Badger Bob Johnson’s catchphrase “it’s a great day for hockey” is always applicable, of course, but it is especially so today.
That’s because his son Mark, the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ Olympic hero who scored two goals in Team USA’s upset of the USSR, and three-time Stanley Cup champion and fellow former Penguin Joe Mullen have returned to town to coach the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at CONSOL Energy Center.
Forty of the top American-born players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft will be participating in the game. Twenty-six of those players are projected to be chosen in the first three rounds of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, according to NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list. Seven are likely first-round picks, including forwards Blake Clarke, Chase De Leo, Dylan Larkin, Sonny Milano and Nick Schmaltz – plus goaltenders Thatcher Demko and Alex Nedeljkovic.
Having so much talent together at once has made the game a must-see event for NHL talent evaluators in just its second year (the first was held in Buffalo in 2012). Approximately 125 NHL scouts are credentialed for the game, while other team management and staff members – including Penguins general manager Ray Shero – will be watching as well.
“Obviously they’ve been picked for a reason, they’re good players,” Johnson said. “But to showcase themselves against the best that we have, it’s an opportunity to have their stock really go up and put them in a position to maybe down the road end up being a first-round draft pick and go on to the NHL and make lots of money. There’s a bunch of things at stake so I’m sure they’re going to be a little bit nervous, but at the same time I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of energy amongst the group. They’re at that age where they get excited easily and so to play here in Pittsburgh in a first-class facility, get treated first-class for a couple days, it’ll be fun.”
This game is a perfect example of how far USA Hockey has come. It is a national event, not just because of the NHL clubs from all across North America will be here to watch the brightest American talent on the cusp of being drafted and becoming high-profile and well-known. It is a national event because players from 13 different states are featured on the roster.
De Leo, a center, was teammates with Penguins 2012 first-round draft pick Derrick Pouliot the last two seasons in Portland. De Leo is also a native of La Mirada, Calif., and grew up playing roller hockey with close friend and fellow California native Beau Bennett. For someone like him from a state not necessarily seen as a hockey hotbed, De Leo appreciates this opportunity to showcase his talent at a game like this – as well as the chance to play in an NHL facility.
“It's unbelievable,” he said, “Especially being here in Pittsburgh, in this area, this facility, it's insane (laughs). I just can't wait to get out there on the ice. I'm honored and excited to be here and it's a great accomplishment.”
Mullen will be coaching Team Blue and Johnson will be coaching Team White, with each side having 20 players. Both teams went through a typical game day routine, taking the ice – freshly painted with USA Hockey and All-American Prospects Game logos – for separate morning skates in their red, white and blue jerseys.
For hockey fans in Pittsburgh, this is an amazing opportunity to watch future NHL stars (and perhaps future U.S. Olympians) in an NHL atmosphere. The game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start, with Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma – head coach of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team – dropping the ceremonial first puck. Penguins player development coach Bill Guerin, who is being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this fall, will present the Gillette Player of the Game Award in a postgame ceremony.
Tickets for the All-American Prospects Game are available at Ticketmaster.com, at all TicketMaster locations, by calling 1-800-745-3000 and at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Box Office at CONSOL Energy Center. More information is available on AllAmericanProspectsGame.com.