In move that alters landscape of college hockey, Pegula proud to unveil new era at Penn State

After some 25 years at Penn State, Joe Battista lost count of the number of discussions and grand plans he was part of that never got off the ground regarding the Nittany Lions establishing a Division I men's ice hockey program.

So when Terry Pegula called in 2005 to invite the Penn State associate athletic director and former men's club hockey team coach out for dinner, Battista essentially rolled his eyes.

"I've had thousands of these phone calls over the years. And you're almost wondering, 'Is this one going to be any different?'" Battista said. "So, we went to dinner and he cut right to the chase and said, 'What it going to take?'"

Battista threw out a number.

$50 million.

"(Pegula) kind of leaned back," Battista said, recalling the moment his dreams started becoming a reality. "And he said, 'I think I might be able to help with that.'"

Eight years later — with a price tag more than double Battista's initial estimate — Pegula delivered in 2010 with what became a $102 million donation — $88 million to build the Pegula Ice Arena, and another $14 million for related costs, including scholarships.

On Friday night, Pegula will be dropping the ceremonial first puck before Penn State's game against Army to formally usher in the Nittany Lions' first season in the newly established Big Ten Hockey Conference.

"I think it's going to be surreal for me, because this is the culmination of a 35-year adventure that started in 1978, coming in as a freshman to play hockey at Penn State," Battista said. "For myself and a lot of other hockey enthusiasts, alums, I don't know that our feet will touch the ground."

For Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres owner and Pennsylvania-born natural gas magnate, the night marks a culmination of his two passions: hockey and his alma mater. It was no coincidence that Pegula's first significant move after selling his energy company to Royal Dutch Shell PLC for $4.7 billion in 2010 was to fund Penn State hockey.

"Penn State gave me the education," Pegula told The Associated Press. "And to have a hand in accomplishing Penn State going Division I is very, very satisfying for me."

The men's team spent last year playing as an independent at college's highest level. The arena will also serve as home to the women's hockey team, a member of College Hockey America.

Among the things Pegula's looking forward to is finally getting a chance to tour the 200,000-plus square-foot, two-rink facility.

"To be honest with you, I haven't been to see it yet," Pegula said. "I've been on campus and meant to stop by there and see the workers and everything. But things get busy."

Pegula shouldn't be disappointed in a building he and his wife Kim helped design.

Fans are greeted by the "Welcome to Hockey Valley" banner hanging above the entryway leading into the intimate 5,782-seat facility. The arena features a flat metal ceiling to reflect and enhance the noise. Opposing goalies won't have it easy. They'll spend the first and third periods playing behind a steep, concrete student section that towers behind them.

"It should be a kind of a place that can get a little noisy. The student section is designed that way," Pegula said. "I thought since we're building a hockey arena, that it should be a place the home team finds comfort in, and opposing teams are up against the stands and the atmosphere."

The seats are colored Penn State blue, as are the carpets and walls in both the men's and women's locker rooms. There are Nittany Lions logos everywhere, including glass-encased ones cut into the middle of each locker room floor. The front of the building is covered in glass, providing a panoramic view of Happy Valley — with Mount Nittany to the south and Beaver Stadium to the north.

That was part of Pegula's intention.

After spending much of his life drilling holes in search of natural gas deposits, Pegula has spent the past three years focusing on above-ground projects. Aside from Penn State, Pegula has invested $172 million of his own money to build the HarborCenter hotel/hockey/entertainment complex that's going up across the street from the Sabres' arena in downtown Buffalo.

At Penn State, Pegula has not only transformed the landscape along University Drive, but also that of college hockey.

The Nittany Lions' jump to Division I led to the formation of a six-team Big Ten, and a reshuffling of both the Western and Central Collegiate Hockey Associations.

That was also part of the plan for Pegula, who long desired to see Penn State compete against the likes of Michigan. He also has designs on growing hockey's popularity in the U.S.

"I felt that I was in a position that I could make that happen for Penn State," Pegula said. "We'll see what happens from here on out. But I'm sure this will be a stepping stone for U.S. hockey to become more popular."

Big Ten associate commissioner Jennifer Heppel said it's too early to determine what that next step might be, noting how expensive it is for schools to add programs such as hockey. When it comes to Big Ten hockey, she can't understate Pegula's influence.

"I don't think it would have happened without him," said Heppel, who will attend Penn State's opener. "He just must be thrilled and so proud. I think congratulations are in order for him."

It's Battista's dream to one day have more colleges form hockey programs.

"Someday," Battista said, "wouldn't it be great to turn on the television and see Penn State play Alabama in ice hockey?"

For now, he'll settle on looking forward to Friday, and Pegula's reaction when he finally enters the building that bears his name.

"Terry's such a humble guy that I think he'll be more excited about the looks on other people's faces," Battista said. "That's, what I think, will jazz him."