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Lessons of the North: How Alaska Fairbanks molded Penn State men's hockey coach Guy Gadowksy

Men's hockey vs. Alaska-Fairbanks, Coach Gadowsky

Head Coach Guy Gadowsky looks toward the play during the men’s hockey game against Alaska-Fairbanks at the Pegula Ice Arena on Oct. 17, 2019. The No. 9 Nittany Lions defeated the Nanooks, 7-0.

For a town where the average January temperature is a high of zero degrees, Fairbanks, Alaska and its 31,000 residents have a passion and love for college hockey — largely because of a team Guy Gadowsky helped build.

After Gadowsky had finished up three years as the head coach and director of hockey operations for the now-defunct Fresno Falcons, a member of the West Coast Hockey League, he got a call from University of Alaska-Fairbanks that would change the course of his life.

“[There] happened to be an opening and I got a call saying I might be a good fit,” Gadowksy said.

That was that — after his own collegiate hockey career at Colorado College, Gadowsky would finally be behind an NCAA bench.

For five years, Gadowsky guided the Nanooks away from mediocrity and put them in a position to succeed.

Before Gadowsky, it was a team that hadn’t won more than 14 games in a season in five years, the year before they joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association

After two rebuilding years, Gadowsky’s third season ended with a CCHA Coach of the Year award, and he got the team to No. 11 nationally with over 20 wins in his final year.

“He was demanding, he was tough, he had certain standards that he didn't fall away from, but you respected him . . . and [he was] approachable at the same time,” one of Gadowsky's former players Cam Keith told The Daily Collegian over the phone.

Men's hockey vs. Alaska-Fairbanks, Coach Gadowsky

Head Coach Guy Gadowsky looks toward the play during the men’s hockey game against Alaska-Fairbanks at the Pegula Ice Arena on Oct. 17, 2019. The No. 9 Nittany Lions defeated the Nanooks, 7-0.

Keith is the head coach and associate general manager for the Surrey Eagles, a member of the British Columbia Hockey League, and he played at UAF from 2000 to 2004, Gadowsky’s final four seasons.

Even though prior to Gadowsky, UAF had been hovering in mediocrity, Gadowsky refused to settle for mediocre and always had a high standard.

“He never faltered away from being easy on you in that way,” Keith said. “You always respected where he was coming from because he always had good communication that way.”

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Now, Gadowsky is nearly 4,000 miles away from where his journey began and is in his 16th year as a head coach.

He spent seven years at Princeton and the last eight at Penn State, and has been behind the bench of teams that have become perennial contenders in college hockey.

Continued success means more fans show up for Penn State games, but to Gadowsky the size of Alaska's fanbase is no reason to discount what the Nanooks are doing out west.

“I think Penn Staters would love the experience to go up there and see a game,” Gadowsky said. “That’s a packed house and it’s a lot of fun and it would draw a lot of similarities with Pegula Ice Arena for sure.”

While the Carlson Center in Fairbanks has about 1,500 fewer seats than Pegula, the energy inside the arenas both make for an energetic gameday experience.

“The size of the schools are very different, but one thing that I find very similar is the passion of the community to support the hockey teams,” Gadowsky said, “and I absolutely love that about UAF.”

Men's hockey vs. Alaska-Fairbanks, fans

From left, Sam Newton of Vancouver, B.C., Jay Aikenhead of Vancouver, B.C., Dianne Marshall of Fairbanks, Alaska and Steve Estes of Fairbanks, Alaska show their sign before the men’s hockey game against Alaska-Fairbanks at the Pegula Ice Arena on Oct. 17, 2019. The No. 9 Nittany Lions defeated the Nanooks, 7-0.

The Penn State community and its dedication to sports was a big draw for Gadowsky in coming to Happy Valley.

The ironic part, though, is that it's Gadowsky who likely injects passion into these programs.

But when you look at Gadowsky's achievements — especially off the ice and how he molded people beyond just being athletes — maybe it shouldn't be so surprising that he's the catalyst for passion and becomes someone who's easy to rally around.

At UAF, Gadowsky set multiple on-ice records including wins in a season, but also for important categories off the ice, namely record GPA percentage and single-season game attendance.

“He affected my life in so many positive ways. At times I hated him because he was so hard to play for,” Keith said. “He was just in it for the right reasons. He was just trying to make you a better human rather than make you a better hockey player.”

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There may be conventional wisdom that recruiting would be a concern when it comes to a state as isolated as Alaska.

The Penn State brand and logo is enough to draw kids from around the country, but the Nanooks don’t quite have that advantage.

This year’s UAF roster includes no native-Alaskans; Penn State has six players from its own state.

But Gadowsky didn't have the same problems when he led the Nanooks.

“We had a number of Alaskans and we had a number of western Canadians that were close in proximity,” Gadowsky said. “That's what we recruited to.”

Men's hockey vs. Alaska-Fairbanks, Coach Gadowsky

Head Coach Guy Gadowsky talks to other coaches during the men’s hockey game against Alaska-Fairbanks at the Pegula Ice Arena on Oct. 17, 2019. The No. 9 Nittany Lions defeated the Nanooks, 7-0.

Keith happened to be in the right place at the right time when Gadowsky and Co. reached out to recruit him.

“Something happened with one of the recruits and I was a late-bloomer type. I had just won the fastest skater in my league," Keith told the Collegian. "In Alaska, we play on Olympic ice, so that drew some attention.”

For Gadowsky, it was important to get the kind of players that would be a great match in Alaska — people who loved the adventure and freedom of being in such a naturally rich place, but who would also be committed to hard work on the ice.

“It was just getting the right guys that loved the outdoors, loved hunting and fishing, and loved the Alaskan experience as well,” Gadowsky said. “We wanted to play for a community that really cared about them and so I guess for us, I wouldn’t call [recruiting] difficult.”

Keith, originally from British Columbia, met Gadowsky in person one summer and the rest was history.

“They brought me up there in the summer when Alaska looks a lot nicer so to speak,” Keith said. “I got a chance to meet Guy in person. . . and it was an easy decision.”

Now at Penn State, perhaps part of the reason recruiting hasn't been a problem is the growing popularity of the sport, specifically televised collegiate games.

“Part of the interesting thing about college hockey is that there’s so many great players now in terms of coming from non-traditional areas of the United States,” Gadowsky said. “A lot more coming from Europe and our program is a perfect example of that, and because of the exposure of college hockey to Canada and I think the Big Ten Network has to take a lot of credit in that.”

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It’s easier than ever to access college hockey; easier than ever to be inspired to lace up the skates and pick up a stick; easier than ever to see and feel the gameday atmosphere and want to be in the middle of it.

Everything becomes even easier when the area breeding these kids has unlimited access to the game. In a state that’s average high is below 55 degrees for eight months of the year, and where ice forms quickly on nearby lakes and ponds, you don’t even need professional rink access like you do in places like Florida and Arizona where the game is starting to grow.

And yet despite growing popularity, ideal weather conditions and easy access, the program that helped Gadowsky launch his coaching career could soon struggle to get off the ground.

“Obviously I’d really like to help if I could. I try to stay up on it but im not so sure if i have any role that can make any significant difference. I did talk to their coach . . . so I am a little more optimistic that things are going to work out for that program," Gadowsky said. "I do have a ton of pride in the program and obviously want to see it continue for the community of Fairbanks but [also] for college hockey.”

Men's hockey vs. Alaska-Fairbanks, fan

Dianne Marshall of Fairbanks, Alaska prepares for a game of beach ball battle during an intermission of the men’s hockey game against Alaska-Fairbanks at the Pegula Ice Arena on Oct. 17, 2019. The No. 9 Nittany Lions defeated the Nanooks, 7-0.

Twenty seasons ago, when Gadowsky first took over at UAF, the program, while mediocre, showed no signs of folding.

In fact, the program was on the upswing.

“When I first got there the program was pushing in the right direction. A lot of it was because of Guy. He got the city involved. We [hosted the playoffs at] Joe Louis Arena our second year and they had never done that,” Keith said.

Gadowsky was the first UAF head coach to host the playoffs, reaching the postseason twice in three years. But before the playoffs, the crowd had to be good enough to get them there.

“The arena was sold out, we did a white out, everyone was waving the white towels,” Keith said. “I think we swept Ferris State for the right to go to the Joe.”

Gadowsky transformed a lowly team into an “all-of-a-sudden force” according to Keith. Players were suddenly in talks with NHL teams and the city as a whole felt the effects of their new-look team.

“We were selling out almost every single game,” Keith said. “It was amazing. They Started calling it “HockeyTown Fairbanks” and Guy just brought this huge positive vibe to it because he felt so approachable in the community and everyone felt this connection to him.”

The beauty of college hockey is that there are these battles of schools that range in size. Whether it’s Penn State’s 40,000 undergraduate students versus UAF’s 6,000, the size of the community has little to do with the passion behind it.

Penn State has never seen its Division I team under a different coach, but so far Gadowsky has led his team year after year with a whole lot of support from his community, just the way it was for UAF.

And while Penn State is quickly becoming an elite program, Alaska-Fairbanks' program existing is just as essential for the survival and thriving nature of the sport.

“I think it's very important that we do what we can as a community and college hockey coaches to make sure we do everything we can to retain those programs,” Gadowsky said.

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