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Through thick and thin, Penn State men's hockey's Chris Funkey made it, and he couldn’t be happier

01/25/2019, 3:00pm EST
By Jim Krueger | The Daily Collegian

Note: The original article is reposted with permission from The Daily Collegian and can be found at https://www.collegian.psu.edu/sports/men_hockey/article_c3063678-1f9b-11e9-a6b1-1f956491849d.html

It’s a normal Monday afternoon in Pegula Ice Arena. At 3:45 p.m., as the usual cast of characters who are the members of the Penn State hockey media take a seat in the press room.

Guy Gadowsky goes through his usual routine, which involves answering questions about tactics, team performance, injury updates and the upcoming matchup against Princeton, Gadowsky’s old team.

After this, as always, four or five players enter the room, each taking a corner, and the members of the media wander around, extracting as much information as they can out of the players.


This weekly routine is usually an ever constant, never overly exciting event — but today is different.

“Yes!” one reporter says with a smile, as he jumps up, grabs his phone and darts to the right side of the room.

His excitement is shared by everyone else in the room, as they all gravitate toward the same spot.

Why?

Because Chris Funkey just walked into the press room.

***

Funkey is one of the more recognizable names within the Penn State hockey program, which on the surface seems odd, considering he is and always has been the Nittany Lions backup goalie.

He has never played more than six games in a season and, unlike most of his teammates who stand unbothered around the media room, is not being looked at as an NHL prospect.

This is typical whenever Funkey makes a public appearance. Everyone wants to talk to him. Even more so, they just want to be around him.


Funkey is universally loved, from the coaches to the media to the fans. His antics are well known, from grabbing a microphone and crashing player interviews at media day, to answering ice breaker questions in full goalie pads on the Pegula jumbotron in between periods, it’s nearly impossible not to love him.

Furthermore, his teammates can’t help but smile whenever they hear his name. They all have great Chris Funkey stories, many of which the players aren’t willing to make public.

“Sometimes I think I spend too much time with him,” fellow goaltender Peyton Jones said. “I’m just going to leave it at that.”

To the casual observer, Funkey can appear to be nothing more than comic relief on one of college hockey’s biggest programs, but those who know him best tell a far different story.


“He’s a big reason why we won the Big Ten championship a couple years ago,” Andrew Sturtz, a former teammate and current Ottawa Senators prospect, said.

This claim is quite incredible, considering Funkey never played in that tournament.

“I know he wasn’t in any of those games,” Sturtz said. “Just the presence he brought in the room to get the guys excited about the big game against Minnesota, to come out on top of that one. And how calm he kept the dressing room against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship. He really just does little things like that on a day-to-day basis that have really helped that program.”

That’s a statement backed up by fellow teammates Chase Berger and Kevin Kerr, yet Funkey downplayed his role when he heard Sturtz’s comment.

“That’s very nice of him to say, but I don’t know about that,” Funkey said. “That’s really nice of him to say but no, it wasn’t just me.”


***

There have been two constants throughout Chris Funkey’s life: He was always happy and he always loved hockey.

Even at a young age, Funkey was the same bright, outgoing and fun-loving kid many know today.

“Even as a little baby he was always happy,” said Mary Ann Funkey, Chris’ mother. “He would always wake up smiling and happy. That’s just who he is.”

Funkey started playing hockey with his cousins at three years old and was on organized teams from the time he was five. While he started out playing mostly forward as a kid, he quickly found his calling between the pipes.


His parents initially were against the idea.

“We thought it was a lot of pressure for him so we made him skate out, but we lost that battle,” Mary Ann said.

By the time Chris was seven, his father had convinced his coaches to make him a regular goaltender.

“I loved it right away,” Funkey said. “I loved doing it, and I still love doing it to this day.”


As time went on, it became more apparent Funkey had a talent in the crease, and he excelled in the sport.

From his youth hockey league he went on to play for the Chicago Mission, a team which has groomed players like Stanley Cup champion Dustin Byfuglien, as well as former Nittany Lion and current Nashville Predators prospect Vince Pedrie.

Funkey thrived with the Mission, and while playing with the U18 team in his final season in Chicago, he sported an impressive .932 save percentage.

“He was a winner.” This is the first thing that came to Toby Harris’ mind when thinking about Chris Funkey.

Harris is a coach and founder of the New Jersey Hitmen, a team in the USPHL, which was a tier three junior league when Funkey walked through the door for the first time.


Funkey arrived in New Jersey with nothing to lose — he had been passed up by every team in both the tier one USHL and the tier two NAHL.

Just about every American hockey player who wants a shot at Division I hockey needs to play in one of these two leagues.

On the Nittany Lions, Funkey is one of only two who never did.

***

In today’s day and age, goalies need to be over six feet to be considered a legitimate prospect.


Funkey stands at 5-foot-10, and, according to Harris, weighed over 200 pounds when he got to New Jersey.

Regardless of how well Funkey played in Chicago, no one wanted him. He was undersized and overweight, but Harris took a chance on him.

“He went into camp 25 pounds overweight,” Harris said. “He came to us and said ‘Give me a shot,’ so we brought him to the league showcase in the summer. He played three games and he didn’t surrender one goal in the three games in his tryout, and I looked to my assistant coach and I said ‘he came in 20 pounds overweight and he just did what he said he was going to do.’”

Harris brought Funkey in as the third-string goaltender.

Funkey promised to lose weight, and over the next two months he lost 15 pounds.


True to his word, Harris gave Funkey another shot in net once he dropped the weight, and the goaltender never looked back.

Over three years with the Hitmen, Funkey won two championships, with his only playoff loss coming as a result of an injury during his second year.

“He was the most important player on the team by far. He stood on his head, he did what he had to do. He was excellent,” Harris said.

It was also in New Jersey where Funkey turned into even more of a leader.

“By giving him the starting job once he held up his end of the bargain [by getting into shape] I think his confidence grew, his self esteem grew, his maturity grew. Through hockey, it bled into his off-ice persona and I think that’s what made him such a special kid,” Harris said.


As it is in most cases, the admiration Harris has for Funkey is just as strong going the other way.

“Playing for [Harris] really helped me develop a lot as a person. He held everyone on our team extremely accountable no matter what, whether you were a goalie, forward, defenseman,” Funkey said. “His drive to win actually helped me want to win more.”

It worked, and while Funkey came to the Hitmen looking for anyone to take a chance on him, he left as a quality prospect in net. But for him, his impact on the ice was just as important as his impact off it.

Funkey was, according to Harris, the “glue” that held the locker room together, and on the ice, Funkey became the full package at goaltender.

“All of those images of a top prospect goalie just fades into the background when Funkey was in net because he was lights out. He was lights out every night,” Tim Clifton, former Hitmen teammate and current San Jose Sharks AHL prospect, said.


Funkey never dipped below a .924 save percentage with the Hitmen to go along with the pair of championships under his belt.

In a short time, Funkey had gone from unwanted to a potential Division I prospect.

With a goalie in his program who was an excellent student, a wonderful student and a dominant goaltender, Harris made a call to present an offer one couldn’t refuse, to a college hockey coach he had worked with previously — Guy Gadowsky.

“Our criteria for that position at that time was the absolute best teammate, a great student, that’s what we wanted... that’s exactly how [Harris] sold it and he was 100 percent right,” Gadowsky said, remembering the phone call that brought Funkey to Penn State.

***


Funkey remembers his first evening at Penn State. Former Nittany Lion Mike Williamson hosted Funkey during his visit.

“They were playing the Wisconsin Badgers, and it was the night when the Roar Zone unrolled the banner with the Badger on the silver platter and it said ‘Tonight we feast on Badger,’’’ Funkey said, who immediately told Williamson he needed to call his parents to let them know he made it. “I called my mom and dad right away and said ‘I don’t know what they’re going to offer me, but if they do, no matter what, I want to come here.’”

Penn State gave Funkey an offer, and he stayed true to his word.

Now, as he enters his final semester with the Nittany Lions, he still feels the same about the school as he did his first evening in Pegula.

“He is living his dream,” Mary Ann Funkey said. It’s a sentiment Chris confirms.


Funkey has never made the same impact on the ice as he did with the Hitmen. He’s been a backup for pretty much his entire Penn State career, but by all accounts, he is not too bothered by this.

“If Peyton [Jones] is in net, I want him to play his absolute best because that means we’re going to get the win,” Funkey said. “At the end of the day that’s the only thing that matters.”

Ask Jones, his other teammates, coaching staff and parents — Funkey has never complained about his playing time and has never put his own success about that of the team.

“The thing about Chris was no matter who was in net, he’s not one of the players who hopes they play bad so he can go in net. He’s a player who tries to earn it,” Sturtz said. “It’s very hard to do that for three years.”

Funkey has made his mark on the ice at Peugla this season, most notably on opening night against Clarkson, playing a major role in the win over the Golden Knights. He proved that he can perform at the Division I level, but he never solidified a starting spot.


But he doesn’t regret his decision to attend Penn State.

“I’ve asked him several times, if you had the chance to go to another school if you could have played more, and he said ‘No, I still would have come to Penn State.’ He loves everything about it,” Mary Ann said.

***

With the amount time spent at practices, study halls and morning workouts, it’s often difficult for student-athletes at Penn State to get heavily involved with aspects of campus outside athletics.

But Funkey is an exception.


“If you want to know what kind of a guy Chris Funkey is, you should look at his record outside of that [hockey] program,” Sturtz said.

Funkey is a volunteer at LifeLink, an organization at Penn State that helps kids with special needs. While he is busy from his hockey schedule, he helps out whenever he can.

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News SAAB mens hockey
Goalie Chris Funkey, of the men's hockey team, performs as Jack Black's character in School House of Rock alongside his teammates to "Zach's Song from School Rock" during the 2nd Annual SAAB Lip Sync Battle to benefit THON in Freeman Auditorium of the HUB-Robeson Center on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017.

Linsey Fagan
Zack Williams is a former student at Penn State who, through LifeLink, has formed a special relationship with Funkey during their time at Penn State.

“Every time when [Funkey] comes in, he looks for Zack. They became really close. Chris just loves Zack and Zack just loves Chris,” Sandy Cecco, who works for LifeLink at Penn State, said.


Funkey and Williams became friends immediately when Funkey visited LifeLink for the first time, and their relationship has grown since then. Funkey attended Williams’ graduation last year. The two still keep in touch and often go bowling.

“We go bowling a fair amount, and I talk to him on FaceTime at least once or twice a week and I also see him at least once or twice a week,” Funkey said, who along with LifeLink works with the Happy Valley Beavers special hockey team, which Williams is a part of.

“It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Funkey added.

Funkey has also been involved with Penn State’s THON. He wears the Four Diamonds logo on the back of his helmet, but that’s just the start of his commitment to the group.

Sturtz discussed Funkey’s schedule the one year Penn State hockey had a home series the same weekend as THON, where Funkey fit in any free time he had to go to the Bryce Jordan Center.


“The typical day of a hockey game, you’re up at seven, you do morning skate, you have lunch, you have like and hour-and-a-half to lay down and do whatever you have to do to play the game, then you play the game,” Sturtz said. “You think about his commitment to THON, standing 15 hours after all of that over the weekend. I think that’s just as impressive as anyone who goes to THON, and I think it shows you who he is as a person.”

***

The story of Chris Funkey is a lesson on what is important in life. For him, being center stage and starting in every single night is, although something he works for, not what fulfills him.

“I’ve always wanted to be a good teammate,” Funkey said. “It’s great to be known as a phenomenal hockey player, but I’ve always wanted to be known as a very good teammate.”

He helps in any way he can and takes pride in helping as many people as possible. As for his goal of being a good teammate, it’s mission accomplished.


When people talk about Funkey, they do it with enthusiasm. His coaches, teammates, and friends jump at the chance to talk about him, they genuinely love and care about him, because he genuinely cares about them.

“He was always been there for me,” Sturtz said. “And he’s going to be at my wedding one day, and he’s going to make sure everyone has a good time.”

The days are coming to a close for Funkey at Penn State, the dream is unfortunately coming to an end and he’s keeping his future unknown for the time being, as the netminder will graduate from the university in May.

“I’ve still got 10 games left, so I’m focusing on those 10 games,” Funkey said.

While Penn State looks to make a run toward Buffalo and the Frozen Four in April, Funkey would leave Penn State as someone who proved coaches and scouts alike wrong. But the people who gambled on him believe he can continue to do so.


“You can say he’s not the ideal type for a goalie, but Martin St. Louis is about to go to the Hall of Fame,” Clifton said. “How many people do you think told him he’s too small, or not big enough?”

Whether he goes to the pros or not, Funkey, as he was as a baby, is happy. He seems satisfied with what he’s done with his hockey career and his time at Penn State.

But — there’s one thing he has yet to do.

“I wish I could score a goal,” Funkey said.

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