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Penn State men's ice hockey coach reflects on what could've been after historic season

BEN FEREE
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Guy Gadowski

Guy Gadowsky and the rest of the Penn State hockey coaching staff were in the office, preparing for a team meeting.

It was a normal procedure as the Nittany Lions were preparing to host Minnesota in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament that Saturday. But then the reports started to roll in, college hockey tournaments across the country began to get canceled due to growing concerns over the novel coronavirus.

Eventually, the Big Ten canceled the tournament.

“We were hearing about the other hockey conferences and I can’t remember exactly what time the meeting was at, but during that time information was coming in on social media. So by the time we had our meeting everyone was anticipating that it was going to happen for the Big Ten,” Gadowsky said. “So it wasn’t the matter of ‘hey guys this is it,’ they knew what was going on and we sort of had a quick meeting and said we are going to have another one because of all the quick information.”

And by the second meeting rolled around, the NCAA canceled all championship events. Penn State’s historic season was over without a chance to play in a single postseason game.

“We just told the guys how well they did and why they should be really proud, and get sized for your rings and we will see you later,” Gadowsky said.

What if? The rings are for the Big Ten regular season championship, a first for the still young program. While Penn State did win one trophy this season, it will always wonder “What if?”

“There are a lot bigger things going on in the world right now than Penn State hockey, but I really do feel for this team because I think they were poised to go,” Gadowsky said. “They lost one game in their last nine, we were finally getting healthy and I think they were just coming together and really learned a lot of lessons. And I think they were really hungry to prove that they were going to go far in the NCAA tournament.”

Penn State would’ve had the opportunity to host a Big Ten tournament championship game at Pegula, a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament in Allentown, and possibly make the Frozen Four in Detroit, which would’ve been another first for the program.

Especially tough for seniors: According to Gadowsky, this is especially hard to digest for the program’s seniors, who played such an instrumental role in growing the program from the “new kids on the block” to a competitor with some of the top programs in the nation.

“That’s where a lot of that attitude came from and they’re a group that as freshmen won the Big Ten tournament, but they heard the rumblings, ‘you shouldn’t have been there; you still aren’t good,’ and I’ll tell you what, they were really hungry to prove that wasn’t a fluke,” Gadowsky said. “So I do feel for them very badly. The reflection was immediate, some players spoke to the team.

“I am very proud of what they’ve done, obviously the most successful team we’ve had here, just really unfortunate that we couldn’t find out how far they could go.”

Championship moment: And despite Penn State’s season ending without a chance to compete in the postseason, Gadowksy knows they had a special, championship moment, a 31-second stretch against Minnesota in what would end up being the final game of the season for the Nittany Lions.

“At the time, we knew that to have chance that we really had to win that game, obviously it felt like Kevin Wall’s goal 31 seconds after Pav’s goal was a huge goal and a great moment, but now with how things turned out that the season got canceled,” Gadowsky said. “When I spoke to him last time, before we hung up we were like ‘hey Wallsy, that turned out to be pretty big man,’ and I think this team should be very, very proud of this championship.”

Eligibility issue: At one point, it seemed like the Penn State seniors might have another opportunity to compete in a blue-and-white sweater, as the NCAA is allowing spring sport athletes to have another year of eligibility. But the NCAA council eventually ruled winter sports athletes would not be a part of that decision.

But according to Gadowsky, the opportunity for another year of eligibility isn’t something that has been discussed within the program.

“None of the guys have really talked about that. As you know, a lot of them have already moved on, so that makes that sort of mute,” Gadowsky said. “I respect the NCAA’s decision and I’m very, very happy for the spring sport athletes that get a chance to fulfill their senior year, which is a great experience and I’m happy for them.

Going pro: Penn State has already had three seniors sign professional contracts with Brandon Biro heading to the Buffalo Sabres, Nate Sucese signing with the Arizona Coyotes and Liam Folkes signing with the Bakersfield Condors, the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers.

Evan Barratt decided to forgo his senior season and sign with the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, becoming the fourth Nittany Lions to ink a professional contract since the NIttany Lions season ended.

Gadowsky, who now spends his days at home with his three kids, three dogs and three cats, has admittedly still not fully turned the page toward next season, but is treating it like business as usual — despite the unusual coronavirus circumstances — hopeful that the start of the college hockey season will not be impacted.

“Our plan is to proceed as if all is going to follow the schedule that normally would,” Gadowsky said. “Once people, way above my pay grade, make decisions, I’m sure we will get the information right away. Until then, we are just going on status quo.”