Penn Hockey: One more for the Vine

The University of Pennsylvania hasn’t played a meaningful Division I hockey game since March 4, 1978.

Nonetheless, Penn hockey has existed for the last three decades as a successful club team, moving through a succession of divisions and maintaining rivalries with virtually every other program in the region that’s not its traditional rival and neighbor Princeton.

But with the seismic changes coming in the college hockey world next season, and the fact that Philadelphia is poised to host the Frozen Four in April of 2014, isn’t it time that the Quaker City features the Quakers themselves to represent it on the national stage?

From UPenn’s team site, a brief recap of the downgrading of the hockey program:

…[T]he University began to tighten the Team’s budget which, in turn, made recruiting more difficult. As the funding started to dwindle, the level of play suffered, and fan interest dropped. The axe finally fell on the Penn program near the end of the 1977-78 season. During that season, Athletic Director Andy Geiger informed Coach Bob Finke of the University’s plan to drop hockey from varsity status along with gymnastics, golf, badminton, and a professional theatre at Annenberg due to budgetary restraints.

The Undergraduate Assembly organized a rally, after which students stormed College Hall in protest. On the morning of March 2, 1978, one hour of demonstration turned into a four-day sit-in, after which the administration agreed to cut $50,000 from other parts of the University in order to reinstate the golf, badminton and gymnastics programs. Both students and the administration agreed to begin a campaign to raise $125,000 to keep the doors of Annenberg’s professional theatre open. The agreement, however, omitted the reinstatement of varsity ice hockey. Thus, despite valiant efforts from students, the fate of varsity ice hockey at Penn was sealed; varsity hockey at Penn officially ended with a game against rival Cornell…

If Terry Pegula can fork over what for most of us would be several lifetimes of earning to fund Penn State’s total transformation to the D-I level, surely there will be someone out there with a big enough endowment to kick-start this thing. It happened once before in UPenn history, as the “Friends of Pennsylvania Hockey” donated enough scratch to get the Class of ’23 Rink built in 1968 so that the team could advance from club hockey to the big time.

If the Big Ten — which is taking the best parts of the CCHA and WCHA for its own — can have just six schools to start, why not let Penn lead the way for the Ivy League to separate from the ECAC and stand alone?

I addressed this issue more fully in a post just over a year ago when the new conferences were announced. Penn’s addition would give the nascent group eight schools (Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Colgate, Princeton, Penn) with a built-in historic rivalry, along with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which may likely need to be expanded to include one more bid.

It happened once before to the ECAC and it survived. Faced with a possible Ivy secession in the early 1980s due to its bloated numbers, what did happen was that the seven schools in the East Division broke away in 1984 to form what is now the powerhouse of Hockey East.

You don’t necessarily have to worry about the program being very good, or that Penn’s

Thanks to Jordan Hoffman

cuurent rink is undersized; Division I hockey isn’t like football in that a certain number with three zeroes attached to maximum capacity for an arena isn’t a prerequisite for proper standing.

For instance, Merrimack College has played in the tiny Volpe Center for years in a constant uphill battle against bigger and better programs in Hockey East, and Lawler Arena holds a hair over 2,000 fans. Boston University played in tiny Walter Brown Arena for decades before moving into their new facility in 2005 and it didn’t hurt recruiting or attendance one bit. Hobey Baker Rink, home to the only team sporting Philadelphia Flyers colors which is still playing, holds just 2,092.

Penn’s track record in its first iteration was spotty at best, a parabola sharply defined by the peak due to the construction of the edifice on 32nd and Walnut and the valleys of getting the program started and its death due to financial starvation. The program posted a small handful of winning seasons in 11 at the D-I level and went a combined 16-34-2 over the final two years.

The Quakers don’t have to jump into the fray from the start. They can take a page out of the Penn State playbook and spend a year or two as an independent before facing a full schedule with the Ivies. And the first time the Red and Blue beat the Orange and Black, you can bet the student population will stand up and take notice, as they do any other time Penn is on the better side of a score with Princeton. At least Ben Franklin won’t be alone, perched like a statue, sitting on the bench seats for those matchups.

Building tradition takes time, but you’ve gotta start somewhere. Unlike creating a program from scratch, Penn has the tools and structure already in place, plus previous history at the highest varsity level on its side. It just needs the money and the will of the administration.

Who can step up and be a “friend” to Pennsylvania hockey in the 21st century? It’s one thing for a Frozen Four site in a non-traditional hockey market to make accomodations, such as last year when the University of Alabama-Huntsville (Alabama) hosted the tournament in Tampa (Florida). It’s totally another if city dwellers who follow college hockey in a successful NHL market enter the big building on South Broad Street to view “2014 Frozen Four in Philadelphia” hosted by a school that doesn’t really represent the area.

So Fight, Quakers, fight for city bragging rights. This one’s gonna be worth it.