The success of the first CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo last year led to interest from a number of NHL clubs and cities about hosting it this year. But according to executive director of USA Hockey Dave Ogrean, choosing Pittsburgh was not a tough decision.
“Quite frankly, going to Pittsburgh was a pretty easy choice,” Ogrean said. “It has become such a hockey hotbed.”
The Penguins have been able to host a number of events since moving to their beautiful, state-of-the-art arena a few years ago – like the 2012 NHL Draft, the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four and the Three Rivers Classic college hockey tournament. Penguins general manager Ray Shero is grateful for those, but the Minnesota native is especially looking forward to Thursday’s CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
“We’re proud to add to the list the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Thursday,” Shero said. “We’re very excited here in Pittsburgh having witnessed the prospects game last year. Hockey here in Pittsburgh, we’re very fortunate (that) it is really at an all-time high right now.
“Really looking forward to hosting this event on Thursday night and having the kids in (Wednesday) and looking forward to meeting these guys. I think what they’re going to find as they did in Buffalo (is) a great facility at CONSOL and what we have to offer. Having hosted the NHL Draft in 2012, I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for our fans here in Pittsburgh to see the next crop of great American players that are going to be playing here Thursday night.”
He is right – there is going to be exciting young talent on display at the arena that evening, coached by a pair of former Penguins with USA Hockey ties: three-time Stanley Cup champion Joe Mullen (Team Blue) and 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ Olympic hero Mark Johnson (Team White). The game will feature 40 of the top American-born players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, 27 of which are expectedto be drafted in the first three rounds.
It gives the potential draft picks the opportunity to showcase their talent and skill in front of NHL talent evaluators against the best U.S.-born players. In addition to being scouted, they will also be skating at an NHL arena and speaking with national media, so it will be a lot of exposure for them at a crucial time in their careers.
“I think the excitement and the energy and just the thrill and opportunity to be part of this night and couple days is going to be great in their growth and development, because they all want to be wearing an NHL jersey,” Johnson said. “And so to get a chance to play in a special place like Pittsburgh and the excitement and energy that goes along with the Pittsburgh franchise, now they get a chance to play. And certainly the NHL media will be there, the local media will be there, the scouts will be there, so what a great opportunity for these young players to get a real good taste in their mouth. And as they leave, I’m sure a lot of them will go back and push themselves to work a little bit harder because ultimately, they want to sign an NHL contract and play at that level.”
Shero and his staff attended the inaugural event in Buffalo last September, where Ryan Fitzgerald – son of assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald – was named MVP in the game and drafted by Boston the following summer. For the clubs, it’s an opportunity to add to the books they already have on these kids.
“I found it very, very useful last year and very beneficial, actually,” Shero said. “We had our whole group there and we were very fortunate to be able to have this finally come together for USA Hockey. We had about 7-8 (members) of our scouting staff down in Buffalo and for our group, it was very beneficial. We were real fortunate last year (since) Tom Fitzgerald’s son Ryan got player of the game in the Buffalo game, so we were very proud of that. He was drafted this year by the Boston Bruins. It worked out real well for us and we have a whole good group coming in again of scouts to take a look at these kids and get to know them over the next couple days and watch them.”
Overall, Shero – who is the associate general manager for the 2014 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team and a member of the U.S. Men’s Team National Advisory group – is thrilled with how USA Hockey has grown since he has been involved, and this game is just another example of that.
“I’ve worked closely with USA Hockey for a number of years now. I’m very, very impressed and proud to be a part of this organization and seeing the work they do on a daily basis as a caretaker of the sport,” he said.