Happy Valley Perspective: The Roar Zone impact
(Editor’s note: The Penn State men’s ice hockey team has two more home series this season, Feb. 2–3 against Notre Dame, and Feb. 23–24 versus Minnesota. Fans can call 1-800-NITTANY for standing room-only tickets, or visit ticketmaster.com for resale tickets. Complete information on tickets is available on GoPSUsports.com.)
UNIVERSITY PARK — For only the slightest of moments, Pegula Ice Arena is calm on game day.
Ice glistens. Lights from the scoreboard glare in the distance. Season-ticket holders who’ve arrived early exchange pleasantries.
The atmosphere is peaceful, bordering on serene.
That’ll soon change, thanks largely to The Roar Zone, Penn State’s student section and one of the main reasons that the Nittany Lions boasted a 50-27-9 all-time home mark heading into Saturday night’s game against Ohio State. Penn State dropped a 5-1 decision, splitting the weekend series with the Buckeyes after collecting a 5-2 victory the night before.
Going into the two-game series, Penn State was ranked No. 13 and the Buckeyes were sixth, with The Roar Zone blanketing their part of the arena with a student whiteout Saturday.
As for that peaceful pregame environment, well, there’s a caveat.
“When we walk in here, even at 5:30, there’s this certain electricity through the air that’s very captivating,” said Kara Walters, president of The Roar Zone. “I don’t know how to describe it, unless you’re here.”
Walters is a senior majoring in French and francophone studies (the study of the French language), and she attended her first game at Pegula as a sophomore. She was always interested in sports management, and her leadership role with The Roar Zone provides that opportunity, she explained Saturday evening along the Pegula concourse.
“It really helps with networking, that I get to know so many different people, not just students, but also people in Athletics,” Walters said. “I feel like being able to have all those different connections really helps me, and it helps me branch out.”
Walters expects these lessons to bode well for her in the future, when she’ll continue networking while also having leadership goals of her own. She’s also grown in other ways, such as speaking to large groups. At her first meeting as president, Walters’ hands were shaking so bad, knowing she was going to address everyone. Though now, she says, getting up in front of a room to speak comes second nature.
At her first game at Pegula, Walters showed up with a friend. They were both shy and didn't know many other people, though that’s changed, for Walters and for students in the same situation. Kids tend to sit in the same seat (or area), with conversations and friendships organically forming over time. When students show up for games, they’ll typically arrive in groups of five or 10, Walters said, adding that The Roar Zone is a gigantic family.
“With 1,000 students, that really helps electrify the place,” she said. “We all know each other, and we’re all putting our support toward the team.”
Along with other members of the executive board, Walters will arrive early on game day and set up signs, coordinating any possible logistical needs with Athletics. Then she waits, knowing there’ll soon be a moment when The Roar Zone will emphatically announce its presence.
Here’s how Walters describes it: “When everyone comes out for warmups, that’s when it all hits. Then those lights go down for pregame and it’s amazing. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
The entire time, other fans and the Nittany Lions hear — and perhaps more importantly, the opposing team hears — the student section.
“The Roar Zone is the life blood of the building,” said Tim King, a former broadcaster who served as the team’s color analyst from 2013-17. “The kids are loud, funny, and dedicated. They dictate the atmosphere of the building from the moment they arrive until the last note of the alma mater. They are thunderously loud and relentless.
“As a Nittany Lion, you feed off of that energy. It makes you hungrier to reward that support with a win, and it gives you an extra burst of energy when you're hunched over with your stick on your knees and your lungs are on fire from exhaustion.
King feels Pegula is the “best barn in college hockey,” because as he said, it married the intimacy of an older building like Appleton Arena at St. Lawrence with the newness of a place like PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, with very few sacrifices.
“The place is comfortable, and yet there is a student section standing right on top of the ice,” King said. “It is, in a lot of ways, just a smaller version of an NHL building in the middle of a college campus.”
Head Coach Guy Gadowsky and Penn State have capitalized on the momentum they’ve built the last few years, and especially last season, when the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten Conference Tournament, qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and also picked up an NCAA Tournament win. This last accomplishment had the Lions one victory away from qualifying for the NCAA Frozen Four, the hockey equivalent of the Final Four.
The Lions also earned a No. 1 ranking in the regular season while overcoming traditional conference powers such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan — somewhat symbolically, those are the three teams that Penn State beat in last year’s conference tournament on their way to becoming champions. And the 10 goals that the Lions scored in last season’s NCAA Tournament victory over Union (N.Y.) were a program record that tied the NCAA mark for goals in a tournament game.
A remarkable journey for a program that’s still only in its sixth year of NCAA-level competition.
As you’d expect, fans have flocked to Pegula Ice Arena since its inception, with the Nittany Lions playing in front of their 69th and 70th consecutive sellout crowds against Ohio State.
The environment, clearly, is what makes Pegula Ice Arena one of the premier college hockey arenas in the country, right here in Happy Valley.
Before Pegula opened in 2013, longtime Icers coach and Penn State hockey ambassador Joe Battista gave a media tour, highlighting all the amenities (and in some cases luxuries) that the arena would offer players and fans.
The arena features a weight room, study lounge, state-of-the-art video equipment for game study and review, along with other player development areas such as a RapidShot room — a synthetic ice set up that passes and collects pucks — giving the Lions everything they could imaginably need, all within the same building.
Along the concourse, fans can learn about the program by accessing interactive displays, grab snacks at a slew of concession stands or dinner at a food court-style setup, or pick up some gear at a merchandise store. There’s more food available upstairs on the club level, for fans with such tickets.
The players and coaches want for nothing, the fans support them, and that symbiotic partnership has fueled the program’s sustainable success on the ice and in the stands.
Walters said that students from other Big Ten schools have asked her how The Roar Zone cultivated such a great rapport with the team — Gadowsky hand-delivered pizza to the student section before Friday night’s game, and he and the players routinely talk about The Roar Zone’s impact — and she says that the students instantly hit it off with the team.
“I think that’s why we have such large amounts of success here,” Walters said. “We have this relationship that I don’t think many other schools have.”
So whether you’ve watched dozens of games at Pegula, or seeing a game there is still on your Happy Valley bucket list, you won’t be disappointed the next (or first) time you decide to spend a winter weekend within one of the crown jewels of college hockey in the entire country.
“We have a chant, ‘Hockey Valley,’ and we’re saying exactly what we feel and what we mean,” Walters said. “We are a giant family, and when you come in here, everything is so welcoming. It’s an ice arena, but everything feels so warm.
“You can all come together and cheer for the guys and it’s amazing. There are other arenas that cheer for their teams, but Pegula is special, and I think it all goes back to Happy Valley.”