It could give them more Ryan Malones.
You see, Malone, a native of Upper St. Clair, is the only Pittsburgh-born player to skate for the Penguins. That could change, though. Crosby’s mere presence alone in the Steel City is sending more and more children to the rink.
“I think it’s going to be very huge. The numbers of the younger kids playing have sort of flat-lined in the past two or three years,” said Mark Shuttleworth, the Penguins’ director of amateur hockey. “Hockey, in general, was experiencing a bit of the doldrums with all the clutching and grabbing. Obviously, our franchise was experiencing a down period and youth hockey enrollments at the younger age groups were a little bit flat. I think this is going to be a huge shot in the arm for youth hockey in this region.”
When the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984, youth hockey exploded in the Pittsburgh area. Interest and enrollments went through the roof when the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. Malone was part of that generation.
“When Mario came and they won the Stanley Cups, more rinks were being built and it became more of a hockey town. Obviously, it’s a football town, but hockey gave it a little competition,” Malone said. “It made it more exciting and more fun for everybody. You saw a lot more kids playing street hockey. My friends and I, we’d play street hockey whenever we could. That’s what we had to do when there weren’t so many rinks. Now, hopefully, a lot of people come to the games and get excited about this team. I think the game will continue to grow.”
Since the early ’90s, though, youth hockey had leveled off for the most part.
“I think there was a little bit of a burst when Mario bought the team out of bankruptcy (in 1999) and we had a good run when Mario came back to play and we went to the Eastern Conference championships (in 2001), but it’s been flat ever since,” Shuttleworth said. “I think you’re definitely going to see a Crosby bubble for a number of years. Hopefully, the Crosby bubble and the next Stanley Cup bubble coincide.”
Crosby’s impact isn’t limited to youth hockey in Pittsburgh.
“His impact is monstrous. It’ll be like what happened when Gretzky went to LA,” said Pierre McGuire, who was a scout and coach with the Penguins in the early 1990s and now serves as a color commentator for TSN and NBC. “It really created a whole new generation of player. Crosby going to Pittsburgh will create a whole new generation of players in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio and all over the United States and Canada. Sidney is spectacular.”
Crosby’s arrival came at a great time for hockey. A spark was needed since an NHL work stoppage wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. The NHL is back and Crosby is its poster boy.
“In the U.S., we lost a lot of kids because it was out of sight, out of mind – no NHL hockey, no Pittsburgh Penguins, no seeing Mario Lemieux, no seeing Sidney Crosby,” said Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk, who serves as the head instructor at the Penguins youth hockey camp every summer in conjunction with Shuttleworth. “Young people 6, 7, 8 years old – instead of trying to learn to play the game of hockey, they gravitated to other things.
“I think with us being back in business, it will have a real positive effect. When you look back at 1984 when Mario came to Pittsburgh, it really got a big boom,” he continued. “Throughout North America, I think it will have a tremendous impact on young people. People are going to be seeing it; people are going to be talking about it; people are going to be hearing about it. We would expect the numbers would get back to where they need to be, hopefully even more because those young people are really important to our game. Everybody has to start somewhere and, when they see the games on TV, there will be both boys and girls saying, ‘I’d like to try that.’”
The Penguins help promote hockey at all levels with various programs and scholarships. In addition, the Penguins help sponsor the Penguins Cup Championship Series for high school hockey, which culminates in three Western Pennsylvania championship games (Class AAA, AA and A) at Mellon Arena.
“I know the Penguins are helping out with high school hockey and that’s big,” said Malone, who played for Upper St. Clair High School. “Anytime a sport is doing well or a team is doing well, it’s good for everybody. I definitely think (all the additions the Penguins made) will have a positive effect on local hockey.”
Crosby, who grew up idolizing Lemieux and other hockey greats, knows he will inspire an entire generation of hockey players.
“I just try to be a good role model – someone who is an honest worker on and off the ice,” he said. “I have always tried to dictate who I am through my play and, off the ice, through who I am as a person. Hopefully, people can see that.
“It’s a lot of hard work and you have to have fun doing it. You have to have a passion for doing it,” he continued. “I have always had a passion for hockey and that’s key.”
Malone’s presence, too, inspires young hockey players in the Pittsburgh area. They are able to follow his development into a top power forward. Also, players realize if Malone made it to the NHL, they have a shot, too.
“The Penguins are my favorite team and I was a big fan,” Malone said. “Now that I have this opportunity to play here, it’s a dream come true.”
The early indication is that the youth hockey boom in Pittsburgh has begun. However, its impact won’t be felt at the lower levels until next year.
“The feedback I am getting from the grassroots programs is that there is a renewed interest. It may be a little late for them to get on teams this year because, obviously, you have to develop the skills,” Shuttleworth said. “But I think the learn-to-skate programs and the learn-to-play programs are going to be huge. The kids whose interest has waned or the younger ones who played a couple years – I think you’re going to see kids coming back across the board. The little boy who is 5-years-old and excited – you’re not going to maybe see him on the ice for a year because he has to take learn-to-skate and learn-to-play.”
Nevertheless, ice arenas around Pittsburgh will be hopping for years to come.