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Draft has played major role in revival of Penguins

by Mike G. Morreale
PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- All it takes is a little stroll through the downtown area of this working-class, sports-crazed city to realize it's no longer just about the Steelers and Pirates around these parts.
The Penguins have also been able to pull at the heartstrings of the dedicated Pittsburgh sports fan.
Not surprisingly, the NHL Draft has played a huge part in that rise among the land of the sports giants in the Steel City and Penguins GM Ray Shero, President David Morehouse and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl realize that. On Thursday, the city was awarded the opportunity to host the draft for the first time in 15 years -- only this time at the Consol Energy Center instead of Civic Arena.
"I'm really excited to see players we see at the rink every other day getting drafted in our own city … it's going to be great," said 14-year-old youth hockey player Arthur Birman, who plays for the Pittsburgh Hornets. "I started playing when I was 3-years-old and I'm the biggest Pens fan now."
Mark Slomiany, a senior defenseman at Bishop Canevin High School, remembers the fun and excitement of the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic that was held at Heinz Field. He anticipates a similar scene at the Draft.


Pittsburgh to host 2012 NHL Draft

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"It was a great atmosphere, the weekend was crazy all around Heinz Field," he said. "There were activities and booths set up. The youth hockey in Pittsburgh has been gaining steam since the time I started playing when I was little. There have been more and more kids playing. A lot of younger kids always coming up ask for equipment or just want to learn how to skate."
In the past six years alone since the Penguins made Sidney Crosby the No. 1 pick, local amateur hockey participation has increased by 26 percent. Even more, participation among mites (5-8 years old) has increased 61 percent. After current chairman Mario Lemieux was selected first in 1984, the number of indoor rinks in the Pittsburgh area increased from six to 24 -- additionally, there are now 42 rinks in the tri-state region.
"Hockey is definitely growing in Pittsburgh," Penguins defenseman Paul Martin said. "I mean, I've only been here for a year, but you can definitely see the youth movement with more kids being excited and involved in playing the game. Coming from (Minneapolis) Minnesota, where hockey has always been so big, you can definitely see it growing here as well."
One other intriguing statistic is the fact 27 Pittsburgh youth hockey products are currently playing NCAA Division I men's hockey and five are playing Division I women's hockey.
"The hockey in Pittsburgh has taken off the last 10-to-15 years and the colleges will even have the Frozen Four in the new building, so anything like the Draft that can promote youth hockey is big for the city," said Penguins defenseman and California native Brooks Orpik.
The NCAA Frozen Four, the national collegiate ice hockey semifinals and final, are slated to be held at Consol Energy Center on April 11 and 13, 2013.
There were four players from the Pittsburgh area chosen among the top 64 selections during the 2011 Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Forward J.T. Miller became the highest-drafted Pittsburgh amateur hockey player in Draft history when the New York Rangers made him the 15th selection. He was followed by Pittsburgh native goalie John Gibson (39th by Anaheim), forward Brandon Saad (Gibsonia, Pa., 43rd by Chicago) and forward Vincent Trocheck (Pittsburgh, Pa., 64th by Florida). Prior to moving on to junior hockey, Miller, Gibson and Saad all competed for the Pittsburgh Hornets organization.
While much of the excitement for playing hockey at an early age can be traced back to the Penguins' three Stanley Cup championships, it's also a tribute to an organization that has never wavered in its intent to build a better product.
It certainly didn't hurt that Lemieux decided to save the franchise from bankruptcy back in 1999 either, stating at the time the organization wouldn't survive without a new arena -- which will now be the site of the 2012 Draft on June 22-23.
"The growth of hockey throughout Western Pennsylvania is the reason we're so excited to be hosting the draft," Morehouse said. "After the '84 Draft and Mario, hockey boomed in Pittsburgh. After drafting Sid (Crosby) the explosion continued, especially among the younger age groups."
Three years ago, the Penguins began a partnership with Dick's Sporting Goods and Reebok to form "Sidney Crosby's Little Penguins." According to Morehouse, the organization provided 1,000 children, ages 5 to 7, with free hockey equipment, including skates, helmets and shoulder pads.
"Youth hockey in Pittsburgh is flourishing and we appreciate all the support of our volunteers," Shero said. "The Draft is a hockey convention. You will see future star players, broadcasters, general managers and scouts. It's going to be a great day for the fans to interact with others.
"It's no secret the Draft for the Pittsburgh Penguins has been a franchise savor," he continued. "In 1984, it was Mario, 2005 it was Sidney Crosby. We also drafted Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik and Marc-Andre Fleury early. But this is a two-day event, and the interesting part about the NHL Draft is getting those players on the second day in the later rounds. It's equally important to us as hockey people and that's exciting."
Shero then noted that while the first pick of the 2005 Draft was Crosby, the last pick in the final round happened to be Patric Hornqvist, who went 230th to the Nashville Predators.
"Patric scored 30 goals just two seasons ago," Shero said.
Pittsburgh-born Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay) was drafted by the Penguins 115th in 1999 and R.J. Umberger (Columbus) was drafted by Vancouver 16th in 2001. In 2010-11, four other Pittsburgh-born players cracked NHL lineups, including Matt Bartkowski (190th by Florida in 2008), who made his NHL debut with Boston. Dylan Reese (209th by the New York Rangers in 2003) played 27 games for the Islanders, the undrafted Bill Thomas played 24 games with Florida and Mike Weber (57th by Buffalo in 2006) took part in 58 games for the Sabres.
"While attending the Draft in other cities, you can see the excitement it brings to hockey and, in particular, during the summertime," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I'll look forward to that, especially since we'll showcase our fans and the city. I think what hockey is in Pittsburgh now is pretty amazing compared to where it was 25-30 years ago. Hockey in this city has grown immensely from the '90s on, and another way to showcase the sport is by having the Draft here."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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