HOCKEY VALLEY: Coach Guy Gadowsky gives Penn State a new powerhouse
By Patrick Burns
Penn State was in a jam.
Wealthy alumnus and Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula had donated nearly $100 million to get a Division I hockey program started at his alma mater. But who would run it? Who could turn the state-of-the-art Pegula Ice Arena into a madhouse every weekend night in the winter? Who could bring championship banners to a school that had no players and only blueprints to sell recruits on?
He found his answer when a 6-foot-1 Canadian who looked like he could still play walked through the door. After the candidate finished the interview, Pegula uttered three simple words.
“He’s our guy.”
As fate would have it, his name just so happened to be Guy. Guy Gadowsky.
Lacking a front tooth and boasting a slicked back mane with its own Twitter account, titled @GadowskysHair, the 50-year-old Edmonton, Alberta, native is the epitome of a former player turned fiery hockey coach.
But he’s much more than that. Much, much more.
Gadowsky could be the most well-liked man on Penn State’s campus of 45,000-plus. Seven years after accepting the job, he’s led Penn State to a Big Ten Tournament championship and back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
Yet it isn’t the winning that makes Gadowsky such a beloved commodity. It’s Gadowsky himself.
Case in point, the Nittany Lions’ game on Jan. 12 of this year against No. 6 Ohio State. A mere 10 minutes prior to one of the blue and white’s biggest games of the season, Gadowsky furiously sprinted up and down the steps of the arena balancing almost a dozen Papa John’s pizza boxes in his hands.
He went out of his way to make sure that every single undergrad in the student section got his or her own box of pizza.
At the end of one aisle, a fan held up a sign that read, “Do you have time to learn about our lord and savior, Guy Gadowsky?” The sign resembled Notre Dame’s famed “Touchdown Jesus” mural, with Gadowsky’s face in place of that of Jesus Christ.
Upon seeing it, the coach burst into hysterics. Then he handed out another box of pizza.
Gadowsky doesn’t have to do stuff like that. But he’s the kind of guy who will emphatically yell hello when he sees a student reporter on the other side of the street, and is confident enough to walk around the locker room without his teeth.
Gadowsky didn’t necessarily need to leave Princeton for Penn State in 2011, but Penn State sure needed him. The hockey program had no identity, and months after he arrived, the university was crushed by the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. With key administrators facing jail time, the university desperately needed its employees to rise up.
Gadowsky certainly has.
He recently recounted how a reporter wrote that it would take Penn State three seasons to win a Big Ten game. Now, one Big Ten Tournament championship banner currently hangs in the rafters of Pegula, alongside another to recognize the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
Another NCAA banner will be raised during the team’s first home game next season following a year in which Gadowsky’s bunch outlasted a mono outbreak that struck just about every member of the team, and won four consecutive games against traditional power Minnesota to play itself into the field.
In typical Gadowsky fashion, he never made any excuses.
The play of the Nittany Lions mirrors Gadowsky’s personality. They’re gritty, tenacious and put pucks on net more than any other team in the country. The approach has led to a high-flying offense that led the nation in goals in 2016-17.
Recruits can opt for programs with more tradition, coaches with more connections in the NHL, or schools that are closer to home.
But there’s an unmistakable allure to Gadowsky.
“I like Gadowsky because he wears his heart on his sleeve,” junior alternate captain Chase Berger said. “He’s honest. He tells it how it is. If he’s yelling at you or giving you a hug, he loves you deep down and he wants the best for you, That’s the kind of guy I want to play for.”
Berger certainly isn’t the only one to share that respect. Not even in his own family.
His older brother, Jack played for Gadowsky at Princeton, and his younger brother Christian is set to come to Penn State in two years.
Distance doesn’t matter much, either, when players hear that they can play for a coach who deployed a hockey stick as a cane after getting his knee scoped.
The team’s other alternate captain, Erik Autio, also has a brother, Oskar, who plans on becoming the second Autio to leave Finland to join the Nittany Lions. Captain James Robinson is one of five players from Alberta to attend school over 2,000 miles away just to play for him.
Those roots remain strong for the Western Canadian. The son of a gym teacher and a librarian, and the brother and grandson of two more teachers, the desire to make an impact in the lives of others is in Gadowsky’s blood.
In 2013, he ran a marathon in an effort to preserve local hiking trails, just a few months after undergoing rotator cuff surgery. A year later, he ripped his own (fake) tooth out of his mouth to persuade fans to buy tickets for Penn State football.
Nobody had to show up after Penn State’s inaugural game at their new arena in 2013, a 4-1 win over Army. Gadowsky had to give fans a reason to show up, and he has.
Seventy four straight sell-outs have followed, and he’s awakened a hockey culture in a town long known for its love of football.
Gadowsky, of course, doesn’t take credit. His reply when asked recently about his success?
“It’s a special, special university.”