PITTSBURGH -- Christian Hanson had the advantage of growing up in a hockey family, and he had options to further his development as a player.
Hanson, who grew up near Pittsburgh, also had an advantage that kids from previous hockey-playing generations in this area didn’t have -- he could stay home. Instead of leaving his family, or having them move to a more traditional hockey region, Hanson played youth hockey for the Pittsburgh Hornets and at a local high school before going to college at Notre Dame.
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"It was great," Hanson, whose father Dave played professionally for a decade but is better known for being one of the Hanson brothers in the movie "Slap Shot." "A lot of that is attributed to Mario Lemieux and the boom he created and you’re seeing it now. It is awesome. I talked to people I play with now that had to leave their families when they were 14 to go play at Shattuck [St. Mary’s] or a place like that.
"That is the price you pay for the game you love. I would have done it if it was something I had to do, but being from Pittsburgh and how it is turning into such a hockey hotbed in America, the kids in this area are lucky to be able to stay home."
Hanson, along with fellow Pittsburgh youth hockey alum Matt Bartkowski, were back home Friday to speak to 61 young players from the area at the Reebok College Hockey Summit at 84 Lumber Arena in Neville Township, Pa.
The kids were at the summit to listen to presentations and for question-and-answer sessions with the ex-players, with representatives from College Hockey Inc. and with 17 coaches from the college ranks along with three from the United States Hockey League.
They were also there to play, which offered a scouting opportunity for the coaches.
"Our message is 'come play college hockey,'" Providence coach Nate Leaman said. "It is the reward of more development time, the reward of an education and all of the guys who have gone on to the NHL. It also allows us to go out and view kids in the community and for them to be viewed on the ice by colleges because one of the misperceptions the kids sometimes have is that we’re not watching them and we’re very much out there."
Coaches like Leaman are spending more time recruiting kids from the Pittsburgh area than ever before. Guys from this area have made it to the NHL -- Ryan Malone began a steady stream of Pittsburgh-born kids during the past decade.
The numbers are growing at the youth level; more kids are playing in the USHL, more are ending up at colleges or in the Canadian junior leagues. While the people in charge of this summit obviously want the kids to choose the NCAA route, it is a boon for everyone that there are more kids from this area who are strong enough prospects to have a choice to make.
"Pittsburgh hockey is busting at the seams right now," said Derek Schooley, who has been the coach at Robert Morris since the Colonials started a Division I hockey program. "When I first got here, hockey was kind of in a downward spiral. You didn’t know if the Penguins were going to stay, and the arrival of Sidney Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin and [Marc-Andre] Fleury and hockey has really taken off. Youth hockey is growing. Pittsburgh is producing more and more players to college, to junior, to all levels. The hockey here is really exploding."
This event coincided with the 2012 NHL Draft being hosted by the Penguins at Consol Energy Center. The 2011 draft was a breakout class for youth hockey in this area as four players -- J.T. Miller, John Gibson, Brandon Saad and Vincent Trochek -- went in the first 64 selections.
The hockey footprint continues to grow at multiple levels. The Penguins have sold out every game for years and have never been more popular in a town that was once known primarily for its NFL and MLB franchises.
College hockey is the next level on the verge of a breakout. Robert Morris is a young program but is much improved and will host the 2013 Frozen Four at Consol Energy Center next spring. Penn State will be the newest program at the Division I level next season, and with that comes another new hockey arena just a couple of hours away.
Toss in Ohio State about three hours west on I-70 and kids from this area have options if they want to stay closer to home and play college hockey.
"Now with colleges like Robert Morris, who has a great Division I program, Ohio State is only three hours away and Penn State is building a state-of-the-art facility, it is going to even more reiterate that Pittsburgh is one of the top-flight places to look for American hockey players," Hanson said.
Added Bartkowski: "One of the factors in me choosing Ohio State was how close to home it was. My parents could come watch my games. I could shoot home for a spring weekend or in the fall for a weekend here or there. Especially with Penn State coming in and that rink they’re going to have, that’s going to really help the area a lot. Then there is the Youngstown team that moved up to the USHL. I can’t see it being much longer before the city gets a junior team again, and that will help boost youth hockey even more."