Bart | Requiem for a team
April 23, 2013, 8:25 pm · Updated April 24, 2013, 12:11 am·
A little over a week ago, Ivy hockey was once again in the national spotlight.
After a hard-fought tournament and Frozen Four, Yale emerged as the victor, winning its first ever NCAA title after taking down the No. 1 seeded Qunnipiac.
The Bulldogs were the first team in the Ancient Eight to make it to the Frozen Four since Cornell’s run in 2003. Cornell and Harvard are the only other two Ivy teams to have won the national title.
“What are the sports in an Ivy League school that you can win a major Division I sport? Hockey is one of those,” said Joe Battista, associate athletic director at Penn State, which just made the move to Division I hockey.
Amidst this success in the world of Ivy League ice hockey, there is still a void. Columbia and Penn are the only two schools in the Ancient Eight without hockey programs, and Penn once had a team that was on the rise.
But the priority and the push aren’t there for the Red and Blue.
“It’s just funny that hockey is an Ivy League tradition,” former Penn hockey player Tom Cullity said. “I just watched a few minutes ago as Yale beat UMass Lowell to move onto the national championship. That was a pretty fun, strong tradition at that time, and I think it still would be.”
Penn has a lot to offer. There are top-notch academics and a standing tradition of success in athletics.
“There’s no doubt that the school could attract good players and good students,” said Bob Finke, Penn’s final varsity hockey coach. “When you look at the number of communities and areas of the country that are out playing hockey, there are players out there.”
If smaller schools like Qunnipiac and Holy Cross can have hockey, “there’s no reason why Penn can’t,” he added.
So why, when other programs were reinstated, did ice hockey never get its triumphant return?
The obvious answer is the issue of money — or lack thereof — in support of hockey.
“We don’t have the budget for it,” President Amy Gutmann said. “We can’t do everything, but everything we do we want to do well, and to create a team that just doesn’t have the resources to really compete doesn’t make sense and we don’t have the resources. It’s very expensive to mount that.
“If someone came forward with an endowment that would enable us to do it, it would be a different story, but nobody has.”
Endowing the program would be key if any form of reinstatement of the varsity program were possible. Penn wouldn’t want to pour the resources into a Division I hockey team unless it was sure it could continue to sustain itself.
“To bring back hockey, first of all, we’d have to have women’s hockey as well as men’s, and to upgrade the facility to the level you would need to have a first-class facility, probably would require upwards of $30 to $40 million,” Athletics Director Steve Bilsky said.
So the issue becomes finding a donor or group of donors that are willing to provide the necessary funds to set up a program, as no University dollars would come through in the case of bringing back a previously cut team.
“The University made a policy — and that predates me — that in order to bring a sport back, it had to be fully funded from external sources,” Bilsky said. “I was a student here. I went to the hockey games. I’m a big hockey fan, so I’m not saying that if you could turn back that clock you wouldn’t have made a different decision, maybe you would, but the reality is that that’s the rules for coming back.
“When people ask that question and I say, ‘Are you interested in giving $30 to $40 million?’ They usually say, ‘I think club hockey is great.’ So, it’s primarily financial.”
Bilsky added that it seems as though many people actually prefer club hockey, as it is much lower in costs, is less of a time commitment and does not have the strict NCAA rules and regulations.
“I really sense that it is probably right the way it is right now,” he said.
But club hockey would still exist if the varsity program were to be reinstated. It’s not necessarily X’s and O’s.
This year, Penn State was able to do what hockey fans and alumni from Penn could only dream of at this point — make the move to Division I. But unlike Penn, which would only look at the potential of varsity hockey if the opportunity were brought to it, Penn State took initiative in the search for a major donation to support the move.
“The only way that we would ever make this dream come true is that we had to get a significant private gift,” Battista said. “We got the Pegula family to give us $102 million. It is the largest gift to ever be given to the University. There were many people who were not happy that the largest gift ever went to athletics and to an ice arena.”
Billionaire businessman, owner of the Buffalo Sabres and Penn State graduate Terry Pegula made this move possible for the Nittany Lions. This was part of a long process of securing the necessary funds to make the jump. In fact, for the past 30 years of his career, Battista had been pushing for this move.
“As long as we could get a gift, we had a president who was supportive, an athletic director who was supportive, but only if it added up financially,” Battista said. “That was the big thing.”
But this steep price of setting up a program came with the cost of building an arena, something Penn already has.
“I’m sure [the rink] would need to be renovated as it would have to be modernized, but I think after that, it really comes down to probably trying to get enough private support for an endowment to fund the programs,” Battista said. “It all comes down to money because it is a very, very expensive sport.”
Without an active search, however, the reinstatement of the varsity hockey program seems to be a lost cause.
“You absolutely need somebody on the inside who wants to champion the project,” Battista said. “If you don’t support within the administration, within the alumni, it makes it that much more difficult.”
And in the light of the $4.3 billion made during the Making History campaign — athletics raised over $100 million, which primarily went to facilities and the endowment of coaching positions — it is evident that there are alumni out there quite willing to give, it is just whether or not they want the money to go towards bringing back Division I hockey.
“I’ve got to believe that there is somebody who graduated from Penn that has a significant amount of wealth,” Battista said, “It’s always about connecting people’s passion with a project. That’s what happened with Terry.”
Tom Whitehead, who transferred to Cornell after the Penn hockey program was disbanded during his junior year, agreed with this sentiment.
“I certainly keep in touch with my teammates. I certainly won’t mention names, there are certainly individuals that have the wherewithal to contribute significantly to a program if that’s part of it.”
But Whitehead doesn’t believe it is just the financial aspect that is the only setback.
“I know [finances are] a big part of it, but there’s the commitment in the recruiting,” he said. “When you’re asking individuals to make a choice, Penn’s going to have a challenge out the gate of commitment to hockey.”
“Even if they would have reinstated the program, students wouldn’t have been willing to come, all that stuff. So we were pretty sure that the damage had been done,” said Cullity, who transferred to Vermont after his sophomore year. “I think we felt that they pretty much destroyed the program at this point.”
But having a firm commitment in the form of an endowment would provide the ability to jump this hurdle and provide the financial stability to cover up the historic lack of commitment to hockey.
Though Dave Akre — one of the few who decided to stay at Penn after varsity hockey was cut — “would be highly surprised if the sport ever became a varsity sport again,” he does see the importance of having a hockey program in addition to all extracurricular activities.
“My wife and I both agree that we probably learned more on the athletic field than we learned at Penn,” he said. “It’s kind of where people grow up and learn social skills, learn how to negotiate and learn how to be competitive and what it takes to be a winner.”
Finke agreed on the important role of college hockey.
“It was our role to put together a good program from one end to the other, from education and playing hockey to being citizens on campus and being involved,” he said.
And in addition to what a hockey program can bring to Penn and the potential to be nationally competitive, the fact that the 2014 Frozen Four is in Philadelphia will bring increased excitement in the hockey world.
“The popularity of hockey in that area, it doesn’t make any sense that you don’t have Division I hockey,” Battista said. “So many of the other Ivies have it.”
But in the case of Penn, as Athletics wouldn’t lead a search, it looks like the only way varsity hockey could return is if a donor emerged from the shadows, bringing the initiative and the means to get a program going. Until then — if the day ever arrives — Penn will continue to miss out on the experience that is Ivy League Division I hockey.
ALLISON BART is a College sophomore from Philadelphia and is sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. She can be reached at bart@theDP.com.