It’s just before 10 a.m. on Tuesday as Guy Gadowsky picks up the phone after the second ring. On the other end it’s director of operations Alex Dawes.
“Yeah can you clip the second Wisconsin goal?” Gadowsky says, as the two have a short conversation before hanging up. They’re only separated by a short walk down the hall, but life is just quicker this way.
Minutes later Gadowsky walks next door into a meeting room crammed full of whiteboard space — a single screen on the wall is the only surface where plays and concepts can’t be drawn. Even the table is a long slab of whiteboard material, markers collected neatly in the middle just waiting to be used.
Already in the room: strength and conditioning coach Cam Davidson, volunteer assistant coach Andrew Magera, assistant coach Keith Fisher, and Dawes dutifully working the computer.
As he takes his seat, Gadowsky spreads out nearly a dozen papers on the table in front of him. There are charts, stats, pages of hand-written notes, matrices and an agenda for the meeting itself.
Moments later they’re watching the clip of the second Wisconsin goal in silence.
“Pause it,” Gadowsky says.
And then the meeting truly begins.
For Penn State hockey it’s a pivotal weekend as the Nittany Lions prepared to host No. 6 ranked Notre Dame. In just two seasons as a Big Ten member, the Fighting Irish have effectively become the team to beat. All roads eventually lead through South Bend, but this Friday and Saturday those same roads lead through State College.
So while Tuesday might mark the start of any other week, it isn’t just any other week. Even if the opportunity largely goes unspoken, Penn State’s coaching staff knows it.
At 2-3-1 in conference play, Penn State has slowly found its way behind an early eight-ball. Wins — even just points — against Notre Dame could go a long way toward positive momentum in both the locker room and in the standings.
It’s a big week, there’s no denying that.
But as a program that generally focuses on itself more than the opponent, Gadowsky and his staff have a broader issue to address. Poor third period play has plagued Penn State this season and the crux of it has come down to something very simple: the length of a shift.
Davidson has the numbers, passing out spreadsheets and figures that boil down to a very simple concept: The Nittany Lions are on the ice too long. When shifts are short they win, and when the shifts are long, they lose.
Something as simple as that can make all the difference against a defensively tough and offensively talented team like Notre Dame. It will take three periods of efficient play to beat the Irish, not a period and a half of pedal-to-the-floor hockey. They will, almost literally, run out of gas if they play another other way.
It’s something particularly poignant after a loss to Wisconsin just three nights earlier when the Nittany Lions managed five goals, but fell after another third period collapse.
Two weeks on the road, two weeks of close games and tough losses, it all added up. Couple that with missed chances on the offensive end and inconsistent play in the defensive zone and it was a recipe for exactly what happened: a loss the probably shouldn’t have been.
For the next hour Gadowsky and his staff toil over how to express that message to the team later that afternoon, preparing to give something of a state of the union of both the good and the bad. The record is there, the opportunity is in front of them, but there is no denying that everyone has to get better.
The eventual focus, to enforce the idea that Saturday’s loss wasn’t an effort issue but an efficiency one. That they have played well but will need to improve how they play. Make the most of your shifts but make them short. Play hard but don’t take penalties. Communicate on defense and make the key saves.
The discussion shifts to forward lines, Penn State getting the last change at home, hopeful that its team depth will shine. Beyond that its settling on defensive pairings and a particularly difficult decision of who to start in goal Friday night. None of these debates are short, none of them taken lightly.
By the time all three are finalized, and a recruiting update is complete, it’s time for lunch.
The room disperses.
A few hours later the staff is waiting in the coaching lounge attached to Penn State’s locker room. Gadowsky is going over his talking point to the team one last time, rehearsing numbers and stats printed out on his clipboard, picking his words carefully as he dances between the good and the bad. Fisher is taking a recruiting call. As Magera puts it, sitting on a couch, skates on and ready for practice, “The hockey world is small, every 90 minutes someone is calling you.”
With the team assembled Gadowsky delivers his message a few hours in the making, both the good and the bad but most importantly the key to it all: keep playing hard, fast and physical, but play smart and play efficient. Davidson echoes his message when called on, projecting some numbers on two big TVs at the end of the room that prove their point even further.
The room nods. A few minutes later the Nittany Lions are on the ice.
“He already knows he’s getting an invite,” Dawes says as Gadowsky works on his laptop, once again surrounded by papers and notes.
The topic, USA Hockey is a few hours away from officially releasing its preliminary roster for the Junior World Championship Tournament, and Evan Barratt, both the nation’s and Penn State’s leading scorer, is going to get an invitation.
Not long after Gadowsky announces the news to open a team meeting. Barratt is the second in as many days to head to a World Junior camp, Aarne Tavitie earning an invitation to join Finland a day earlier.
“Don’t tweet anything yet,” Gadowsky jokes to the room through the applause.
And then he turns and walks toward the right side of the room.
“Friday,” Gadowsky says as he points at goalie Chris Funkey sitting in the third row next to fellow netminder Peyton Jones.
It’s a decision over 24-hours old but now officially news to the team. Funkey will start in net for the first game of the series, the last line of defense on a night when Penn State’s will need to be sharp.
To be sure, Funkey has performed fairly well when called on, but the decision is the summation of Penn State’s issues on the defensive end of the ice. Neither Jones nor Funkey have played great this season, Penn State plummeting down the national rankings when it comes to goals allowed. The defense can be to blame, so too the goalies, and equally true, there have been a series of bad bounces and bad luck.
It’s a difficult juggling act. Someone has to play, but nobody has been great and to a certain extent nobody is really to fault.
For all of the narrative stuffed into the decision, the moment itself is quick. Gadowsky pivots again to the next topic, a reminder to the team of the message he told them the day before: short shifts. Davidson shares a few more facts and figures to drive the point home.
From there it’s a teaching session on how Penn State will defend two different situations when Notre Dame has the puck. It’s one thing to take a test, it’s another to have to teach the lesson.
First it’s forward Alec Marsh breaking down the scheme in front of the team on a whiteboard. Then captain Chase Berger explains the second scenario. In the back of the room Gadowsky sits next to assistant coach Matt Lindsay, both nodding as each player goes through each situation.
It’s a short meeting, but an important one. Wednesday marks the last meeting prior to Friday’s pregame scout of Notre Dame.
With that, the team heads off into the afternoon.
“I think the last three weeks went too long,” Gadowsky says to Fisher from across the table. “I think we went too long the last few Thursdays.”
It’s just after lunch as the staff meets again to go over the practice plan, a chance to work on a few key areas. Hockey practice has never really been about anything other than situations and fundamentals. Notre Dame itself is hardly discussed out loud in front of the team for much of the week. It’s all about what happens internally. Execute that plan, and the rest will take care of itself.
Gadowsky’s thought to Fisher paraphrased: If we’re going to talk about short intense shifts, we don’t want a long intense practice. So the staff scratches a mini scrimmage on the practice plan and heads to the coaches lounge to suit up
The conversation never really stops though. They bat around recruiting needs as they put on their skates, texting and checking their emails all the while. There is no overarching theme on Thursday to give the team, it’s just hockey today.
Practice is fast. Quick transition drills, shootouts and more. Speed is key, effdecenty is essential. There is an edge to things as the day draws nearer.
“Fly!” Gadowsky shouts from the bench, the team responding in kind.
Defenseman Kris Mylari whiffs on a shot, a few days off the ice for family reasons, he just looks to the sky.
“I’ll knock of the rust by Saturday,” he tells a trainer with a laugh.
It’s not a long practice, but the important points are hammered home again and again. From across the ice, the entire staff leans on their sticks, watching as players compete in a shootout, eyeing each goalie as closely as the player shooting. From there the Nittany Lions will head for treatment and studying. Morning skates are optional on Friday due to class schedules, so it will be just over 24 hours before many return to the ice again. In turn a few of them stay around to get more shots on goal and a few more passes around the ice. Before long they will count for a whole lot more.
But by now, everyone is ready.
“You hope you’ve done all your work by Friday,” Gadowsky says in his office.
Now it’s just time to play.
It’s 5:34 when Gadowsky is handed a lineup sheet, the first look at the lines Notre Dame will be rolling out Friday night. The Irish are just around the corner and down the hall from the coaches lounge playing soccer, something of hockey’s unofficial pregame tradition.
He just looks at the paper and then places it on the table.
“I can’t believe they didn’t challenge that,” Davidson says, the staff watching the NCAA Women’s Volleyball tournament on the TV mounted to the wall. The work is done, so like everyone else, they’re just waiting.
By 5:45 the entire staff is packed into the small doorway that leads to the locker room and the lights go out.
Over the next 10 minutes Fisher recaps Notre Dame’s tendencies on special teams and face offs. It’s simple stuff, and not even all that new as the Big Ten becomes more and more familiar with itself. The room is quiet, focused on the last bit of intel that they can squeeze into their already racing minds.
“That’s the genius of (Ken) Hitchcock,” Gadowsky said earlier in the week about his mentor and now Edmonton Oilers’ head coach. “Breaking it down into something small,” He motions with his hands making a small invisible box. “The more you introduce, the harder it is for players to remember all of it, even if they want to.”
So as Fisher wraps up his brief presentation he reminds the team of the message that has been the same all week long.
Short. Hard. Shifts.