College hockey's grand experiment at football mecca Penn State was barely three minutes old on Oct. 11 when the ice broke at alumnus Terry Pegula's namesake arena.
The rainmaker — whose $88 million donation launched the Nittany Lions' program, and in turn spawned Big Ten hockey — was engulfed by white T-shirts and pom-poms when the student section erupted after the first goal in a season-opening 4-1 victory over Army.
“He was smiling ear-to-ear and high-fiving students; it was magical,” recalled Joe Battista, the successful club hockey coach who facilitated Pegula's generosity into the largest gift in Penn State history. “Terry said afterward it was one of the most memorable weekends of his life.”
The euphoria never abated at Penn State, which sold out every home game despite winning only seven games all season.
Is it a template for expansion or a model unique to Happy Valley? That is one of the questions from the Big Ten's inaugural season as the conference begins its first championship tournament this week at the Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minn.
Bottom line: The Big Ten will remain the Invested Six.
There are no plans to expand or incorporate affiliate teams, nor have any conference outliers expressed interest about starting a hockey program, according to associate Big Ten Commissioner Jennifer Heppel.
Administrators and coaches have deemed 2013-14 a success on and off the ice. Conference officials say they are focused on increasing the fan base and strengthening a new product to stand alongside football and basketball legacy programs that continue to drive revenue.
Overall, the six teams played to 80 percent of capacity, notwithstanding the albatross of Ohio State's 17,500-seat multipurpose arena. The Big Ten Network's Friday night doubleheader broadcasts are popular with fans; viewership increased 37 percent from the network's 2012-13 nonconference coverage, according to the network.
Despite disparity in the win column between regular-season champion Minnesota (14-3-3) and last-place Penn State (3-16-1), the games were competitive. The Gophers scored an average of 1.1 more goals a game, but four of the five other teams had a goal differential of less than one.
“We're tracking everything, and we've been incredibly pleased the way the first season has gone, across the board,” Heppel said. “We're excited about the tournament at the best hockey arena in the country in the best city to be hosting college hockey.
“The feedback from the schools is there's a buzz that might not have been there before the familiarity of the Big Ten. It's hard to say what the numbers will be in five years, in terms of attendance and ratings. That's hard to measure.”
Minnesota, after playing 61 years in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, has a chance to raise a Big Ten banner to the Mariucci Arena rafters after this weekend. The No. 1-ranked team in the country is the top seed and received a quarterfinal bye, along with No. 6 Wisconsin (22-10-2, 13-6-1).
The Gophers (25-5-6 overall) will face first-round winner Ohio State (16-13-5, 6-9-5) or Michigan State (11-17-7, 5-9-6) in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday. The tournament winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“It was pretty much what I expected it to be,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said of the first Big Ten season. “One of the things that will ramp up as the years go by is the rivalries. You don't have a great sense of the other teams yet; we haven't seen them four years in a row.
“The great thing about the Big Ten is you get a true champion at the end of the year because you get to play everyone home and away.”
However, until these new rivals generate animosity and feuding among less-connected fan bases, the atmosphere at Mariucci Arena could remain subdued compared with some of those WCHA barnburners.
Big Ten teams play four games against one another, leaving 14 nonconference dates to fill. To preserve intrastate rivalries that realignment gutted, the Gophers partnered with Bemidji State, Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth to host an annual tournament at the Xcel Energy Center.
Bemidji State and Minnesota State remained in the WCHA, while St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth joined North Dakota in the nascent National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Minnesota also committed to playing an annual series against archrival North Dakota, rotating home and away.
“We've got six good venues to play in, six programs that are certainly committed to having a very good hockey program,” Lucia said. “Having the chance to play a really good nonconference schedule has really helped us. I don't think we've lost anything.”
The quaintness of the Big Ten's hockey league lends itself to expansion chatter. But Michigan State coach Tom Anastos said that misses the point. Twenty conference games provide plenty of balance and variation for teams to schedule nonconference opponents.
“I didn't know what it would be like to play a 20-game nonconference schedule, but I liked the blend of it,” said Anastos, who spent 13 years as commissioner of the now-defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“I'm not stuck on the six-team thing. The NHL had an Original Six an awful long time. If every team played six or eight games against each other, I might feel different. But only four times? Right now, I think that's a pretty good situation.”
Heppel acknowledges “Penn State hit a home run” by making hockey games an event at the 5,782-seat Pegula Ice Arena. The Nittany Lions picked up four of their six victories at home and are well into establishing a loud and difficult building for teams to visit.
The student section behind the visitor's net for the first and third periods was designed as steep as building codes allowed to heap negative energy on opposing goaltenders.
However, Ohio State, their neighbor to the west, faces a tougher challenge showcasing hockey in a nontraditional market. The Buckeyes share cavernous Value City Arena with the basketball program, the only shared venue in the conference.
Ohio State finished last in attendance, averaging 4,576 fans — 26 percent of capacity. The team draped black curtains to cordon off the upper bowl, but the atmosphere remained tepid at best.
“We've just got to continue to push,” first-year coach Steve Rohlik said. “It's a phenomenal facility and great building to play in, but we're not close to sellouts. History will prove itself by how we continue to grow and play. It's about continuing to educate the Columbus area about hockey.”
Penn State might be Ohio State's biggest recruiting rival. That's a battle Rohlik, who grew up in St. Paul and spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Minnesota-Duluth, welcomes.
Ohio State's 50-year hockey history has been overshadowed by its powerhouse football program and the reinvigoration of the men's basketball team 15 years ago. But the Big Ten brand is almighty in Columbus, and Rohlik believes increased television coverage provides a platform for Ohio State to tell its story.
“I think we're going to be an unbelievable opportunity for a kid to play hockey at an elite level, in an elite league and get an elite education,” he said.
The Big Ten Network, with its built-in corporate sponsorships, has exposed a niche sport to a broader audience, not only with seven hours of Friday night game broadcasts but with its slickly produced pregame and postgame highlight shows.
Moreover, ESPN picked up seven games it showed on ESPNU and ESPN News, while Big Ten Network produced five games that aired on the NBC Sports Network.
“It's definitely been met with more enthusiasm than I thought it would, frankly,” said Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman. “I believe hockey has the potential to be a clear, leading sport in the Big Ten, even though it never existed before in that form. The challenge with our investment is to grow the viewing audience.”
Friday nights had been a dumping ground on the Big Ten Network, its time slots typically reserved for wrestling tournaments, documentaries and reruns. Silverman said the goal is for the sport to generate sufficient ratings not only to cover production costs but to attract bigger advertisers.
“These things take years to grow,” he said. “We committed to Friday night doubleheaders, but we need to be consistent and keep promoting it more and expand the appeal.”
Simply having six schools talking about hockey during Big Ten meetings might not be enough to tempt the remaining six schools to start wooing potential donors such as Pegula. But there might be reservoirs of untapped support and potential for public-private partnerships already there.
Northwestern and Illinois are obvious candidates for Big Ten expansion.
Illinois has a successful club program in hockey, similar to the six-time national championship team Battista coached at Penn State. Northwestern has an affluent alumni base and is just outside downtown Chicago, where the resurgence of the NHL's Blackhawks, who have won two Stanley Cups the past four seasons, has made hockey hip.
And consider that 66 Illinois men are playing Division I hockey, fifth-most of any state, behind Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin and New York.
“Nobody knew ESPN was going to get involved. Clearly it's a draw, and that was a big concern among schools going in,” said Chris Peters, a college hockey blogger and editor of United States of Hockey. “Is it going to matter if the Big Ten has hockey, and is that brand viable for our school? We won't know until two or three years down the line.
“The thing I'll be watching is what happens to the smaller programs in college hockey. Now that realignment has settled, it's been a hard adjustment for some of those teams in the WCHA and NCHC, and some of their attendance is starting to go down.
“The attention the Big Ten gets, nobody else gets that. The impact on everyone else is going to be a factor on determining whether this was a success or failure.”