That’s because on Saturday, the world watched as four local kids that developed in the Pittsburgh youth hockey system – goalie John Gibson and forwards J.T. Miller, Vince Trocheck and Riley Barber – helped Team USA win a gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship with their 3-1 win over Sweden in Ufa, Russia, showcasing the growth of hockey in the area.
“It’s awesome to share it with those guys, especially since we’re all from Pittsburgh,” Gibson said of the win.
Until recently, Western Pennsylvania wasn’t particularly well known for producing homegrown talent. But with an increasing number of Pittsburgh-area natives performing well in international play and getting drafted into the NHL, that’s no longer the situation. Pittsburgh is on the map.
All four players filled significant roles for Team USA at this tournament. Gibson, who grew up in Whitehall, Pa., became the first U.S. goaltender and second American overall to be named tournament MVP after Zach Parise in 2004 after backstopping Team USA to gold. Gibson was also named by the IIHF Directorate as the tournament’s Best Goaltender and was selected to the Media All-Star Team.
Overall, Gibson made all seven starts for Team USA, finishing with a tournament-leading 1.36 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. His .955 save percentage set a new record for Team USA in the World Junior Championship, going back to the tournament’s inception in 1977.
Miller, who played for a AA team in Beaver County before moving to the Pittsburgh Hornets for five seasons, ranked third in scoring for Team USA with nine points (2G-7A). The U.S. alternate captain centered the team’s top line between Jim Vesey and John Gaudreau, providing hustle and determination that created space for his teammates.
Trocheck, who spent time with the SHAHA Panthers, Pittsburgh Predators and Pittsburgh Hornets, iced the gold medal for Team USA on Saturday when he scored an empty-net goal with 16 seconds left. With his assist earlier in the game, Trocheck finished the tournament with six points (3G-3A).
Barber, whose dad, former NHLer Don Barber, coached him and his three Team USA teammates at the Pittsburgh Hornets, also finished the tournament with six points (3G-3A).
This win was especially meaningful for Gibson and Miller, as they were two of just three returning members from last year’s U.S. National Junior Team that was sent to the relegation round and finished in seventh place. Prior to the tournament, they spoke of wanting redemption for their poor showing in 2012 – and they couldn’t have gotten it more emphatically.
“It was a complete 180 from last year,” Miller said. “It was the most unbelievable feeling just to see our flag being raised at the end of the game.”
Miller was the first teammate that Gibson found during the celebration after Trocheck’s empty-netter sealed the win for Team USA.
“J.T. is one of my best friends, so it’s awesome to share it with him,” Gibson said. “Especially with what a bad year we had last year,” Gibson said.
“It means a lot to me and our friendship (to win this with John),” Miller added. “We always hang out a lot during the summers. We don’t live too far from each other. We’ve been through a lot. … It’s just a great feeling. And for him to play the way he did, he was such a huge part of why we won. He really is. He’s the best goalie in the world for his age group.”
These talented young players, who have all been drafted by NHL teams, represent the tremendous growth that amateur hockey has made in Western Pennsylvania. According to USA Hockey, youth hockey in the area grew by an incredible 46.4 percent from 2007-12.
It began when their parents fell in love with the sport back in the early 1990s after Mario Lemieux led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and ’92. That’s what got many of these kids started playing the game in a town best known for its football.
“When the Pens won in ’91 and ’92, that’s when my dad started watching hockey,” Miller told pittsburghpenguins.com last year. “Then he became a huge Pens fan and he wanted me to play, so that’s kind of how I got started. My dad saw them winning so he wanted me to play because he started really getting into it. I’ve been playing ever since.”
Then while Miller and the rest were developing in the area, the Penguins began a new era where they drafted Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury, brought another Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh in 2009 and moved to a new home, CONSOL Energy Center – which kept the local kids excited about playing hockey and helped them stick with it.
But while the Penguins had a huge impact on these local kids, seeing fellow Pittsburghers like R.J. Umberger, Ryan Malone and Dylan Reese make it to the NHL cannot be underestimated.
“Some of the guys I really looked up to were some of the guys that came out of Pittsburgh, especially ones that played for the Pens like Malone,” Gibson told pittsburghpenguins.com last year. “They were doing well and were guys that I looked up to and said ‘Hey, maybe that can be me one day if I keep working hard.’”
After Saturday, it’s virtually a given that kids across Western Pennsylvania will be saying the exact same thing about Gibson and the rest of the Pittsburgh kids.
- Miller, Gibson and Trocheck were part of the Pittsburgh area's largest draft class ever in 2011, when four Pittsburgh born-and-developed players were selected.
- Miller, who is in his first professional season with the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League, became the highest-drafted Pittsburgh amateur hockey player in NHL Draft history when the New York Rangers made him the 15th overall selection.
- Gibson, who currently plays for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, was taken by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round (39th overall).
- Trocheck, who's been lighting it up for the OHL's Saginaw Spirit this season, was chosen in the third round (64th overall) by the Florida Panthers.
- Additionally, Brandon Saad was drafted in the second round (43rd overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks.