For better or worse, Denver hockey — one of the most successful programs in the nation for as long as college hockey has been around —is the benchmark that Penn State hockey has held itself up to.
The reasoning is simple: Denver is the best team Penn State has ever played [twice now]. Michigan had the CCM line. Notre Dame was the class of the Big Ten. Ohio State has popped up from time to time. But nobody has taken the ice against the Nittany Lions quite like Denver.
And in turn, those memories, although not held by current players, are etched somewhere in the fabric of what Penn State hockey wants to become. A program that is like Denver.
Of course everyone wants to be like Denver. Much like college football where everyone wants to be Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State, wanting to be something and finding a way to become it are two very different things.
Penn State, has, for the most part, done about as well as can be expected just a decade into existence. There have been solid signings like Eamon McAdam and Evan Barratt and there have been misses or 'almosts' that never make the headlines but otherwise would have. All told Guy Gadowsky and his staff have cobbled together a program of players that have fit their needs and blueprint for the moment. Fast, skilled, leaders and dependable off the ice.
These things aside, as the World Juniors tournament comes to a close, the winning United States team boasts nine players from the Big Ten. None from Penn State.
Of course Aarne Talvitie was a torn knee away from taking part in the title game two years ago in the same tournament and Barratt made the United State's roster, but on the whole Penn State's marquee signings have not risen to the national prominence of fellow Big Ten programs.
There is nothing 'wrong' with this, but it begs the question as to why this is the case, or perhaps more importantly, how it changes. Because at the end of the day the best systems in the world are only as good as the players who execute them.
The answer, in the most straightforward sense, is time.
"We do need some time on our side; we do," Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky said earlier in the week. "We need more players that play in the NHL. We need more championships. We're extremely proud of what we've done and extremely optimistic with the direction but eventually down the road, we'd like to have a great mix of the players that you've seen last night [in the world juniors] and the players have been very successful for us."
That's the unfortunate rub for Penn State at this point in time. The Nittany Lions are talented by every measure, have had an incredible amount of success for a brand new program and to a certain extent have managed to be one of the better programs in the nation over the past five years. There is no questioning the overall product, the venue or the players that take the ice on Friday night to face Michigan State.
There is however, as the program stretches into its second decade, a question of how things move forward.
And that is in part the larger geographical challenge. Michigan sits not far from the United State's developmental program. Kids grow up watching a historic program or choose a college with the Maize and Blue always on their mind. Minnesota is a state entrenched in the ice with prospects too numerous to count. The same or similar can be said for Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
One might argue that given the grand scope of the United States, Pennsylvania is among the better states for the game, and that would be fair. But both of the two NHL teams to call PA home are not the outcome of homegrown development, and while passions run high on both the western and eastern flanks of the commonwealth, the hockey culture on a grassroots level is not ingrained in the culture the same way wrestling or football is.
"Part of Mr. Pegula's goal was for his gift to be a catalyst, not only something for a Division I team in State College, but something that's going to be great for hockey in Pennsylvania," Gadowsky added. "And that's happening, I remember when we first started trying to try to get some of the better players in our footprint, it was like, man, I love Penn State, that would be awesome. I don't want to lose for four years sort of deal.
"And and that's changing. And also the differences. I think that with the success of Penn State hockey program, and the gift of a great, two great sheets of ice in Centre County, I think you're going to see, although maybe it's a couple of years down the road, still, that better and better players are coming out of this region in this footprint ... You mentioned that you see the Big Ten teams that have players represented, a lot of them were growing up with successful hockey in their footprint. And that's something that it's got to happen here. It's not something that just happens overnight."
That ultimately is the biggest, and perhaps most unmovable thing that faces Penn State hockey in 2021. Despite the success and good fortune, nothing can substitute for a state and footprint steeped in hockey tradition, nor a program with decades of hockey behind it. Things might eventually work out that way, but nothing can make the clock tick forward faster.
In the meanwhile the answer is development, something Penn State has managed to do well and often in spades. If you can't nail down the nation's top prospects you better be able to turn your own prospects into the best they can be. While a player's celling is subjective, one would be hard pressed to say the Nittany Lions haven't — in the years that mattered most — gotten the most out of what they had. If not for COVID-19, the 2020 iteration of Penn State hockey was very much a national title contender. Previous teams were no less a force in the postseason, albeit still green around the gills.
Until the passage of time actually happens, the question is what happens now. This Penn State team, whatever its strengths and shortcomings might be, isn't without talent or potential. These observations are not an indictment on the current roster as much as a postulation of what happens next.
But back to Denver, a team Penn State captain Alex Limoges has never played but is certainly aware of. Nevertheless, on the list of teams he has played, one of them was the best, and something made them jump into his mind as the best. What was that something?
"I think first and foremost, their confidence," Limoges said. "It's tough to play against a team when they know that they're gonna win or they're better, or they're working harder, however they play. It's tough to go in there and they're just playing their game, and they have no regrets out there. So that's tough. As well as a team that kind of plays like us, just fast and hits everything that moves and shoots a lot. It wears you out for sure. And it's no fun to be playing against a team like that."
When it's all said and done that's probably the most pertinent lesson for Penn State hockey at this particular point in time. The success of the program so far has not been predicated on nationally relevant talent as much as it has been the product of effort, hard work and a tenacity that can overcome teams that are occasionally more skilled on paper.
The rest will - or will not - come with time, something that is almost certainly frustrating for Gadowsky and company.
But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Denver.