHL for four years, I didn’t want to play club hockey for another year. All of that changed when I answered Gads’ phone call.

“Hey, this is Guy Gadowsky with Penn State hockey.”

I had met Gads before when he was the head coach at Princeton. It was in a hotel in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was staying while scouting the Musketeers’ tryout camp. He was a pretty big guy, had a goatee, a slicked-back haircut, and he wasn’t wearing his fake front tooth. The epitome of a grizzled hockey coach.

“Hi, Coach Gadowsky, how’s it going?”

The very first question he asked me was, “Do you want to play hockey at Penn State?”

Crickets. I didn’t know what to say. There was an awkward 30 second pause before I told him that I would love the opportunity to come to Penn State for a visit. Within a week, I was on campus and had an offer to play at Penn State. I had taken a couple of visits to other schools during my tenure in Sioux City, but nothing seemed right. Everything about Happy Valley felt like the right fit.

A couple of other schools seemed interested in me but the coaches kept prolonging the recruiting process. Gads, on the other hand, sped things up. He wanted me to help him. He went out of his way to take me under his wing and put his trust in me like any good friend would. I can’t thank him enough. And after realizing that I would still have all four years of eligibility after playing one year of club hockey, playing for the Nittany Lions was an absolute no-brainer.

I felt more and more confident in my decision when I saw guys like Taylor Holstrom, Nate Jensen and PJ Musico decide to come to Penn State, too. I remember having played against “Holy” and “Jens” in the USHL, and I knew they both had stellar freshmen seasons at Mercyhurst. The fact that those two left a D-I school to play club hockey for a year spoke volumes. I also remember having played against PJ at USA hockey player development camps growing up. He was this big, goofy-looking, Cali boy with long blonde hair. He was also one heck of a goaltender. He was a stud in juniors, but I knew he had other offers besides Penn State. Luckily he decided to come here, and we’ve been best friends ever since.

Even though it was a risk, we knew playing for the Nittany Lions was a huge opportunity. We had the chance to make history. To be able to say that we were part of the first Penn State men’s hockey team, the first ever ranked Penn State men’s hockey team, and all the other firsts we were a part of together — all in four years — was something that any competitive kid would be proud of.

My teammates and I knew what we could do on the ice. Even if people outside of our team didn’t (funny how some critics said we wouldn’t win our first Big Ten game until this past season, when we actually won it in 2013). So we decided to stick together and spend most of our time together — anywhere we could. For the past three years that place was usually Pegula Ice Arena.

Guys would go to Pegula in the morning to hang out, then go to class, then come back to the rink for a workout, then go back to class, and then return for practice. Heck, I spent so much time with the guys at Pegula that I’ve probably only showered twice at my own home this year. Luke Juha actually slept there on multiple occasions. I know other teams have special bonds, but our unique opportunity to continue to make history made us incredibly close. And we always treated each other as equals. Well, maybe not all of the time. Every now and then, we made the freshman let us into the Commons — our cafeteria — for a free meal. (Sorry fellas, you’ll get those meals one day, too.)

The fact is, I’m the only player left on this team who has been here from the beginning. I look back at that club hockey year and remember that it was almost the reason I decided against going to Penn State. A lot has changed, especially in terms of the talent level of our team, but some things have not. I remember playing with George Saad (Brandon’s older brother) for the first two years I was here. He wasn’t the most skilled guy around and, to be honest, after he stickhandled, the puck looked more like a square than a circle. But man, did he work his bag off. He was one of the guys who set the tone for this team in terms of hard work, and I’ll always respect him for that. Guys like George are the reason that, even though our talent level has grown, our work ethic is still the same.

But the thing I’m most proud of that hasn’t changed: the tight bonds on each of the five Penn State teams I’ve played on — even during that first year of club hockey, where the “club guys” easily could have resented some of us. I have Walmart to thank for that.

It was back when we were still a club team. We took a bus to our road games, even the ones that were five states away. This particular weekend, we were playing Friday and Saturday night games at the University of Rhode Island. We were set to leave after our second game when a massive blizzard hit. The roads were not safe to drive on, so our entire team ended up having to sleep on our bus in a Walmart parking lot. Some guys laid down in the aisle and some, like myself, curled up across two seats. Guys stayed up most of the night telling jokes and stories, and it was evident that no matter what our particular hockey backgrounds were, we genuinely enjoyed being around each other. Even in such a brutal situation, we made the best of it. We were in it together.

They say hockey road trips are bonding experiences, but that was next level.

We’re no longer on our club-hockey budget, so if we ran into a blizzard now we’d probably just spring for a hotel. No alligator arms here. But those are the types of stories that you never forget.

Nowadays we take a bus from the rink to the airport, where the bus drops us off about 10 feet from the door of a chartered plane. We stay in hotels that are probably too nice for us. We get fed like kings. And we’ve had the opportunity to play in several NHL arenas, including Madison Square Garden in January, where arguably my finest moment as a Penn State hockey player took place (if any Rangers are reading, please don’t tell the following to Rick Nash).

We got to MSG before the game and found out that we were going to be dressing in the New York Rangers’ locker room. The first thing everyone did was see whose stall their equipment was in. My equipment was hanging in Rick Nash’s stall, which I thought was pretty cool. The next thing I heard from the boys is that the Rangers’ helmets were in the storage compartments underneath the seats of the stalls. Now I’m the guy on the team who jokes around all the time, especially when I feel the guys need to loosen up a bit before the game. We were playing on the grandest stage of them all, and I could feel some nervousness around the room, so I threw Rick Nash’s helmet on.

I then proceeded to run around the locker room pretending to skate and stickhandle, all while yelling in a high-pitched voice, “I’m Rick Nash! I’m Rick Nash!” (Yes, I’m 25 years old.) My teammates were dying laughing and then all of a sudden stopped. I turn around and one of the Rangers’ equipment managers was staring at me.

Then he said, “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t touch the helmets.”

I put my tail between my legs, put the helmet back and heard our captain, David Glen, say, “Sorry about that. He’s a freshman. We’ll take care of him.”

Now guys were laughing at me because I got in trouble, and the next thing I know, our own equipment manager, Adam Sheehan, came back to report that he had just been chewed out by the Rangers’ equipment guy. He gave one look around the locker room, locked eyes with me, and asked a question to which he already knew the answer: “It was you, wasn’t it?”

What’s college for if you can’t cross a line every once in awhile?

In a month I’ll be graduating from Penn State. On that day I’ll have to leave this beautiful place. As much as I know that I’m leaving behind, I also know that I’m not leaving empty-handed. I’ll be leaving “Hockey Valley” with lifelong friends, more connections than I ever could have imagined, memories that probably won’t ever be topped and a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting. Most importantly, I’ll also be leaving with pride. Pride in what I helped build at Penn State, and pride in the future of Penn State hockey.

There are so many people that have had an impact on me since I began my college journey — too many people to thank individually. If you had an impact on me, you know you did, so please do not be offended that I’m not dropping names (cough, cough, Ricky DeRosa). Thank you to all my teammates and roommates over the years, all my coaches, my friends outside of hockey, all of my professors, the Pegula Family, the Penn State athletic department, and Penn State University. You took a chance on me, and I can only hope that I made as much of a difference in your lives as you did in mine. My love and passion for Penn State will never die.

As far as my future goes, I’m going to try and continue my playing career. Whether that takes me overseas to Europe, or to a league in North America, who knows? I just know that I’m not ready to hang ’em up yet. I’ll never forget these glorious five years. I’ll never forget our first game at Pegula against Army, or our first Big Ten win against Michigan. I know my former teammates will never let me forget that one time in Alaska when I had to chase after the bus. And I’ll never, ever forget that WE ARE … PENN STATE.

Your friend,

Tommy Olczyk