Penn Hills native moves from Penn State to Sabres front office
Joe Battista has come a long way since his days playing hockey on a frozen pond near the 17th hole of what was then the Alcoma Country Club.
“We'd play there, we'd play at the old Monroeville Ice Palace. That was where I really got my start,” Battista said. “My parents would go and shop, and they'd drop my brother and me off.”
Battista's lifelong love of hockey has carried him through high school and college, coaching and front-office stints at Penn State University and now, a front-office job with the Buffalo Sabres hockey team.
Battista, 53 and a Penn Hills native, was hired as vice president of hockey operations in early November, and his rise has paralleled the ascension of the sport he has nurtured in his stops along the way.
After three years as the assistant marketing director for the Pens — where Battista's boss was current voice of the Penguins, Paul Steigerwald — Battista said he “really got bit by the coaching bug and was helping with USA Hockey camps and coaching clinics.”
He left the Penguins in 1985 to coach at Kent State in Ohio, then at Culver Academy, one of the country's top hockey prep schools at the time. Then in 1987, he came to Penn State to become the assistant director of their ice rink and the head hockey coach for what was, at the time, a club team.
“I told my parents, who still live in Penn Hills, ‘Well, I'm going to give this thing at Penn State five years. If I can get this team established and get an arena built, I'll stick around. If not, I'll move on to the next phase of my life.”
It took a little longer than five years.
Battista had success coaching the Penn State hockey team, capturing six American Collegiate Hockey Association championships and reaching the ACHA tournament every year since 1993.
His final year coaching the team was 2005, after which he went to work for the Nittany Lion Club, raising money for the university. It was there that he got to know western Pennsylvania native and billionaire hockey fan Terry Pegula.
In 2010, Pegula sold his natural-gas drilling company, East Resources, for more than $4 billion, and shortly afterward announced that he would be donating $88 million to Penn State for the construction of a fully equipped ice arena. The team would also be moving to compete as an NCAA Division I team. Having helped facilitate Pegula's gift, Battista assumed the role of associate athletic director.
But Pegula wasn't finished yet.
“Just a couple weeks after he announced the donation, he started talking seriously about buying the Buffalo Sabres,” Battista said. “East Resources was originally started in Olean, N.Y., and he lived south of Buffalo and was an avid Sabres fan.”
In February 2011, Pegula bought the team, and began talking with Battista about possibly making the move to Buffalo.
“He and I had talked often about me coming to work with the Sabres in some capacity; we weren't sure what it would be,” Battista said.
After posting the league's worst record through 20 games this season, change came rapidly to the Sabres with the firing of both their coach and general manager. Battista left Penn State after three decades to join Pegula's East Management Services on Nov. 11.
“We hired Pat LaFontaine to be head of hockey operations, and he's my boss now,” Battista said. “Working alongside a quality person and hockey mind like that, every day is exciting and every day we're making progress.”
Battista acknowledge that success won't happen overnight.
“There's no easy fix. My new dream is to see Terry Pegula hoisting the Stanley Cup, and there's people who will chuckle and laugh at that — but they're probably the same people who chuckled and laughed about building a massive ice arena and taking the Penn State hockey program to full NCAA status.”
Battista said growing up in Penn Hills provided him with the work ethic to dedicate himself to his new job.
“It instilled in me the type of do-what-it-takes attitude and never-settle-for-less belief,” he said. “I was very blessed to have grown up around a lot of great coaches and athletes who helped me become competitive, and I'm hoping to bring that same level of enthusiasm to the NHL.”
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845.