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Pegula Ice Arena and the Buffalo Connection

Penn State's new hockey arena getting rave reviews

Imagine a hockey facility with end zone seating so steep, that memories of the orange balcony at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium immediately come to mind.

Or picture an entire array of themed concession stands, with one of them named “Top Shelf,” because every blue and gold bleeding Buffalo Sabres fan knows that’s where momma hides the cookies.

And get a glimpse of Buffalo’s premiere citizen, Terry Pegula, spreading his generosity and building his brand across a university which is near and dear to his heart.

You’ll find that and more on the campus of Penn State University in State College, PA, most famous (and recently infamous) for Nittany Lions football.

With Penn State’s entry into division one hockey in 2012, a suitable facility was needed to house the new program. Enter Pegula, with an $88-million bequest that eventually grew to about $102-million in building a gleaming, state-of-the-art hockey palace.

Pegula Ice Arena, with a capacity of over 6100 for hockey, opened in time for the 2013-2014 season. It is located amidst Penn State’s other major sports facilities, including the Bryce Jordan Center for basketball, Medlar Field for baseball, and of course the massive Beaver Stadium, well known as one of the grandest stadiums in all of college football.

The facility was built by Mortenson Construction, the same company which did Buffalo’s HarborCenter. And like HarborCenter, Pegula and wife Kim were hands-on involved in the design of the new building, even visiting and touring peer facilities to glean ideas. And again just as with Buffalo’s new building, Pegula did not set foot in the place until it was ready to open.

Mike Wierzbicki joined Penn State Athletics as Marketing Manager in 2013, just as the new arena was putting on its final touches for a grand opening. “A lot of homework was put forth in checking out some of the new hockey facilities, in Hershey, in Wisconsin, to see what worked. But then we wanted to add our own touches to make the Penn State hockey experience a unique and distinctive one. What we ended up with was Hockey Valley.”

Hockey Valley. The massive mural and welcome sign greets visitors as they step into the entrance atrium with floor to ceiling glass walls and a resplendent view of the Penn State campus and rolling hills in the distance. “And from there it’s more than just than the average arena. We use trend setting technology for the players and the fans. Throughout the concourses are interactive kiosks with touch pads, where fans can access bios on the players and updated game and league information. It’s all very user friendly,” said Wierzbicki.

Wierzbicki says that the opening of Pegula Ice Arena gave the Penn State community a much needed morale boost and shot in the arm, coming on the heels of the scandal that had beset the football program. “The opening of the arena reinvigorated our student body and alumni base. It says a lot for the vision and spirit of one of our greatest alums in Terry Pegula, who stepped up at just the right time to give this community such a tremendous gift, but more importantly, a much needed boost. We are forever grateful.”

Business owners and community residents have taken note of the jump in community spirit thanks to the new hockey facility. “Football will always be king here, but hockey and wrestling (Penn State has won three straight NCAA wrestling titles) are pretty much tied for second in terms of fan enthusiasm,” says Joshua Guiher, owner of Fraser Street Deli, a charming sandwich bistro in downtown State College. “And that’s all happened in a very short period of time thanks to the opening of the new arena.”

So how did the vision for Pegula Ice Arena come about? The answers come right from the Sabres front office, where Joe Battista, who spent 27 years at Penn State as an administrator and coach, now works for the team as Vice President for Hockey and Business Administration.

“I was coaching Penn State and met Terry through working with his son Michael. One day way back in 2005 he asked me why we weren’t playing teams like Michigan and Wisconsin and the other big guys. I replied that to play at that level we needed a big time facility and could not afford it. Terry’s reply was ‘let’s see what I can do about that,’ said Battista.

“It took five years, but we assembled the best two architect teams, representatives from the athletics program, stakeholders in the community, and what we ended up with was a design and a facility that was perfect for the market. It’s a tense, energetic arena, with a metal roof which reverberates noise. We designed it to be intimate. The steep student section, which topples onto the shoulders of the visiting goalkeeper for two periods, is specifically designed to intimidate.”

Steep Aud-like seat pitches and named concession stands aren’t the only Buffalo influences built into the facility. The home team locker room was designed and built out much to the specs of the recently renovated Buffalo Sabres dressing room at First Niagara Center. “Right down to the logo on the floor and the lighting elements in the ceiling,” said Battista. Wierzbicki added, “No expenses was spared in modern technology for the player facilities, including iPads for player use, top flight video facilities, and training equipment without peer. This was all done at Terry’s insistence.”

Fans at Penn State are certainly reacting favorably to their new digs; just about every game for men’s hockey has sold out since the arena opened, and their season ticket list is oversubscribed.

“Every time I walk into the building, I get a big smile on my face, just seeing all the happy and enthusiastic fans enjoying this place,” said Battista, who returns to State College quite often. He liberally throws around the word “fun” as he describes the process that got the arena built, and the school elevated into NCAA division one. “And we are now bringing that fun, and that entire buzz, here to Buffalo with the new HarborCenter, all the things going on at Canalside, and a Buffalo Sabres team which will be primed to turn the corner.”

Is Pegula Ice Arena the finest arena in college hockey? “We’ll let others make that judgment, but we’re pretty proud about the way things turned out,” said Wierzbicki. “I’ll just say that it fits Penn State and what they are all about just perfectly,” added Battista. “And putting in a little slice of Buffalo, which I truly believe is one of the best hockey markets on the planet, just makes Pegula Ice Arena that much better.”

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