A program cut short: the end of Penn hockey
Years later, hockey’s lasting memory refuses to melt for former Penn players
April 22, 2013, 9:32 pm·
In 2013, Penn failed to make the NCAA tournament in basketball, marking the sixth straight year that Penn could not achieve a goal that had been routine until 2008. The entire undergraduate student body does not know what it means to the school to have a successful major winter sports program. In light of Yale’s spectacular national championship this year in Division I Hockey, which coincided with the 35th anniversary of Penn’s decision to eliminate its varsity hockey program, The Daily Pennsylvanian revisited the history of the program and potential for the future. Part One, below, examines the impact of the decision to cancel the program on the coaches and players and looks at what might have been. Tomorrow, Part Two will discuss why Penn has never sought to reinstitute the sport and what it would take to bring Division I hockey back to Penn.
Thirty-five years ago, a Division I hockey team with the Penn name covered up took the ice.
The players entered their final game in the Class of ’23 Rink for their coach, for their teammates, for their fans and for their program, but they didn’t want to represent the school that had decided they were not worth the money.
The 1978 season would be the final one for Penn varsity ice hockey, and it wasn’t even given the chance to fight back after the decision was made to disband the program.
That night, as they left the rink one final time and some meandered to Smoke’s, the players wouldn’t just be celebrating the end of another season. This was the last time they would play together as a team or even see their teammates and coaches for a long time. It was the end of an era for these Quakers and those that came before.
Hockey at Penn has a storied past that dates back to the 1890s.
Though never historically dominant compared to other programs in the Ivy League, such as Cornell, the Red and Blue were on the move, joining ECAC Division I hockey in the 1966-67 season.
Penn experienced a rollercoaster ride of success and defeat, yet by the time coach Bob Finke took over, the future looked a little more promising.
Finke was a former defenseman for the Quakers and was part of the ’70-’71 team that sawthe rink open after a generous donation came from local businessman and Penn graduate Howard Butcher III.
“Those were really enjoyable years,” Finke said. “We were in a unique situation in that hockey was new then. When I was a freshman was the first year it was a varsity program.”
In 1976, a few tumultuous seasons after he graduated, Finke took over to begin the rebuilding process. The team was young in his final season. It had potential.
“My job was to try to rebuild the program back up,” Finke said. “I think we were on our way up because in our last year … looking at the roster, we had three seniors and we had 11 freshman and about five sophomores.”
Though he admitted it would have still taken some work for Penn to be a national power, he thought the team was on its way to being “capable and competitive” in league play.
“We were never a powerhouse and probably never intended on being a powerhouse, but I think about the unique character it brought to the campus.”
But the majority of Finke’s players would not live out the remainder of their college days in West Philadelphia. Several went on to top programs in the country, including Michigan, Harvard, Cornell — to which five players went — and Vermont.
Tom Whitehead — who came to Penn from London, Ontario, — was among the five that moved on to Cornell. The announcement of the end of the hockey program came when he was co-captain of the team during his junior year, leaving the Wharton student with just his senior campaign to finish out his hockey career.
Penn had seemed like the obvious place for Whitehead to attend coming out of junior B hockey. He knew he would most likely not end up going pro, so he went for the top education and promise of an increasingly competitive Division I program. Whitehead packed his bags, and moved into the Quad in a big city far from his hometown.
“By my junior year, I was totally in love with Penn and to find out the program was ending, I think we were making some great strides as far as recruiting. We had some good young talent,” Whitehead said. “Particularly for me, it was my senior year — you look forward to that year.”
Other players also chose Penn for all that it had to offer, some even turning down opportunities to play for other programs.
“I had a few scholarship opportunities, but [my college advisor] sat me down in his office and said if you have the opportunity to go to UPenn and the Wharton School undergrad, I’m not going to tell you what to do but you’re not leaving this office until you say you are,” said Tom Cullity, a Boston native who transferred to the University of Vermont after his sophomore year.
Then there was the whole uncertainty of the situation. The players were left without the program that had brought them to campus, and it wasn’t even a sure thing that they would have any other options.
“Am I just going to stay at Penn and finish up at Wharton or was anybody going to be interested in me for just one year?” Whitehead wondered.
Luckily for him and many of the other players who decided to move on to other college programs, there were still schools willing to take these talented student-athletes. For Whitehead, his transfer to Cornell was not confirmed until the second week of August, right before the school year.
“I owe a lot to Bob Finke because without the confidence he showed in me, I probably would have never had the opportunity to play at Cornell,” said Doug Burk, a freshman at the time who also transferred to Cornell.
There was a different sports culture at Penn at the time.
“Penn basketball was the number one sport,” Burk said about the Quakers basketball program going to the Final Four the following year. “When I went to Cornell, hockey was on top.”
And in Burk’s junior year, Cornell, with a group of former Quakers, went to the Frozen Four.
Although playing for Penn would have remained the ideal situation, some chose to stay with the school that had abandoned their program.
Dave Akre was among the few who decided to stay. He was a freshman at the time of the announcement.
“I knew at the time I was not going to be a professional hockey player, so I’d prefer to have both a Division I school and Division I program,” the Grand Rapids, Minn. native said. “I realized that hockey was going to end some day, and I had the chance to go to one of the premiere colleges in the country.”
“I would have rather stayed at Penn and finished up the full four years there, so, mixed emotions about it to tell you the truth,” Whitehead said. “Attending two Ivy League universities is not bad by any means, but if I was writing the script, I probably wouldn’t have written it that way.”
Finke remembers the day he found out the program was dropped quite vividly.
He was sitting in his office, like any other day, when a Daily Pennsylvanian reporter came in for what he thought was any other interview.
“We sat down and he said, ‘Well, I’m here because I wanted to ask you about what your reaction was to the fact that last night at the Provost meeting they decided to drop some sports including hockey,’ and I just kind of looked at him and didn’t say anything. I was just like ‘What? No,’” Finke said.
Finke asked the reporter to step out of the office and called former Director of Athletics Andy Geiger to find out if what was said could be true. Geiger didn’t fully answer his question, saying that there was still a chance the program wouldn’t be cut and that Athletics was going to contact Butcher to see if anything could be done.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘So we are recruiting on a national scale, and now the word’s going to get out that we’re thinking about dropping hockey,’” Finke said.
“[Finke] told us when I think there were only two or three games left to go. The athletic department didn’t keep him in the loop either. As soon as he found out, he told us that day in practice,” Burk said. “It was just a real shock for everybody.”
It didn’t look good for recruits, didn’t sound good for the program and was not a rumor the players wanted to hear.
But tough financial times plagued the University in the late 70s, and cuts had to be made, which also included the golf, badminton and gymnastics programs.
“Everyone was caught totally off guard. The way it was done, the way it was announced, was just very poor. Everybody had a very negative reaction to the University,” Akre said. “No one ever gave it a chance.”
Students were furious and invaded College Hall in protest, arranging a four-day sit-in that began the morning of March 2. After the demonstration, which included the occasional snowball being thrown at those that took part in the decision, administration agreed to reinstate all the sports programs they had initially cut, excluding ice hockey.
At a time when the hockey budget was “around $75,000 a year,” according to Finke, the program never really had the opportunity to put together a fight to keep Penn hockey alive.
“You’re the first person I’ll have ever admitted this to, but I look back at it now, and I wish that I had been more forceful in figuring out a way to salvage the program,” Finke said. “I was very disenchanted with Penn and the way this happened. I was not a lifetime coach — I would have never gotten into coaching had I not been at Penn at the time when things were going in the wrong direction.”
Finke had come to put the program back on its feet and into a competitive spotlight, but his opportunity was cut short.
As a result, he now had to tell students as young as 18 and their parents — who had trusted him and Penn to provide the opportunity to play Division I hockey — that they came all the way to Philadelphia and would no longer have a place to play the sport to which they had dedicated much of their lives.
The coach is still filled with many positive memories about his time with the program. But the fact that the team was beginning to flourish at the time of the decision makes it “hard to swallow.”
“This was a vibrant group. They knew that they had a mission to try to bring Penn hockey to a point of strength and something they could be proud of. Even though the rug was pulled out from under them, they’re still proud to be part of that organization.”
But on that final night in early March, as the Quakers took on Cornell, there was a bitter taste in the mouths of many of the players who took the ice with the Penn name hidden.
Looking back, while many have fond memories of their time on the Penn ice, this time was cut short, and the team for which they had come would cease to exist under the University name.
Though some of these players keep in touch to this day, always connected by what once was, there was a feeling of emptiness for these players on this final night.
The program that put these players together was ripped away, and students had to move on. It was the end of Division I hockey at Penn.