Hockey Weekend Across America will take place Friday through Sunday.
However, the influence on USA Hockey is evident on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ roster all year round. The team has nine American-born players on its roster: Ryan Malone, Ty Conklin, Ryan Whitney, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Adam Hall, Jeff Taffe and Mark Eaton.
Malone, an Upper St. Clair native, is a special case for the Penguins since he is the first Pittsburgh-born and trained player to reach the NHL. Another fellow Pittsburgher in the NHL – Flyers winger R.J. Umberger, a Plum native – became the first Pittsburgh-born player selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
However, Malone knows that’s just the tip of the iceberg for this area. There are many other local players on the NHL horizon like Nate Guenin, Bill Thomas, John Zeiler and Dylan Reese – who are all at the AHL level. Guenin (Philadelphia), Thomas (Phoenix) and Zeiler (Los Angeles) spent some time in the NHL this season.
“That’s great for Pittsburgh. Even R.J. will tell you, there weren’t many guys going to play NCAA Division-I hockey at the time we were younger so we didn’t know we could go play Division-I hockey,” Malone said. “I think once we kind of had a couple guys go Division-I, everyone is thinking they can do it, too. I think we kind of led the way in that department. We had a big surge of guys go play Division I and a couple guys get drafted and turn pro and I think it’s just going to continue to keep growing here in Pittsburgh, which is great.”
Another great sign for local hockey is the success of the Robert Morris University ice hockey team. In its fourth year as an NCAA Division-I program, the Colonials have posted a number of memorable upset victories and played two games at Mellon Arena as part of the annual College Hockey Showcase.
“It’s great for the area,” Malone said. “Not a lot of guys even planned on going to play Division I when I was growing up. Now, you have a Division-I school close to home. Some guys might not want to leave and they have a great program there. I think they did a great job building that. They had a couple upsets this year over some big-name schools. If they get a couple blue chip-type players in there, that program will definitely take off even more. As of right now, it’s only their fourth year. They are still growing. It takes a while for a program to get its feet under it. They are definitely going in the right direction and you can see that.”
In addition, better coaching and an influx talent has helped enhance local high school and amateur programs around the region.
“The last I saw a high school game, the biggest difference from when I played, we had maybe only one or two lines that had all good quality players,” Malone said. “Now, the teams are a lot deeper and you can definitely see the skill level. The bar has been raised. It’s going to continue to grow and be better hockey for everybody.”
Of course, that isn’t limited to the Pittsburgh area. Hockey is booming all over the country.
“If you can start growing hockey in places like Pittsburgh, that’s great. Word is there are tons of good kids in California now that are a lot younger,” Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “You’re building hockey markets in different parts of the country besides Minnesota, Boston and Michigan and it’s going to make a world of difference. There are so many young athletes in this country. A lot of them play football, basketball and baseball. If everyone played hockey the way every kid plays hockey in Canada, we’d be the best team in the world, by far.”
The implementation of the United States’ National Team Development Program in 1996 has helped produce some of the country’s top talent. Whitney and Hall are products of that program.
“There are tons of guys in the league from that program,” Whitney said. “There are guys there now that will be drafted in the first round and will be in the league in a few years. It’s a flow of talent that I think is really surprising people. I think in 2010, you’ll see the United States will have a great team in the Olympics. It’s something that’s evident with all the talent in the league right now.”
Americans made history at the NHL Entry Draft. Erik Johnson (2006) and Patrick Kane (2007) became the first two Americans to go first overall in consecutive drafts, while, last summer, Kane and James vanRiemsdyk became the first Americans to go first and second overall in the same draft.
“It’s pretty impressive to see a bunch of young Americans in the NHL. You see their success at the World Juniors a couple years ago and even now,” Whitney said. “It’s a team that you know in every international event is going to be there for the gold in the end. It’s an honor to have played for the national team before. It’s something I really hope I get the chance to do again. I think every kid out there just loves watching young Americans and realizing that that could be them.
“You look at some the older guys like Brian Rafalski and there’s more around the league, too,” he continued. “There’s a lot of other young guys like Zach Parise and Paul Martin in New Jersey, Erik Johnson, Pat Kane and Jack Johnson in LA. There are guys everywhere making an impact in the league. It’s not just Canada anymore that’s producing talent in North America because of all the states and the hockey programs across this country that are really developing kids.”
With a new generation of talented young American hockey players on the scene, that means USA Hockey is entering an exciting period leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
“There was a little lull there, I think, but all of a sudden all these kids are popping up from all over the country and different teams,” Whitney said. “It’s going to make a huge difference. A lot of these kids are first rounders who will become stars in the NHL. I think, because of that, USA Hockey is going to thrive and we’re going to get even more young kids to play.”