A heat wave is currently sweeping over Pittsburgh, with temperatures skyrocketing to well within the 90s, but on Tuesday we got a break from the sweltering weather when we visited the Penguins Scrimmage Camp presented by CRONS.
The camp, which is being held at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon, began Monday and will conclude on Friday. My intern Greg Fernandez wrote a piece on what the camp is all about here.
While Greg spoke to special guest instructor and three-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Recchi, I caught up with Baldwin native and Anaheim Ducks prospect John Gibson, who was one of four Pittsburgh-area players taken in the 2011 NHL Draft – the biggest draft class in the city’s history.
We expected to speak with Recchi and Gibson, but had a wonderful surprise when we saw Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo, whose two children – daughter Braeden, 15, and son Kyler, 13 – are enrolled in the camp.
Yeo was an assistant coach with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton from 2000-05 before being promoted to Pittsburgh. He helped coach the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances, capturing the championship in 2009. He led the Houston Aeros to the Calder Cup Final in his first season as a head coach in 2010-11 before helming the Wild in 2011-12.
Here’s what I gathered from my chats with Gibson and Yeo.
Gibson has been back in the area since the beginning of May after his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers, got eliminated from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs.
Gibson had an outstanding postseason for Kitchener, capturing the Charles Chalkin Memorial Trophy as the team’s best performer in the playoffs. He started all 16 playoff games for the Rangers and ended the postseason with a .938 save percentage as Kitchener advanced to the Western Conference Final – losing in four games to Penguins prospect Scott Harrington and the London Knights.
“We really weren’t supposed to make it that far, so that was good for our team,” Gibson said, who went 21-10-1 during the regular season. “I really liked it up there and hopefully I’ll have another good year next year.”
It was especially meaningful for Gibson, who dealt with injuries throughout the regular season – and even had to undergo surgery at one point.
“I think when I came back after my surgery I kind of got into a groove and went along in playoffs,” he said. “I think it was just playing my game.”
Gibson signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Ducks in March, who drafted him in the second round (39th overall) last summer. He’ll be heading out to Anaheim for development camp in a week before returning to Pittsburgh for the rest of the summer before the Team USA Junior Evaluation Camp in August and training camp in September.
Gibson joked about how he and the rest of the Pittsburgh kids taken in last year’s draft – J.T. Miller, Brandon Saad and Vince Trocheck – just missed the chance to be selected in the area they grew up playing hockey in. This year is the second time Pittsburgh will host the draft, the last time being in 1997.
“It would have been nice to have our draft here, but at the same time, can’t really control that,” he smiled. “It’s nice to do what you can do.”
Gibson was referring to helping out at the camp, where Miller, Saad and Trocheck will be serving as guest instructors later in the week.
“All of this is promoting, and it’s great for the city of Pittsburgh,” he said. “I went to a lot of camps when I was younger. Some of them were just goalie-only camps, but there were still a lot of guys coming back to help that played college or juniors, just local guys from Pittsburgh. So that’s always nice, and it’s nice to see them doing it here to help the city of Pittsburgh and promote hockey in the area.”
I got John to pose for a photo during a break in the camp. He doesn't look too happy about it.
Minnesota hired Yeo on June 17, 2011 – one week before they hosted last year’s NHL Draft. Talk about overwhelming.
But this year, the personable, friendly Yeo is thoroughly enjoying the week leading up to the draft in the city he used to call home.
“It was a good opportunity for us to bring the family and take part in the draft festivities,” Yeo said. “I know the Penguins are going to do a great job putting that on. Also, this hockey camp was big for us for a lot of years, and it’s real nice for the kids to come back and see all their friends and see all their coaches and get a chance to participate again.”
Yeo spent 11 years with the organization and has a lot of wonderful memories from his time here. While he’s primarily here to work, he’s also looking forward to reconnecting with people he encountered during his time here.
“There’s a lot of people that I’d definitely like to see, people that I’d like to say hello to,” he said. “There’s a lot of good memories from having the opportunity to work with and meet a lot of good people here. Certainly, that’s part of it. We do have some work to do, but at the same time, with an event like this, for a coach there’s a little bit more down time than there is during the season.”
He’s also looking forward to showing his two children and his wife, Tanya, the beautiful building the Penguins call home.
“They haven’t seen CONSOL Energy Center yet and have yet to see what it looks like without Mellon Arena there,” he said. ‘There’s a lot of changes but a lot of good memories at the same time, too. It’s a good opportunity for that.”
After discussing being back in Pittsburgh, Yeo reflected on his first season as an NHL head coach…
“It was outstanding, to be honest with you. It may appear that it was a bit of a disappointment at the end of the year because we started so strong and didn’t finish as strong, but with the injuries that we had – losing four out of our top-six forwards – for a team that didn’t produce a lot offensively, that was pretty tough. But I think in the bigger picture, the goal at the start of the season was to change the culture and really start to implement a lot of the things you see here in Pittsburgh – that winning culture and doing things that winners do day in and day out. For me, it was very reminiscent of myself and Michel Therrien’s first year here and having to change a lot of the things that we had to do and how that kind of set the table for success. I kind of feel that we accomplished a lot of that this year.”