Pictured above is defenseman Chayla Edwards, a six-year alumnus of the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite program who is in her freshman campaign with the top-ranked Badgers - the defending national champions. (Photo credit: David Stluka)
When Wisconsin freshman defenseman Chayla Edwards walked into UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Saturday, she did a double take.
That's because Edwards, an alumnus of the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite program who is here this weekend for the 'Battle at the Burgh' women's college hockey tournament, spotted Penguins captain Sidney Crosby finishing an on-ice workout before the Badgers were set to skate.
"We were walking into the locker room and we were like, 'Is that Sid?' I was like, 'No way,'" Edwards recalled with a smile. "Because in all my years of practicing here I'd never seen him. It was nice to come back here to Pittsburgh and see him."
Edwards is one of numerous former Pens Elite players here this weekend for the invitational (more details about the tournament can be found here). All four participating teams - No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 4 Northeastern, No. 12 Robert Morris and No. 16 Colgate - feature an alumnus from the program.
Joining Edwards is Pittsburgh native Anjelica Diffendal, a junior forward at Robert Morris; Gwyneth Philips, a freshman goalie at Northeastern; Kaitlyn O'Donohoe, a freshman forward at Colgate; and twin sisters Delani and Eleri Mackay, both sophomore forwards at Colgate.
"It's so fun," Philips said. "Aside from being back home, I get to see old teammates, the parents, the coaches. It's great to be back. The fact that we're able to have it at such a nice facility is really great."
"It's amazing," Edwards agreed. "Because I just look around and am like, 'This is home.' It's very comfortable to come into this environment. And just to know my way around is great, especially as a little freshman (laughs)."
Edwards, Diffendal, Philips and O'Donohoe all spent years developing in the Pens Elite program. While the Mackay twins played just one season, they helped the 16U Pens Elite team win silver at the USA Hockey Nationals in 2017 along with O'Donohoe, Philips and Edwards.
"It's awesome," O'Donohoe said of the representation. "It's really cool to see the program grow. Girls are getting good through Pens Elite and really getting to the next level. I think it's awesome what they're doing."
Back in March 2012, the Pittsburgh Penguins partnered with the Pittsburgh Hornets and DICK'S Sporting Goods to create a new era of AAA hockey in Pittsburgh. The vision was to form a unified elite program comprised of both boys and girls teams to represent Pittsburgh at the highest level of competition in the U.S. and Canada.
This weekend is an amazing example of how much the Pens Elite program has been able to do in such a relatively short period of time, particularly on the girls' side.
"What I think about when I watch this is that 15 years ago, we didn't have girls hockey in Pittsburgh," said Kathy Pippy, the director of business operations for Pens Elite. "Today, we have girls playing on each one of these NCAA teams and a number of other NCAA teams.
"To me, the most rewarding thing is the support that girls' hockey has in the region from the Penguins and the opportunities to play and train here at this facility. To see these kids playing here this weekend, they all dreamed of playing college hockey, and now that's come true."
Pippy has been absolutely instrumental in attracting talent from around the region to play for Pens Elite.
"I was at a Mid-Am camp tryout and Kathy Pippy saw me and I was this short, underage kid just kind of throwing myself around out there stopping the puck," said Philips, who is from Athens, Ohio. "She was like, 'Hey, she should be playing somewhere aside from with the boys.' She reached out and I didn't ever want to leave the program after that."
That's because the program offers a comprehensive plan for player development that includes an incredible coaching staff, professional management, world-class training facilities and unique opportunities, along with proven academic and career guidance.
In talking with the girls, they all cited the coaching staff as one of the biggest reasons for their growth and development.
"The coaches really pushed you," Diffendal said. "They wanted you to play at the highest level possible. I think that really pushed me to be where I'm at today."
And speaking of unique opportunities, Edwards loved the chance to work with Pittsburgh's skills development coach Ty Hennes each week.
"Looking back, just all the skills work was a big part," she said. "We did a lot of skills here, especially from the Pens skills coach, so that was amazing doing that every Sunday."
And at the end of the day, they loved spending so much time with their teammates on and off the ice. For example, Edwards and Philips also went to school together at Shady Side Academy.
"Just being around the girls all the time, it's amazing," Edwards said. "Playing with them and then being in Pittsburgh for school, you also get to practice with them, so that really helped out."
They're all thrilled to be reunited this weekend, and it's surreal for them to be skating on the same ice they played on as Pens Elite with their respective college teams. They hope to inspire the next generation of girls in the Pens Elite program watching from the stands at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
"They're 100 percent role models," said 15-year-old Jaidan Fahrny, who plays for the 16U team. "I went to school with Gwen and Chayla. It's very inspirational to see some of my best friends out there."