UNIVERSITY PARK - Members of the Penn State men's ice hockey team knew they had a few fans, but still weren't sure how enthusiastic those fans would be.
Then last Friday night rolled around, the puck dropped just past midnight on the first official practice of the season, and more than 500 fans were sitting in the bleachers. Most of them even stuck around well past 1 a.m. for a chance to skate with the team.
"I've never seen anything like that for a practice," junior forward Taylor Holmstrom said. "I was pumped up. I was ready to go. Just having all those fans there was a good time."
The enthusiasm soon will be even more palpable.
After decades as a club program, and knowing for two years this day would officially be coming, the season opener is just days away.
"It's a very exciting time right now," head coach Guy Gadowsky said. "There's been a lot of work that has gone to get us to this point, a lot that you don't expect, and a lot of work still to be done. But all in all it's exciting."
The Nittany Lions, who had a varsity program for five years in the 1940s before it became an NCAA sport, will take their first Division I steps at 7:30 p.m. Friday night in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion against American International. The team is expecting a packed house and plenty of important people on hand to see the debut of the newest varsity program.
"I know it's going to be emotional, but emotional in a good way," said senior Eric Steinour, who had spent the last three seasons with the Icers club program. "There will definitely be a lot of fans here. The fans have always been great here ... and just to have that first D-1 game here in front of them is a great experience and I can't wait."
The NCAA's official start day of practices was last Saturday, so the team got its early jump with its own version of "midnight madness," with only one week to prepare for their first game. The open practice brought out plenty of fans in the early morning hours, and many brought their own skates -- or rented some -- for a chance to skate with the team afterward.
"It was a lot of fun to see how many people came out and supported us," junior defenseman Nate Jensen said. "I feel like this college could become a hockey school college where you get a lot of people coming out to check out our games, especially once we get the new rink. But it was also nice to interact with our fans, see how they're excited for our new season and our new D-1 program."
"It was cool to interact with the fans," sophomore forward Max Gardner said. "It seemed like they're really excited to see us get going Division I at Penn State. It's fun to see that kind of excitement."
The men will follow in the footsteps of the women's team, which began its inaugural varsity season last weekend, winning its opener at Vermont before falling on Sunday.
The roster includes a wide variety of athletes, from top-level recruits to 16 holdovers from last season's club team. Among those with bigger resumes, Gardner played a season at Minnesota, while sophomore team captain Tom Olczyk is the son of former NHL player and coach and current NBC analyst Ed Olczyk. Gardner is one of five with Division I experience, joining Jensen and Holmstrom, who transferred from Mercyhurst.
For those who are making the jump from the Icers club program, this season is a reward that for some wasn't even expected when they committed to Penn State.
"This year coming up, I feel like it will be a great end to a great career," Steinour said. "I couldn't ask for a better position to be in. I never thought I'd ever be in this position."
The Nittany Lions will play 16 of their 35 scheduled games this season at home, including eight exhibitions and a home series next month against preseason No. 19 Air Force. The slate also includes several marquee road games, including next month playing two games at No. 5 Union, a participant in last season's Frozen Four, and trips after the calendar turns to future Big Ten foes No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 16 Michigan State. Right after Christmas they will visit Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center for a tournament to face Robert Morris and either Ohio State or No. 9 Miami of Ohio.
Penn State will play as an independent this season before the Big Ten begins its hockey conference in 2013-14. They know they have to be realistic about their expectations with this first foray into the top level of college hockey, but the competitor will always come out in the end.
"We set goals, but we just want to have a productive season," Holmstrom said. "I don't know a number goal, I can't say wins-losses, that kind of thing, but we're going to develop a good foundation, a good first year for the program, and try to go in the right direction."
All of this year's games will be played in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion before the program moves to the Pegula Ice Arena, which is under construction on campus across University Drive from the Bryce Jordan Center and is scheduled to open next fall.
While they are sticking to the usual cliches of playing one game at a time, there is also an eye on the long-term, with what they can have ready for the first season in the Big Ten and in their future new home a few blocks away.
"When you talk about building a foundation, I think it's really important that you just know that it's something that takes constant attention," Gadowsky said. "It's a process and you really have to have a clear vision of that process from starting out and where you want to be along the line. It's like a garden - you can't ignore it."