By Erin Neri, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With the last regular season series of the year quickly approaching, Penn State men's hockey is looking to end on a positive note. With the goal to finish strong in mind, the Nittany Lions will also take time to honor their four seniors.
"All four of them have exhibited tremendous character," Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky said. "I think they all have a great deal of pride in Penn State University because of the road they took to get here."
In a pregame ceremony, Penn State will honor captain and forward James Robinson, assistant captain and defenseman Erik Autio, defenseman Trevor Hamilton and goaltender Matt Erlichman.
While each Nittany Lion has a unique journey leading up to their final regular season series in Pegula Ice Arena, they all started in different places.
For Robinson, he didn't even have to step foot on campus to know Penn State was the place for him.
"I knew that I didn't have to come down and see [Penn State] just from talking to my junior coaches and my conversations with Gadz [Gadowsky] and [Keith] Fisher," Robinson said. "I knew, but it surpassed all expectations."
After his freshman year, things took an unexpected turn. During his sophomore season, Robinson skated one shift before suffering a season-ending injury. Ahead of his junior year, he was voted to wear the "A" for his leadership qualities exhibited off the ice.
"That is the accomplishment I've been the most proud of in my hockey career," Robinson said. "Not having to play every weekend gave me the opportunity to be the best teammate possible and I tried to build my relationships with every single guy in that locker room. I think that's a big piece of why they trusted me in being a captain the next year."
Throughout his four years in Hockey Valley, there's one not-too-obvious game that sticks out in Robinson's head when it comes to his favorite memory. On Halloween during his freshman year, the Nittany Lions played Bentley and overcame a two-goal deficit, tying the game in the last minute of play.
"I honestly think that's the loudest I've ever heard that rink and we've had some big games against some of the Big Ten teams" Robinson said. "To have that moment against Bentley stand out is pretty special and I'll never forget that."
Autio took a long route to a new country as a freshman. Beyond simply moving to North America to attend an American university, the Finland native had to make many other adjustments on his own.
The adversity in his path didn't stop him from rising up through the team to become a dominant defenseman, as well as captain during his final year.
"He had so many adjustments and he was the only one," Gadowsky said. "To see him grow from a quiet freshman to a confident leader is my favorite part."
Part of a special group who came to the program when it was up and coming, the seniors put in serious work long before the Big Ten Championship title to establish themselves.
The journey of course, formed an unbreakable bond between senior teammates Autio and Robinson.
"I still remember being a freshman and how much he helped me out back then and how much we loved it in the dorms and moving on from then," Autio said. "We've seen the team grow a lot together and it's been really special to me."
While it may have took a little longer for Hamilton arrive in Happy Valley, it proved to be a beneficial move for both he and the team. Arriving with two years of eligibility, he made an impact from the start.
"I have to admit he's really exceeded my expectations on the ice," Gadowsky said. "The way he was such an immediate, positive part of this program was something that I didn't expect but I'm really happy to see. We wouldn't be close to the program that we are without him."
Hamilton has been a threat both offensively and defensively during his senior stand, scoring four goals to go along with 21 assists.
The Michigan native's skill isn't the only impact he has made on the team, as he will also leave behind his presence in the locker room and on the ice as a leader.
"Trevor on the ice is obviously a huge piece of our team," Robinson said. "We are just very fortunate to have him for the two seasons that we did and I am very happy that we did."Erlichman's journey might be the most unusual, as the Pennsylvania native came to Penn State to play club hockey, but by his senior year achieved more than he could have ever hoped for.
Due to his outstanding performance with the club team and attitude with other staff members, Erlichman was able to walk-on to the varsity team and become a backup goaltender.
"We didn't plan on doing this but because of the guy he is, we decided to go this route with him," Gadowsky said. "He has been extremely important to our team, he's quite a guy."
Erlichman's energy and positivity has not gone unnoticed by his teammates and coaches, proving a key piece of impact on the team.
"He's as much a part of the team as Jones or Funkey or anyone else for that matter," Robinson said. "He brings a work ethic in the weight room and in practice. He brings an energy in the dressing room we need and we're happy he's part of [the team]."
Even though the series will be an emotional one for the entire quartet, Penn State doesn't plan on letting the senior night festivities impact its performance.
Not to be overlooked though, the Nittany Lions will face a tough opponent in Minnesota this weekend.
While the Gophers and the Nittany Lions have both improved in different areas since the last meeting in mid-October, Robinson is confident his team will be ready for a competitive weekend.
"They're a good team but we're a good team and we can't wait to match up against them," Robinson said. "It's going to be a fun weekend."