UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Red Berenson looked like a pool float with the air sucked out. The legendary University of Michigan coach skulked up to Pegula Ice Arena's podium with his hands in the air after Penn State took both games over his squad last December.
"Penn State put on a clinic this weekend," he told the media. "They're one of the best teams in the nation."
Union coach Rick Bennett faced a similar realization following Penn State's first NCAA Tournament game last March -- a 10-3 victory over his 2014 National Champion Dutchmen.
"Penn State is going to be a powerhouse for years to come."
This one had an air of certainty, but it sounded like a divulgence. It was also the first time Penn State hockey was seriously tossed into the national powerhouse conversation. There were no objections, but after a season featuring a No. 1 ranking, a Big Ten championship and now NCAA Tournament dominance, why did it still feel like there might be?
Both comments would've been fair long before they were verbalized. Penn State's path to national prominence had been paved since Denis Smirnov scored 17 points in his first 10 games, since game-winners from Andrew Sturtz finished off No. 16 St. Lawrence and No. 3 Notre Dame before the Big Ten slate even began, and since Vince Pedrie led a defensive unit that finally looked like it had some identity.
On paper, this could have been a story's happy ending. In reality, the book had barely begun.
Just five seasons ago, Penn State hockey didn't even have a varsity hockey team.
So despite all the winning throughout the season, including an Elite Eight tournament run, the question persisted:
How is this not a fluke?
This question mattered, and not just for Penn State. Whether you consider the program's rapid success a Cinderella story, a product of donors with deep pockets, or a little bit of both, Penn State hockey is evidence that a team could go from club to Division I and actually win. Evidence that college hockey's popularity doesn't just have to be confined to historical powers like the University of Minnesota, Boston University or University of North Dakota. This happened, for real, and that means maybe it could happen again somewhere else under the right circumstances.
With a consistently successful Division I team already established in Robert Morris, and a club team reminiscent of Penn State's in Pitt, what would it take to grow the collegiate game in the home of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions?
If the Penn State hockey story is to be followed, it won't happen overnight.
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