|Hersheypark Arena was the de facto home of Penn State hockey in the 1940s|
Most know historic Hersheypark Arena in Hershey, PA, the site of the Lady Ice Lions' game at Lebanon Valley College on Friday night, as the home of the AHL's Hershey Bears from its 1936 construction until 2002, when it was replaced in that capacity by the nearby Giant Center. Many also know it as the site where Wilt Chamberlain scored an NBA-record 100 points in a single game in 1962.
Fewer know its pivotal role in the development of Penn State hockey.
From its origins in the mid-1930s as what was initially called an "informal team" before being awarded varsity status in 1940, through its unfortunately being dropped in 1947, Penn State's first full-time intercollegiate hockey team - a men's team, obviously, considering the era - played at least 15 of its 45 games in what was then called the Hershey Sports Arena (a handful of game locations have been lost to history). While a number of occasionally-bizarre schemes were attempted for building temporary rinks on the PSU campus, which sometimes allowed for intermittent practicing (a permanent outdoor facility was finally established on the present-day site of the Lasch Building in 1954), Hershey was one of the few consistently-available rinks available in central Pennsylvania at the time and the team's de facto home throughout its run.
The first game of the 15 documented in Hershey played by that team took place on February 9, 1939, and Penn State impressed both on the ice and at the gate.
|Daily Collegian, February 14, 1939|
The success of those initial games quickly led to more. In 1939-40, the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Hockey League was formed. The PIHL, a small circuit that played each of its conference games at Hersheypark Arena, included PSU, Lehigh, Lafayette, Pennsylvania and the Hershey Jr. Bears.
|Daily Collegian, October 10, 1939|
The PIHL lasted for a few seasons after that inaugural year, although Penn State exited when the school officially added hockey to the ranks of its varsity sports in 1940-41. Still, the Nittany Lions continued to use its 7,300-seat home prominently for games and even, as circumstances allowed, practices here and there. As a varsity squad, PSU was 5-0-0 at Hersheypark Arena against intercollegiate competition, defeating Lehigh twice, as well as St. Joseph, Franklin & Marshall and Drexel. The always-tough Jr. Bears - who never lost Penn State - accounted for the only blue and white defeats in Hershey after 1940.
It's no coincidence that the demise of that first varsity team had a lot to do with limitations on using the storied arena. World War II, at least as far as the United States was concerned, began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the war effort took immediate priority over college hockey. Rationing of construction materials foiled any plans for a fixed on-campus rink, while gas rationing did a lot to wipe out the idea of playing at an off-campus one, like Hershey, which often closed down altogether during the most severe shortages. That more or less left always-unreliable temporary rinks as the only option a lot of the time.
|Daily Collegian, February 20, 1943|
Head coach Art Davis, one of the true unsung heroes of Penn State hockey's early history, remained optimistic, insisting at one point during that 1942-43 season that ice hockey would continue at Penn State, "in the interest of physical fitness for young men who will enter the armed forces in the near future." He added that if he couldn't find any opponents to schedule and if he couldn't travel to play a game, he'd simply hold intrasquad scrimmages on flooded tennis courts (generally, the most effective of the many bad plans to obtain an on-campus playing surface) when the weather permitted.
However, the writing was on the wall by that point and the obstacles were too numerous to overcome. After managing fairly healthy schedules through 1941-42, PSU played just eight total games in 1942-43 and 1943-44 before finally suspending the sport for the duration of the war. A post-V-J Day revival attempt in 1946-47 lasted just three games before the team was quietly dropped for good in September, 1947.
Penn State was without intercollegiate hockey from 1947 until the formation of the men's club team later known as the Icers, and now known as the NCAA Division I Nittany Lions, in 1971. By then though, Hersheypark Arena's importance to the sport at PSU had been diminished. The on-campus outdoor rink built in 1954 had gained walls and a roof by the Icers' debut and, other than a brief period in 1978-79 and 1979-80 between the closing of that rink and the construction of the Greenberg Ice Pavilion, Penn State has always had a local and permanent ice facility available over the last 50 years.
The Icers did play in Hershey's old barn a handful of times, although the last documented game there by that team or any other University Park-based squad took place on December 5, 1984, when the visitors trounced a team called the Hershey All-Stars 13-4.
|Daily Collegian, December 7, 1984|
One former Icer also made a bit of more-recent history at Hersheypark Arena. On September 23, 2000, Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Mark Scally - who became the first Penn State alumnus to suit up for official NHL exhibition games that season - made his first and only start against the Colorado Avalanche and NHL legends like Joe Sakic, Raymond Bourque and Adam Deadmarsh in front of 6,660 fans. Scally was unable to follow up his historic first appearance, a relief win against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Pittsburgh, however, and the Avs took the contest 5-2.
When the Lady Ice Lions take the Hersheypark Arena ice against LVC on Friday, they will be doing something that has not been done three decades. But they'll also, on some level, be continuing a legacy vital to the early years of ice hockey at Penn State.
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