The Boyertown Area Times
Locals McMenamin, Paquette, Gratton brothers help Penn State return to NCAA tournament
For a group of guys whose careers took them away from home when they reached high school age, the Penn State men’s ice hockey team’s participation in the Allentown Regional of the NCAA tournament is a certified homecoming.
“Obviously other than Penn State, I think the closest I’ve ever played to home was Youngstown, Ohio, in the USHL,” said Penn State senior and Collegeville native Connor McMenamin. “So definitely a lot of family and friends are coming out for the game on (March 24). It’s exciting. It’s nice to be able to be close.”
The local connection is strong with the Penn State ice hockey team, which boasts four locals – McMenamin and fellow Collegeville native Tyler Paquette, a junior forward, plus the Gratton brothers, senior Tyler and freshman Dylan, both of Pottstown – among its seven rostered Pennsylvanians.
The quartet helped Penn State earn its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2018, the third berth in the program’s 11-year existence.
For veterans like senior forwards McMenamin and Tyler Gratton, the NCAA tournament experience feels like a long time coming.
“My freshman year we were on the right track, but then it got taken away from us at the end of the season when it was shut down because of COVID. To see it come full circle here in my senior year is incredible,” Tyler Gratton said. “We’re super pumped, the whole team is pumped to be here. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
No. 11 ranked Penn State was the regional tournament host for the weekend event held at the PPL Center in Allentown. Penn State, the region’s No. 2 seed, took on Michigan Tech in the opening round Friday while No. 3 ranked Michigan, the back-to-back Big Ten champions, faced Colgate.
Penn State and Michigan both won in first round routs and met for a spot in the Frozen Four on March 26.
The PPL Center is treated as Penn State’s home away from home in its NCAA tournament appearances, with its strong community of alumni and supporters in eastern and southeastern Pa. ready to flock to Allentown.
It’s as close a home game as the Nittany Lions’ southeast Pa. foursome have had in many years.
The road to the highest levels of the sport for players residing outside a hockey hotbed consistently requires a bold move: move away from home to chase the dream.
They followed similar paths, joining teams in the United States Hockey League (USHL), which consists of 16 teams in midwestern states and is the top junior hockey league sanctioned by USA Hockey.
McMenamin’s journey included 164 games over three USHL seasons with the Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers (2016-17) and Tri-City (Neb.) Storm (2017-19). Tyler Gratton played parts of four USHL seasons with the Chicago Steel (201518), Fargo (N.D.) Force (2018-19) and Central Illinois Flying Aces (2018-19). Paquette played three USHL seasons, two with the Des Moines Buccaneers (2017-19) and closed with the Green Bay (Wis.) Gamblers (2019-20). Dylan Gratton played three USHL seasons with the Muskegon (Mich.) Lumberjacks (2019-20), Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms (2020-21) and Sioux City in 2021-22, helping the Musketeers to the Clark Cup championship.
Prior to joining the USHL, Paquette attended The Hill School and played for the Blues for two years while the Gratton brothers both played on the Owen J. Roberts ICSHL team with their father, Chris, serving as head coach. McMenamin had a slightly different journey, attending boarding school Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota for three years.
“All of us had goals and dreams to play college hockey and go past college too, so we knew from early on that in order to do that we needed to make sacrifices, giving up our high school experience to be able to follow the path we wanted,” Tyler Gratton said. “That was the option given to us, to move away from home. I think all of us look back and say it was the best decision we made. Even though we gave up the highschool life and friends, you make so many other friends and brothers the rest of your life.”
Their paths didn’t converge until joining forces at Penn State, an especially significant occurrence for the Gratton family. This season is the first Tyler and Dylan have ever been teammates.
“This is the first year we’ve played together,” Tyler said. “With the four-year age gap between the two of us it was hard growing up playing minor hockey. So this year it worked out with me being a senior and him coming in as a freshman. It’s been awesome.”
“It’s awesome. I’ll remember it forever, every single game,” Dylan Gratton said.
Having their hockey-playing
sons in one place has made life much easier for parents Dorene and Chris.
“Especially growing up, I moved away from home at 14, he moved away at 14, so they were constantly battling on which brother to go to and watch because there was three of us playing at the same time,” said Tyler, also referencing older brother and former SUNY-Potsdam player Chris. “We were all three at different locations across the U.S. To have two of us playing on the same team, same rink every weekend, it’s made their life a lot easier, especially only two and a half hours from home.”
Coincidentally, this isn’t the first time Dylan Gratton and Paquette have been teammates. They were teammates long ago, in their earliest hockey years with
Valley Forge Colonials.
“I was 4 and he was 6,” Dylan Gratton said.
For the 21-15-1 Nittany Lions, McMenamin is fourth on the team in points and second in assists (8 goals, 15 assists) in 35 games, while Tyler Gratton has seven goals and eight assists in 36 games and Paquette has six goals and eight assists in 34 outings. Dylan Gratton, a defensemen, has the team’s third-best plus-minus (+14), with two goals and nine assists in 31 appearances.
The draw of playing in their home state for an up-and-coming Penn State program brought them together.
“For all of us it was the same deal: We moved away at such an early age that having an awesome school with an awesome hockey program inside our home state
that was close to (where we grew up), it was a no-brainer,” Tyler Gratton said.
The Nittany Lions’ program arrived in 2012 with great promise and a great draw to the Pa. natives. It’s a choice that is even more validating as they take the ice in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
“Growing up until I was 12, Penn State didn’t have a team. Once they got a team it was a big spark that triggered a lot of Pennsylvania kids to want to go there,” Paquette said. “You grow up and you hear about all the other (Penn State) sports teams and all your friends, a lot of their parents went here, so once they got a team it was a big goal for us.
“To finally be on this stage is really exciting.”