UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- To give Penn State the ability to compete at the Division I level, to win a significant game as it did Saturday against Vermont, sophomore Tommy Olczyk had to change. Not just him. Probably six or seven players from the Penn State club era had to significantly transform the way they fit on this team, but Olczyk stands out.
The Nittany Lions are 9-12 in their inaugural year of Division I hockey. That record includes some solid victories -- against Vermont and Ohio State Dec. 29 in the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center -- as well as questionable losses, among them to Neumann College.
This is a strange season for Penn State. Building a team from the club level to the Division I level meant inserting 10 talented, polished freshman who might never have considered Penn State if it were still a club program. Their addition meant that former club team stars such as Olczyk, son of former Penguins player and coach Eddie Olczyk, had to enter the season with an open mind.
"It's something we talked about, something he welcomed," coach Guy Gadowsky said. "He's a team guy first and foremost."
In the summer of 2011, Gadowsky cold-called Olczyk and asked if he wanted to play hockey for him at Penn State. Olczyk had recently heard about Penn State and the donation by energy tycoon Terry Pegula that would finance the move to Division I hockey and a new arena, which will open next fall.
When he visited campus, the sense he felt on the phone from Gadowsky was heightened: Olczyk had the opportunity to be a part of something. He knew the about the possibilities of playing for a Division I team at its inception.
"It's being a part of history," Olczyk said. "It's about looking back five, 10, 20 years from now and being happy with the legacy and the foundation you've built."
In his first season -- Penn State's last as a club team -- Olczyk led the team with 24 goals. He was a first-line guy, one who competed on most power plays. He knew it wouldn't last when the team moved to Division I.
"I'm not naive," Olczyk said.
When the Nittany Lions had the opportunity to bring in more skill players, Olczyk became a member of the third line. He started killing penalties. He's totaled only two goals and one assist.
Partially because of the way he embraced the change, Gadowsky said the team elected to make Olczyk captain. Besides Olczyk, Gadowsky said players such as Justin Kirchevel and Michael McDonagh, among others, have had to successfully adapt to new roles in the same way.
This weekend, Penn State plays at future Big Ten Conference opponent Michigan State and closes the season against another Big Ten opponent in Wisconsin.
Olczyk wants Penn State to have an identity by the end of this season and as it heads into the next one, an identity that sounds similar to the one he has accepted.
"We're going to be a hard back-checking team," Olczyk said. "We're going to get pucks to the net. We're going to get pucks behind the [defense] at every opportunity. We're going to get pucks out of the defensive zone every opportunity we get. We're going to drive the net really hard. All those things put into one."