August 29, 2016
Wilkes University president Patrick Leahy stepped behind the podium and wasted no time channeling the legendary Bob Johnson by saying the iconic phrase, “It’s a great day for hockey.”
Leahy, just feet in front of the ice that will become the Colonel’s home in a year, announced that Wilkes University will sponsor men’s and women’s NCAA Division-III hockey for the first time beginning for the 2017-18 season.
Thanks to an affiliation with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Coal Street Redevelopment Authority, the Colonels will practice and play their games at the Toyota SportsPlex, the same facility that houses Penguins practices throughout the year.
“For years, we’ve been looking at new ways enrich the student experience and to recruit highly motivated students to campus,” Leahy said. “We received a presentation from the MAC (Middle Atlantic Conference), our athletic conference, about two years ago on the benefits of adding ice hockey. It was based on that that we went back to campus and started developing a multi-year plan to add ice hockey, and that all culminates today with this announcement.”
As Leahy and Wilkes’ plan advanced further and further, there came a time to look for a place to actually play the game. With the Toyota SportsPlex located so closely to the university’s downtown campus, it made perfect sense as a home for Colonels hockey. So Leahy met with Penguins CEO Jeff Barrett, and an instant chemistry between the two groups’ ideal put Wilkes University’s hockey program on the fast track.
“The moment [myself and Jeff Barrett] got together, it just seemed to be that our interests were completely synced up,” Leahy said. “The Penguins have an interest in promoting hockey at all levels in the community, and we wanted ice time at a first class facility. Together, we both decided this would be a mutually beneficial thing for both of us.”
Barrett echoed Leahy’s sentiment, saying, “One of our mission statements is to help grow the sport of hockey whether it’s at the collegiate, youth, or at the professional level. Just being involved with Wilkes and seeing them take the next step in their hockey journey, it’s very exciting for us.”
Leahy says that the search for a coaching staff will begin immediately, and that the intent is for the coaches to have an entire academic year dedicated to recruiting players before the team’s inaugural season in 2017. The university president believes that the assist from the Penguins organization will help make the budding program an attractive destination during the recruiting process, but Barrett insists Wilkes already has a reputation on its own that is good enough to bring in student athletes.
“Ultimately, a student athlete is going to go to the college that best fits them, and when you look at the credentials that Wilkes has, it’s second to none,” Barrett said. “So they’re not going to have any issues recruiting players. Maybe we can push it over the top when they see that they’ll practice and play at the same facility as a pro team and the other resources a facility like this can offer to help a program develop, but ultimately, a player is going to go to Wilkes because it’s a good school.”
Wilkes’ arrival to the DIII scene comes at the same time King’s College has kickstarted men’s and women’s hockey programs expected to begin play in 2017. The two schools already play for the Mayor’s Cup every year on the gridiron, but Leahy is ecstatic to see how the rivalry translates to the ice.
“Well, I’ve always said that if you think the atmosphere at Wilkes-King’s football games or Wilkes-King’s basketball games is exciting, imagine the atmosphere here at a Wilkes-King’s hockey game.” Leahy said. “Frankly, we’re thrilled to have King’s College involved in this, because they are our great athletic rivalry, and this will only further strengthen that rivalry.”
With the announcement, Wilkes becomes the fourth school in Pennsylvania to offer DIII men’s hockey and the fifth boasting a women’s team. Already confident in the success of the hockey programs, Leahy believes it won’t be long before other small schools in the area realize the benefits of adding varsity hockey to the fold.
“I think once the wisdom gets out that you can recruit from a national, indeed, international market, I think other schools will add this program,” Leahy said. “Right now, there not enough college teams to satisfy the demand for hockey across the country.”