What comes to mind when someone mentions the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers in the same breath? Intense rivalry? Battle of Pennsylvania? Mario Lemieux? Bobby Clarke? Subpar goaltending (at least in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs)?
It's probably all of the above and so much more.
What you likely wouldn't ever think about (and why would you?) is a partnership behind the scenes for the betterment of the game at the grassroots level.
Could you just imagine …
Wait a minute, that is actually happening and, dare we say, it's a civil collaboration between franchises that share the same state and many of the same goals beyond just winning the Stanley Cup. There's no greater example of their ability to partner than what the Penguins and Flyers jointly announced Thursday.
The in-state rivals disclosed that they are teaming up to select the best 10-year-olds in Pennsylvania to represent the state in the 2013 Brick International Super Novice Tournament in Edmonton, an event Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse referred to as "the Little League World Series for 10-year-old hockey players."
"Next time we play Philadelphia we'll try to beat them as badly as before and they'll try to beat us as badly as before, but off the ice this kind of collaboration is something the League will benefit from," Morehouse told NHL.com. "It makes perfect sense in almost the antithesis kind of way. Of course we're bitter rivals, but we're very passionate about hockey so who better to team up with than people as passionate about hockey as you are."
The Penguins and Flyers will start by forming select teams from their regions to play in various tournaments. The top players from the two select teams will be chosen to make up Team Pennsylvania 2003 (birth year of the players) and will travel to Edmonton to play in the annual international tournament from July 1-7.
"It's such a fierce battle in our state, but we're all in it to promote hockey in the state," Comcast-Spectacor president Peter Luukko told NHL.com. "To have the ability for good players from both of our cities to get together, play together and get to know each other is great. Come the season starting again we'll get our hate on for each other, but for now we're teammates."
Due to the rivalry and the fact that their respective reaches in the state of Pennsylvania can only go so far, the teams felt it necessary to find a neutral ambassador for the team.
Enter Mark Recchi.
Recchi, one of the more noteworthy players to have played for both the Penguins and Flyers, will be one of the coaches for Team Pennsylvania 2003. He lives in Pittsburgh and helps coach his 11-year-old son's team in the Penguins Elite program.
"It's for the betterment of the game and the betterment for the kids," Recchi told NHL.com. "The rivalry on the ice will never change, but we're talking about kids here. We're talking about developing kids, growing them and giving them the best opportunities. It's getting kids more involved and more kids wanting to play hockey. That's what they're trying to do.
"This is about the kids. There is a huge rivalry, but this will be fun for the kids. That's the whole concept to it."
The concept for Team Pennsylvania 2003 was born out of the Penguins' willingness to reach eastward, across the state, to gauge the Flyers' interest in joining forces.
Morehouse said the Penguins were invited by representatives from the Brick Invitational to form a team from the Pittsburgh area for the 2013 tournament. Seeing that other states (among them Connecticut, Minnesota, California) have put together teams for the tournament, the Penguins asked the Flyers if they would be interested in helping them put together a team comprised of the top 2003-born players in Pennsylvania.
"We may not talk to each other on game day, but we're always working on ways we can all do business a little bit better," Luukko said. "Both of our organizations feel a real responsibility to promote youth hockey and to see the sport grow, to make sure the kids can go places but also get good coaching and training, improve their physical game, their love of the game and their enjoyment of the game. That's important."
It turns out the pool of potential players for Team Pennsylvania is large.
According to myrankings.com, a website that ranks the top youth hockey teams in North America, three teams from Pennsylvania are in the top 10 in the 2003 AAA national rankings. The Valley Forge Minutemen, who play out of a rink in Oaks, Pa., about 25 miles from Philadelphia, are ranked second. The Pittsburgh Penguins Elite are fourth and the Flyers-sponsored Team Comcast is ninth.
"It really tells you that the sport has gone from what was just a spectator level to now kids playing at a very high level," said Luukko, who has one son playing at the University of Vermont and another playing prep school hockey in New England. "They've grown up through the youth system in Pennsylvania and both have gone on to play at a nice level. It shows where hockey has gone."
Morehouse, whose son Jackson will try to make Team Pennsylvania 2003, can't see any possible way the Penguins-Flyers rivalry would get in the way of this collaborative effort. He said the parents of the kids who make the team may have their set allegiances to one of the two NHL teams, but upon further review "we have a lot more in common than we don't."
"I'm from Pittsburgh, so I grew up learning to love to hate the Flyers," Morehouse added. "I understand the passion both fan groups have for their own team and against the other, but it's in all of our interests to get kids playing to grow the game. Collaborating is the best way to do it."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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