STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Evan Barratt and Jake Goldowski are two of the most important recruits in the brief history of the Penn State hockey program for a couple of reasons.
Barratt and Goldowski are currently at the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and committed to play for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State has not had any players from the USNTDP, where a couple dozen of the best U-18 and U-17 prospects in the nation live, train and play together, to this point. Barratt is on the U-18 team and will join the Nittany Lions next season. Goldowski is on the U-17 and will come to Hockey Valley in 2018-19.
It’s not just that Penn State has two players committed from the country’s top youth program. Barratt and Goldowski are both from Eastern Pennsylvania. Youth hockey has expanded and improved throughout the country, and the rise of the Mid-Atlantic region has been one of the biggest boons for the sport in the past 20 years.
That is an incredibly important development for the future of Penn State’s program.
“Big time, and Pennsylvania in general,” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Not just West and East. (Penn State alum and booster) Terry (Pegula) was really hoping this program would help Centre County and the region around here. There are a ton of excellent hockey players that have developed here in Pennsylvania. We hope now there is going to be more. We hope that they come to Penn State. I think that they will.
“I don’t want to make quotes for other players, but I do know there are guys who have gone elsewhere to be successful before Penn State and have seen games at Pegula (Ice Arena) and were like, ‘Man, I wish this was here when I was going because I definitely would have gone to Penn State.’ I’ve heard that numerous times.”
Hockey recruiting is a little different than football or basketball. There are players who are currently 14 years old committed to schools (including a couple for Penn State). One way that it’s similar is geography matters.
In football, it’s Florida, Texas and California schools that have an advantage with access to more local talent. In hockey, it’s Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts.
But the sport has grown at the youth levels and spread across the country. The No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Auston Matthews, played his youth hockey in Arizona.
Pittsburgh’s rise as a youth hockey entity has been well-chronicled. From Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger to Brandon Saad and John Gibson, western Pennsylvania is producing NHL-caliber talent. The Interstate 95 corridor, from Washington, D.C., to New York City, is also producing top talent, and most importantly more of it.
For Penn State and Princeton, the top two Division I programs in the area, more college-level talent at rinks that assistant coaches can drive to is a huge help.
“Having some local talent is great,” Princeton coach Ron Fogarty said. “You have people that are in your backyard and are familiar with what you’re doing. They get to see the product. It helps so much with recruiting.
“You saw it with our game at Wells Fargo (Center). There was more than 15,000 people there. There is great interest in college hockey in this area.”
Princeton upset Penn State, 5-4, at the home of the Philadelphia Flyers, last month.
According to data compiled by College Hockey, Inc., Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the top nine states in the nation in players on Division I rosters during the 2016-17 season.
— College Hockey Inc. (@collegehockey) February 22, 2017
There are 47 players from Pennsylvania, and six of them are on Penn State’s roster. Beyond Barratt and Goldowski, Penn State’s current commitments have a distinct local feel.
The Nittany Lions have 16 players committed, ranging from prospects joining the team next season through 2020-21. Six are from Pennsylvania (all from the eastern side of the state) and four are from New Jersey.
“One hundred percent — it is definitely improving,” said Danton Cole, Goldowski’s coach of the U-17 team at the USNTDP. “The spread of minor hockey and the improvement has been impressive. From upstate New York, down to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, those are good states that are just starting to produce more and more players. It used to be you’d see a few kids from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but it’s spreading throughout the state.”
That’s where Penn State already has helped itself for the future.
Pegula Arena is a fantastic recruiting tool for prospective college hockey prospects, but it doubles as one for youth players as well. At its most basic level, the arena has added two more sheets of ice in Central Pennsylvania.
No major sport relies more on needing an indoor facility to play than hockey. Kids can play baseball, basketball, football and soccer anywhere. Sure, they can play street hockey, but kids need ice rinks to become college hockey players, and those are in short supply in some areas.
Pittsburgh has the Penguins and Philadelphia has the Flyers. The youth programs in and around those cities have benefitted tremendously from various types of NHL support.
Penn State’s program, and Pegula Arena, can help the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League be something a bridge between east and west in the Keystone State. When Penn State plays Wisconsin in front of a sold-out crowd next weekend in State College, there could be a couple of future Nittany Lions in the stands.
“We talk about growing the sport all the time, and now you’ve got a major Division I college team that is competitive on the national level there,” said Cary Eades, coach of the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League and former coach to two current Penn State players (Denis Smirnov and Alec Marsh). “You’ve got kids going to the games and seeing the arena and seeing the excitement and they’re going, ‘Hey, maybe hockey is my sport.’ It gets more athletes playing the game, and it gets parents excited about there being more opportunities for their kids to play different sports.”