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Jerry Sullivan: WNY's Andrew Sturtz living the hockey dream in Happy Valley

You know the promotional spots that universities run on TV during NCAA games? Penn State should get sophomore hockey player Andrew Sturtz to do one. Ask the guy a question and you get a testimonial about the school. You can almost hear music playing in the background.

"You can try to explain it," Sturtz said by phone on Wednesday, "but until you actually experience it, you can't. There's something magical in the air down here."

Sturtz used the word five times during a single interview this week: magical. The Town of Tonawanda native had a feeling that Penn State was the perfect place when he visited two winters ago. He walked onto the State College campus that afternoon, made a tour with the coaches, then sat down with his father, Jamie, for an early dinner.

"This is the place," he told his dad. "This is where I want to go to school and play my hockey. This is it."

Sturtz has not been disappointed. Penn State has been everything he imagined when he decided to join its rising Division I hockey program in 2015. And last weekend in Detroit, the magic rose to a new level, as the Nittany Lions made a surprising run to the Big Ten championship and earned their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

It was storybook stuff for Penn State (24-11-2) to make it to the NCAAs just five years after becoming a Division I program. They won back-to back games in double overtime to do it, winning their first title and NCAA bid in the final year of fabled Joe Louis Arena, which will be torn down at the end of the season.

There's a feel-good Buffalo angle as well. Terry and Kim Pegula donated $102 million to Terry's alma mater in 2011 to launch Division I men’s and women’s programs and fund a 6,000-seat arena that has made Penn State the envy of college hockey.

Oh, and Sturtz, a 5-foot-8 winger and Kenmore East graduate, has been the team's leading goal scorer his first two seasons in Happy Valley.

"You'll never hear anyone in our program not mention the Pegulas," said Sturtz. "Without them, none of this is possible. We have the best student section in college hockey. I couldn't imagine being an away team in our rink, it would be too hard to play. The Pegulas have gone above and beyond for Penn State University.

"If they don't make that donation, we're not on the phone right now."

It was a phone call from Penn State assistant Matt Lindsay in late February of 2015 that got Andrew started. Lindsay had seen Sturtz play for the Carleton Place Canadians, a junior team in Ottawa which plays in the Central Canadian Hockey League. The Nittany Lions were interested.

Sturtz was in the hospital at the time. He had an infection in his mouth after getting hit in the face and losing several teeth. As it happened, he was heading back to the U.S. to get dental work. He told Lindsay he could stop off in Pennsylvania before heading back to Canada to finish his junior season.

So Sturtz and his father headed to State College. Jamie said Andrew's mouth was a mess at that point, but Jamie will never forget the look on his son's face when he got back from his campus visit.

"We stayed that night for the Minnesota game and it was an incredible atmosphere in that arena," said Jamie, who owns Colvin Draperies in Kenmore. "The next morning, we took him to Syracuse to get three root canals."

Then they traveled on to Canada. On that same day, Sturtz played a game in Ottawa. Remember that the next time you make a root canal joke. That's Andrew, tough and devoted to his sport.

"Andy's got a very, very, very unique personality and an absolute passion for the game," said John Bruno, who coached Sturtz at various levels of Western New York youth hockey and has been a mentor through the years. "You could tell that when he was a young kid. Whether he had talent, we didn't know. But he would play all day if he could. And that's one thing that's never changed."

Bruno said Sturtz's skills developed late, when he was 12-14 years old. He sometimes went his own way – his hero as a kid going to Sabres games was Max Afinogenov – but his toughness and work ethic were never an issue.

"Honestly, that's what Penn State saw early on," Bruno said. "There's a lot of guys at Penn State who, if you lined them up on talent, probably would be more talented. But Andy's just powering through some things. He was always a bulldog. He just outworks everybody."

Sturtz loved the tenacious character of the Penn State team when he was being recruited. He fits right in. He's become a team leader and something of a personality on campus. He's a star on the players' silly lip sync contests that are shown on the video board at home games.

His toughness was put to the test in last Thursday's Big Ten quarterfinal at the Joe, when he had a violent collision with a Michigan player behind the net. The trainer didn't let Sturtz return. Penn State was leading at the time, 3-0, so they could afford to be careful. The extra energy came in handy when they played double overtime the next two days.

"After Friday's game, I told the trainer it was the best thing that could have happened," Sturtz said. "I had more jump than some other guys after that."

The semifinal win over Minnesota, the No. 5 team in the country, likely clinched the Lions an at-large berth in the 16-team NCAA field. Sturtz said it seemed like they were fatigued in the double OT win over Wisconsin in the final Saturday.

Now it's on to Cincinnati, where Penn State plays Union in the first game of the Midwest Regional on Saturday at U.S. Bank Arena. A win there would put them a game away from the Frozen Four – with top-ranked Denver likely standing in their way.

Win or lose, it's been a memorable ride for Sturtz, 22. He has two more years with a young Penn State team. It's a fine time for the sports programs, which have risen above the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal that rocked the school five years ago (coincidentally, the trial of former university president Graham Spanier began this week).

"Look at how far the school has come since then," Sturtz said. "Nobody ever brings up the scandal on campus. Yeah, it was a big thing, but they put that in the past. Sometimes, when we play opposing schools we hear about it. But that's not what Penn State's about and that's the main thing for me.

"I can't say it enough. They call it Happy Valley for a reason."

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