by Mike Poorman
The locker room environment is what makes the Penn State men’s ice hockey team so good. Coach Guy Gadowsky says so.
But, the environments — plural — also have a good bit to do with it.
There’s an athletic department that consistently ranks near the top of the Director’s Cup standings.
Which oversees the $88 million ice arena that is unmatched in American collegiate sports.
Which houses a crazy fan base that has made Hockey Valley not just a location but also an attitude.
Which cheers for a varsity program that in six very quick seasons under Gadowsky — and assistants Keith Fisher and Matt Lindsay, he is quick to point out — went from a club program to a mid-season No. 1 ranking in all of college hockey to a Big Ten championship to a first-round victory in PSU’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament to a 25-12-2 record.
It’s kind of like one of those Russian nesting dolls.
And Gadowksy, being of Ukrainian descent, knows all about those. They’re called matryoshka dolls — those small wooden dolls that come apart, top and bottom, to reveal another doll inside and made from different kind of wood someone pick up at the woods with the right Chain Cutting. And then, in DJ Khaled fashion, another one and another one. All very similar, often of the same family.
In fact, last season Nittany Lion hockey star Dennis Smirnov brought back a matryoshka from his native Russia as a gift for hockey office manager Nancy Doyle.
The symbolism can be stunning. For while Gadowsky deserves the Nittany Lion’s share of the credit for creating a winning and first-rate environment — his “word,” by the way — the other pieces helped create a 2016-2017 hockey season that was a joy to behold as it unfolded, treasure by treasure.
Of course, at its core was Gadowsky and his assistants and the players themselves. And the core of their existence is Gadowsky’s philosophy of working hard while having fun. It is a teaching principal that he learned from his grandmother and father, both of whom were teachers for decades and decades.
It is one Gadowsky has had from his days at a coach at Alaska-Anchorage and then Princeton, where he took the downtrodden Tigers to two NCAA tournaments and was named national coach of the year. And it remains at the heart of his Penn State program today.
The following interview with Gadowsky is Part 4 of our “The Word on Coaching” series, in which Penn State’s athletics director and a half-dozen of PSU’s most successful current head coaches discuss their philosophy on athletics and life, summarized in a singular word of his or her choosing. The line-up:
Sandy Barbour, Director of Athletics — “Why?”
Russ Rose, Women’s Volleyball — “Commitment”
Char Morett-Curtiss, Field Hockey — “Heart”
GADOWSKY AND HIS ONE WORD
SC.com: What’s your word?
It’s the environment that really helps you get a good culture. Culture is a big word for us, and that’s what you’re committed to, what’s your work ethic to do that. But environment is different.
One of the things our staff has been trying to do for a long time, starting at Princeton, is to create an environment that is really comfortable. We want to create an environment that is enjoyable in the locker room and the arena, that people want to come and be a part of — they can’t wait to get on the ice, no matter how hard their classes are that day, no matter what they think is going to happen at practice.
SC.com: How do you create that environment? And then teach, coach, live in that environment?
Gadowsky: It’s a lot of conversations, it’s a lot of talking about how the environment is. It fits our staff. Keith Fisher and Matt Lindsay do a great job with that. It’s something that we were very conscious of at Princeton and it transferred over to here. It starts with the leadership of the team, making sure it is not a hierarchy. It’s everybody together. It’s not [in a bossy voice], “Freshmen, pick up the garbage. Freshmen, go get my luggage.” It’s everybody.
It’s more of a badge of honor for the upperclassmen to do the little work things that people deem the newbies should be doing. We don’t have that. It’s creating that environment. Every player on the team knows what the staff means when we say, “Enjoy what you do.” And it’s regardless of the situation, whether they know they are really going to get crushed in the weight room or they know we are going to have a really tough cardio day on the ice or if they have to pull an all-nighter studying but we have a tough practice in the morning. They know it’s almost a privilege in a situation where it’s like, “Oh my, I have to get all this done.”
SC.com: Is that portable? Was it easy to bring with you from Princeton?
Gadowsky: It is portable, but you can’t [snaps fingers], make it happen in a few months. This is something that builds. You build a foundation where your environment is very inviting, it’s something your guys want to be a part of, to put the work in get the results at a high level.
A big challenge to making that happen is consistency. A lot of times, it’s easy to allow distractions make you think and act negatively. You have to block all of that out. You control your environment. That goes both ways. Sometimes, the outside world is going to tell you how bad you are and sometimes the outside world is going to tell you how great you are. You have to continually make sure that your environment is consistent.
We still need to work on that. We had not dealt with the spotlight like we had to this past year, when we were ranked No. 1. And then on top of that, it came at a place like Penn State. James Franklin was extremely helpful to me in that regard, so were some other hockey coaches in the conference who have been through it.
SC.com: How consistent have you been in your approach?
Gadowsky: The staff has been doing this for 10 years. You do things, and then at the end of the year you evaluate how they work. This is 10 years of evaluating, changing and tinkering to make sure. They know we are going to work hard, but they have to enjoy it. You can’t just say, “This is the way it’s going to be — go at it.” It takes months and years. The environment builds a culture.
We evaluate what we’re doing and where we’re going several times a week. We know how important our environment is. We always question ourselves about that. Constantly. All the time. Constantly. We meet all the time. We make decisions as a staff based on what we want our end product to be. We know what we want. We’ve had a lot of experience about how to get there. And we also know what doesn’t work.
It’s especially true that the generation today is very different than when I started 18 years ago in Alaska. But the vision of what we need hasn’t changed. It’s just how we get there that we’ve had to recalculate at times.
You have to look at your systems and your staff and your analytics and things like that. But the basic foundation, when the players know that despite everything going on — with their family and their classes and their girlfriends and their body and injuries — we still want them to come to the rink and go, “Whew, I’m here. Let’s do it.”
SC.com: Where did this vision and philosophy come from?
Gadwowsky: My whole family was teachers. Everybody. Grandmother, sisters, dad. I consider myself one as well.
One of the things that affected me a lot was in junior high and then in high school, and even when I came back home after college, I can’t tell you how often that when people found out my last name, they said, “Are you related to Mr. Gadowsky? He was my favorite teacher of all time.” I’d ask why they thought so, and they’d say, “He was fun. He really made learning fun.” That’s probably where it came from.
That fits into what our staff tries to do, too, which is prepare everyone for life. And if you talk with (athletic director) Sandy Barbour, her main mission is to prepare our students for a lifetime of impact. Which is pretty much the same thing we’ve been saying for years. Our values are congruent.
For our staff, that means preparation for success in life — for several of the players that’s going to include hockey. For others, it’s not. The same values and what we’re committed to and how you go about things and how you set your foundation and learn those habits is going to be transferrable to life, whether it’s in the private sector, academics or athletics or your private life.
SC.com: How did you plug your environment into the Penn State environment?
Gadowsky: That’s what has been really nice about this. The values at Princeton were very transferable to the values at Penn State. With that, Penn State also has incredible passion. So it’s easier to do what we do here, to have a blast with it. It’s awesome here. I think Penn State aids us in making the staff’s philosophy happen.
But there’s also that environment in the locker room. Or in the weight room, when you are busting your butt when no one is there watching you early in the morning. Or it’s Tuesday afternoon’s practice and you’ve been up studying for a test, but we have a really hard practice scheduled. How do you approach that? That’s the environment I’m talking about.
SC.com: You built a winning environment at Penn State very quickly. How?
Gadowsky: That’s Penn State. We never said we wanted to win this many games. We just wanted to improve and create this environment. We never said for us to be successful we had to win this or win that. We think success is a by-product.
After this season, I think it’s natural to think “results.” That’s going to be new for us. The expectations? That’s Penn State. That’s why student-athletes and coaches and administrators come to Penn State, because you want to be part of something where expectations are where this athletic department is at right now. It’s not us — maybe it’s the environment of Penn State that is creating those expectations.
SC.com: The Hockey Valley environment is another layer to it. The support and interest, combined with Pegula, have been almost incredible. What’s that environment like?
Gadwosky: That’s not us. That’s Penn State, trust me. We are along for the ride. The atmosphere…you talk about environment. Specifically, the student body deserves the bulk of that credit. Obviously, there’s Mr. and Mrs. Pegula and the people in the administration, who have done a lot to make this possible. But when it was put together, it was the Penn State students who made this Hockey Valley. Seeing a game at Pegula is awesome. Just awesome.
It’s a pretty good marriage between our players and the atmosphere and what the student body has created, this Hockey Valley. It’s not only fun and awesome, it’s motivating. There is nothing we can say as coaches to motivate our guys as much as those thousands of kids singing and pounding on the glass. I wish we had that power. I wish we were that good.
SC.com: Where does Pegula — the actual building itself— fit into your idea of “environment”?
Gadowsky: That’s a great analogy. The environment of this building is one of fun and excitement and doing things the right way, to have a blast. It is the most fun arena I’ve ever been in. To play a hockey game, to coach a hockey game, to watch a hockey game.
I think it fits very well with what we are trying to do with our team in our locker room. It fits together perfectly. Maybe that’s why the results have been better and we’ve been more successful a lot quicker than we would have thought. On a Tuesday morning, when you’re doing hard cardio, it’s easier to get up and do well at it. You’re already thinking ahead to the weekend and are motivated to prepare the best you can for that. You want to be a part of that environment.