Back to school: Penguins, fans revel in exhibition game at Penn State
STATE COLLEGE — The first time Penguins prospect Thomas Di Pauli played a game at Penn State's Pegula Ice Arena, he was not greeted warmly.
In October 2015, Di Pauli was beginning his senior year at Notre Dame when he and his teammates played a pair of nonconference games against the Nittany Lions. As he took the ice for warm-ups before the first game, he spotted a fan pressed up against the glass behind the net.
“He had a sign saying, ‘Di Pauli's a plug,' ” the 5-foot-11 left wing recalled.
Di Pauli had the last laugh on the sign-maker, scoring the first goal on a tip-in from the slot in Notre Dame's 7-4 victory.
He was more well-received by fans when he returned to Penn State's rink Tuesday night for the Penguins' preseason opener against the Buffalo Sabres.
Technically, it was a Sabres home game, for obvious reasons. Natural gas billionaire Terry Pegula donated the bulk of the funds required to build the arena and help Penn State make the transition from club hockey to NCAA Division I competition. Pegula also owns the Sabres and Buffalo Bills.
In reality, though, it was as partisan a Penguins crowd as any the team will play in front of.
About three-quarters of the fans in a full student section wore hockey jerseys, and about 90 percent of those had a Penguins crest across the front.
Just after the opening faceoff, students chanted, “Hockey Valley,” staking State College's claim as a hockey town. Moments later, they chanted, “Thank you, Terry,” paying homage to the university's benefactor.
“I think it's awesome,” said Penn State sophomore Hannah Canil, a Mars native sporting a blue Sidney Crosby jersey. “Hockey's my favorite sport to watch.”
Canil said she attends Penguins home game when she can on a season-ticket package her family splits.
“When I first heard that the Penguins were playing here, I immediately tried to find out how to get tickets,” she said. “I actually ended up getting season tickets for Penn State because I got started on it this way.”
Canil was one of the lucky ones. When student tickets went on sale last week, they sold out in 2 minutes, 12 seconds.
It's not hard to see why it's the hottest ticket in town. In the program's fourth Division I season last year, Penn State spent time ranked No. 1 in the nation and won the Big Ten tournament title.
“I wish I played in the Big Ten when I was in school,” said Penguins winger Carl Hagelin, who played his college hockey for Michigan in the CCHA. “I wish Penn State was one of the D-I teams in hockey back then. Obviously they have a good program going right now.”
For many Penguins players, Tuesday night's game was a chance to return to their roots. Eleven of the 20 players in the lineup and 27 of the 55 players in camp come from college hockey.
“It's a fun experience,” said Penguins defenseman Matt Hunwick, who also went to Michigan. “To have the interaction with the fan base, as strong as it is with a lot of these colleges, that's what really makes it special.”
The game also allowed the Penguins to spread their footprint a little more into the middle of the state, which is a subject near and dear to equipment manager Dana Heinze, a Johnstown native.
“I think these off-site games are awesome,” Heinze said. “It's great for the fans. Let's be honest. Penguins fans are all over the place. They travel great with us. It's great to be able to come to these other cities, especially State College. It's a college town. It's a great little town. Penn State has a great program.
“I'm not even disappointed about taking the equipment truck three hours to get there. It's like old times being in the minors. It's worth it.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.