There is a phenomenon growing in the Pittsburgh area. It’s locally known as the Mario Lemieux Effect.
It refers to the burst of popularity and interest in the sport of hockey in the Pittsburgh region following Lemieux’s arrival in the Steel City and the Penguins’ subsequent success. After watching the greatest player in NHL history raise the Stanley Cup twice in a Penguins’ uniform, local children flooded rinks with a yearning to play hockey.
“When I was growing up I emulated the Penguins and wanted to be like them,” Fox Chapel native Bill Thomas said. “Lemieux, (Jaromir) Jagr and (Ron) Francis, you wanted to grow up and be those guys. That was a big part of why I played. I think that has helped with the growth of hockey and opportunity to play hockey in this area for kids.”
As local interest increased, participants increased and rinks started springing up around the city to feed the demand. Now, Pittsburgh is seeing the fruits of that phenomenon. Pittsburgh already produced NHL-caliber players in the likes of R.J. Umberger, Ryan Malone and Thomas, and has a burgeoning pool of potential professionals.
I think a lot of that has to do with the rinks coming around. When I started there was only a handful. Now there are rinks all over the place. Kids can get ice time, there are teams and more opportunities for kids to play and get better. That is helping produce more hockey players coming out of this area. - Bill Thomas
“I think a lot of that has to do with the rinks coming around,” Thomas said. “When I started there was only a handful. Now there are rinks all over the place. Kids can get ice time, there are teams and more opportunities for kids to play and get better. That is helping produce more hockey players coming out of this area.”
In the current budding crop of Pittsburgh area prospects are J.T. Miller (Pittsburgh Hornets), Barrett Kaib (Upper St. Clair), Tyler Murovich (Saginaw, OHL), Josh Daley (Owatanna Express, NAHL), Patrick Wey (Waterloo, USHL) and teammates George Saad, Michael Pateras and John Houston (Mahoning Valley, NAHL).
"It’s an area that not too many people came from to play hockey," Thomas said. "Now it’s starting to become a pretty big resource for coaches and scouts to come and evaluate talent. They want those players to be on their teams. Hopefully, it keeps growing. It’s a small area but if it can keep growing and growing it could potentially become a hotbed for hockey players."
The two most promising players from the region right now are former Pittsburgh Hornets Brandon Saad – George’s older brother – and Stephen Johns. The two played together with Team USA at the Under-17 World Challenge in Port Alberni, British Columbia, leading the United States to a Bronze Medal. Saad was even named to the all-tournament team.
Last March Brandon Saad put his talents on display at Mellon Arena as a 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman at Pine-Richland. The forward, playing alongside George, tallied a hat trick in the Penguins Cup title game to help the Rams secure the championship.
“It was a great experience,” Saad said. “To play with my brother, playing in the rink that all your idols played in, winning the Penguins Cup and getting a hat trick on top of that, it was just an unreal experience.”
His stellar season caught the attention of scouts, coaches, general managers and teams across North America, especially the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League. Saad became the first-ever American-born player drafted in the first round by Saginaw after the Spirit selected him with the 10th-overall pick.
What made the selection even more remarkable was that Saginaw selected him so high even though Saad, then 15, had not committed to playing for the league during the current season.
“It was a good feeling because we told every team (in the OHL) that I wasn’t going to go this year,” Saad said. “So to get drafted in the first round after that was just amazing.”
Saad was also selected by the U.S. National Development Team. But after careful consideration and discussions with his family, Saad opted to join the Youngstown’s Mahoning Valley Phantoms of the North American Hockey League to remain close to home and play another season with his brother.
For Phantoms Head Coach and General Manager Bob Mainhardt it was like hitting the lottery.
“In every aspect of life timing is everything,” Mainhardt said. “We were in the right town at the right time and close enough to Brandon Saad to lure him here. It’s been a great relationship ever since we got him here.”
Growing up, Saad was always more developed than his contemporaries, so he had to adjust to playing among players that were older than him.
“At first it was a little rough because I’m playing with kids that are four-years older than me,” said Saad, whose father was born in Syria. “I’ve gotten pretty used to it and feeling pretty comfortable right now. When I was younger, I was bigger than everyone. I’ve always been a tall kid for my age. It was a little easier then. Now, playing with older and tougher competition, I’m putting in the work ethic and working harder to get my game better.”
So far, so good.
“He gets better every time he touches the ice,” Mainhardt said. “It took him a little adjustment to get used to the speed of Junior A hockey. He’s settled in now. He’s more aware and his vision improved. Every time that he gets on the ice he does something you don’t expect.”
Now Saad is excelling with Mahoning Valley. He is leading the team in goals (25), points (42) and power-play goals (9).
Brandon (Saad) is a very rare talent...He has a very intriguing mix of power and finesse. He can be a power forward when he wants to. He can also play a finesse and skilled game. He does them equally well. - Bob Mainhardt
“Brandon is a very rare talent,” Mainhardt said. “I’ve never coached a player quite like Brandon. He has a very intriguing mix of power and finesse. He can be a power forward when he wants to. He can also play a finesse and skilled game. He does them equally well. He’s exciting to watch and he’s obviously done a great job us this year.”
Saad is built to be a prototypical power forward. His size and strength have allowed him to physically dominate and single-handedly take over a game…and he’s only 16 years old.
“Because of his size and physical stature, we joke that we need to check his birth certificate because he is so young,” Mainhardt said. “He’s the youngest player on our team. He looks like one of the older guys on the team and he carries himself that way too. He’s very mature for a young man. He’s really dealt with all the attention he’s gotten very well. He’s just a part of the team. He’s a funny, regular 16-year-old. He’s a little more mature but you can see the kid in him some times. He just loves playing the game and he fits in well. His teammates love him.”
Saad’s focus now is on helping the Phantoms finish the season strong and make some noise in the postseason. But after that, he’ll have to decide whether or not to join Saginaw in the OHL next season.
“I’m still debating between the OHL and college,” Saad said. “It’s pretty much close. But we’re leaning towards the OHL because that’s the fastest route to get to the NHL. I figure I have a pretty good shot and hoping just to get there quicker. I’m still not positive (on where I’ll play).”
Whether Saad goes to Saginaw or chooses the college route, Mainhardt believes that he has the talent to join the growing list of Pittsburgh-born NHL players.
“There’s no doubt,” he said. “(Saad) has a lot of developing still to do. But at this stage in the game, I’ve played with and against, and coached with and against top NHL players. He really impresses me. He’s the best player at this age and at this level that I’ve seen. I think if he keeps his head on straight – he’s already shown that he is so mature and has everything planned out and executing his plan – I think there’s no doubt that he’ll be a big time NHL player.”
While Saad hasn’t decided yet decided between the OHL or college, his bronze medal teammate Stephen Johns already knows his future destination. Even though Johns was a third-round pick by the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, he has made a verbal commitment to play collegiately at Notre Dame.
“I pretty much had my sights set on college for my whole life,” Johns said. “I always wanted to go to college and play college hockey at the highest level.”
For now, the 17-year-old defenseman is honing his game as an alternate captain with the U.S. National Under-17 Developmental Team. The squad is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan and competes against teams in the NAHL.
“I love it up here,” Johns said. “It’s a lot of fun. I feel like I’m getting better every day. They really work us hard to make us better. I couldn’t have asked for better coaching.”
The Wampum, Pa. native was selected to join the developmental team after a strong showing in a top-40 camp held last March. The best 40 U.S.-born players were invited to the three-day competition. The best and brightest were asked to join the developmental team.
Johns, who is 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, was pleased with his performance and anticipated he would soon be asked to join the team. But they still made him sweat it out for some time.
“I had a good idea but they didn’t offer me right away,” Johns said. “They waited a couple of months after the 40 camp to offer me. I felt that I deserved a position on the team. I was beyond excited and happy to be selected.”
In picking Johns, Team USA added a well-rounded blueliner with a blend of force and skill. He is physically impressive, hard-nosed and gritty, while at the same time he’s an exceptional skater and can handle the puck.
Johns is really concentrating on becoming an even better player in his own zone, but will chip in offensively where he can.
I like to think that I play a gritty, hard, defensive style. I like to hit and make the simple plays. Every once in a while I can hop up in the offense and make a difference. - Stephen Johns
“I’ve been really concentrating on defense because there are so many gifted forwards here; I just give the puck to them and they do their thing,” Johns said. “I like to think that I play a gritty, hard, defensive style. I like to hit and make the simple plays. Every once in a while I can hop up in the offense and make a difference.”
Johns will remain in the Team USA development program next season, although he could see international play with the U.S. Under-18 Team.
“That would be a great challenge and I look forward to that,” he said. “I want to play at the highest level and against the best competition. Plus, you’re playing for your country.”
Perhaps then Johns can upgrade his bronze medal for gold.
“It was a letdown because we didn’t get the gold,” Johns said of the World Challenge. “We lost to Russia in a heartbreaking game. We were up 3-1 and they scored three goals within a minute.”
“But I felt like we played some of our best hockey of the year there and came out with a medal. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
For Johns, the hardest part of playing for Team USA is being away from his family.
“It’s really hard adjusting but I talk to them pretty much every day,” he said. “I get to see them because I live only three and a half hours away. They try to come to every home game that we have.”
It would only be fitting that Johns’ family watch him mature as a hockey player. After all, it was his parents that introduced the sport to their son.
“My parents were big fans,” Johns said. “My parents got me into hockey. My cousin and brother played and they were big Penguins fans. I pretty much followed in the footsteps of my brother.
And the Lemieux Effect comes full circle.
“I grew up loving the Penguins,” Johns said. “I was a Lemieux baby.”