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Vibrant amateur hockey scene among Mario's legacies

Thursday, 10.27.2011 / 3:04 PM / 2012 NHL Draft

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Vibrant amateur hockey scene among Mario's legacies
Thanks to Pens, hockey is booming in the Steel City.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have had an undeniable impact on amateur hockey in the past quarter century.

For many, that growth began when Mario Lemieux, now the team's owner, arrived in 1984 as a fresh-faced rookie ready to rewrite the NHL record books and turn the Steel City into one of North America's most passionate hockey markets.

The city -- and, as importantly, the region -- immediately embraced the prodigy from the province of Quebec as he became the impetus for Pittsburgh's run from also-rans to hockey powerhouses, a journey culminated by back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in 1991 and 1992.

How big an impact did Lemieux have on the game at the grass-roots level? Nobody can know the full extent, but how's this for a telling number? Before Lemieux was drafted in 1984, there were six indoor rinks in the Pittsburgh area. Now there are 24 rinks in the Pittsburgh area and 42 in the tri-state region.

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And, those rinks have started to churn out top-end players, some of whom have found their way to the NHL.

Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone started the current wave of Pittsburgh talent when he was drafted by the hometown Penguins at No. 115 in 1999. Two years later, another Pittsburgh native, R.J. Umberger, was taken by Vancouver at No. 16. Umberger now plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

In the past several years, four other Pittsburgh-born players have made their way to the NHL.

Boston's Matt Bartowski, selected by Florida at No. 190 in 2008, made his debut on Jan. 10, 2010, ironically against the Penguins. Dylan Reese, currently in the Islanders system, was draft at No. 209 in the 2003 Entry Draft by the rangers. He has played 27 NHL games. Bill Thomas, currently with San Antonio in the American Hockey League, played 24 games with Florida this past season. Finally, Mike Weber, Buffalo's second-round pick in 2006, has already played in 58 games for the Sabres.

More players are on the way, as well.

At the 2011 Draft, four players from the Pittsburgh area were selected among the first 64 selections. Forward J.T. Miller became the highest-drafted Pittsburgh amateur hockey player in Entry Draft history when the Rangers made him the No. 15 selection. He was followed by goaltender John Gibson at No. 39 by Anaheim, forward Brandon Saad (Gibsonia, Pa, No. 43 by Chicago) and forward Vincent Trocheck (Pittsburgh, Pa, No. 64 by Florida).

Prior to moving on to junior hockey, Miller, Gibson and Saad competed for the Pittsburgh Hornets organization, which has become a national powerhouse at several youth levels.

Saad became just the second player not drafted in the first round since 2003-04 to make the opening-night roster of his club in his draft season. Saad played two games with Chicago before returning to Saginaw in the Ontario Hockey League. He was named Canadian Hockey Player of the Week on Oct. 25, 2011 after registering 10 points (6 goals, 4 assists) in three games for the Spirit.

The pipeline shows little inclination of stopping.

In just the past six years, since the drafting of Sidney Crosby, local amateur hockey participation has increased by 26 percent. Most dramatically, participation among mites (5-8 years old) has increased 61 percent.

Today, 27 Pittsburgh youth hockey products are currently playing NCAA Division I men's hockey and five are playing NCAA Division I women's hockey.
 
2012 NHL Draft