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Stanley Cup Final

USA Hockey seeing tremendous success in Pittsburgh

Thursday, 06.06.2013 / 6:21 PM / NHL Insider

By Tal Pinchevsky - NHL.com Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Penguins may be in tough against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, but it's still been a breakout year for Pittsburgh hockey.

Local player Riley Barber was selected by the Washington Capitals in the sixth round of last summer's NHL Draft, which was held at Consol Energy Center. Months later, Barber was one of four Pittsburgh products -- along with John Gibson, J.T. Miller and Vincent Trocheck -- to lead the United States to gold at the World Junior Championship. Trocheck would be named the Ontario Hockey League's Most Outstanding Player, and Gibson received USA Hockey's Bob Johnson Award for excellence in international hockey competition.

Finally, Pittsburgh was site of the 2013 Frozen Four. Eventual champion Yale made it to Consol thanks to an overtime goal in the regional semifinal against top-seeded Minnesota. That OT winner came from junior Jesse Root, who just so happens to hail from Pittsburgh. And two kids who grew up on his block, Patrick Wey and Parker Milner, won the NCAA title the year before with Boston College.

With the potential for two Pittsburgh products -- Brandon Saad of the Chicago Blackhawks and Matt Bartkowski of the Bruins -- to go head-to-head in the Stanley Cup Final, it's the culmination of a Pittsburgh hockey renaissance almost two decades in the making.

It's been aided in large part by USA Hockey's American Development Model (ADM).

"The principles and tenets of ADM is really all about age-appropriate training for kids," USA Hockey assistant executive director of hockey operations Jim Johansson told NHL.com. "More use of half-ice and cross-ice hockey at younger ages so more kids can get on the ice and develop their skills and have a better experience on the ice. It's just part of the fabric now of Pittsburgh youth hockey."

Integrated by USA Hockey over the past three years, ADM is intended to give players of all ages and skill levels an opportunity to pick up the game by focusing more on training and less on tournaments and teams. The hope is that, with more emphasis on learning the game, there will be a higher level of retention among players.

This system has helped create a new pool of world-class hockey talent in the Steel City. It started in 1984 with the arrival of a future legend.

"There was a Mario Lemieux jump. Our registration went up 60 percent in a two-year span. The same thing happened with Sidney Crosby," said Chris Stern, director of hockey operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite youth program, a partnership between the NHL team and the amateur program formerly known as the Pittsburgh Hornets. "You have more rinks as a result. You have players starting at a younger age who are better athletes. You have a generation of players who had success at the next level who have now come back and are coaching and are imparting their knowledge to the community and the kids."

The effects of the "Mario bump" are indisputable. In 1999, with new arenas being built in the city, local players Jason Crain and Ryan Malone were taken in the NHL Draft. A Western Pennsylvania product has been selected in the draft every year since, and in 2003, Malone became the first Pittsburgh-born player to suit up for the Penguins. By the time Malone was skating alongside a new set of Penguins stars -- Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang -- his hometown was becoming a hockey hub.

"When I built my rink in 1999, there was a recognition that we needed more ice in this town. Teams were practicing at 5 o'clock in the morning, there wasn't a whole lot of ice available," said Ralph Murovich, owner of Pittsburgh's Ice Castle Arena and the founder of the Pittsburgh Predators youth program. "When I first went to a Penguins game, there were 3,000 people at the Civic Arena. When Mario came in, it changed this town a lot."

With so many local players now enjoying significant levels of success, Pittsburgh's rise to hockey prominence could be a model for other emerging hockey markets across the country. USA Hockey plans on being there with the American Development Model in tow.

"With the individual players having that level of success and the NHL team putting their mark, everyone in the community knows," Stern told NHL.com. "When I first started coaching, you had to recruit kids and convince them to play. We would lose them to other sports. That whole step is gone now. It's been wiped away."

It means a lot to us, we're very excited. We're looking to continue to build on [our] top core talent of young players. It's just a great opportunity for us to really build high.

— Panthers vice president of hockey operations Travis Viola after Florida won the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft Lottery