The top prospects have descended on our city for the 2012 NHL Draft, which will be hosted Friday and Saturday at CONSOL Energy Center.
And actually arriving in Pittsburgh has made what’s been a dream for so long finally seem real.
“You’ve been waiting for this moment since you were a little kid and now you’re kind of, ‘Wow, I’m really in Pittsburgh. The draft is going to be in two days,’” Alex Galchenyuk said Wednesday afternoon. “So all those things come into your head. Like wow, oh my gosh, I’m already in Pittsburgh, where am I going to go (in the draft)? So it’s a really exciting time for me and for my family.”
Many of the players have never actually been to Pittsburgh before. But even though they’ll only be here for a few days, they’ll certainly remember their time in the city.
That’s because each year, a number of the top prospects participate in a number of media availability sessions and a flurry of activities leading up to the Draft – which usually include a youth hockey clinic and participating in batting practice.
But this year, that’s all going to have a special Pittsburgh flavor. Let me explain why.
Today (Wednesday), five of the highest-ranked prospects – Galchenyuk, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Mikhail Grigorenko and Jacob Trouba – didn’t just participate in the Penguins Scrimmage Camp at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.
They also played in a dek hockey game with local kids from the Pittsburgh ICE inner-city program at a specially-constructed rink on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. From there, they were escorted to Mount Washington – where they recreated a classic Sports Illustrated photo from 1984 of a newly-drafted Mario Lemieux standing above the city. Those are certainly events that can't be done in any other city but Pittsburgh.
I followed the prospects everywhere they went on this wicked hot day. Here’s the details on our exploits.
FIRST STOP – PENGUINS SCRIMMAGE CAMP
It’s been absolutely sweltering in Pittsburgh the last couple days, with temperatures climbing to the high 90s this afternoon. Luckily, the prospects got a break from the heat when they helped out at the Penguins Scrimmage Camp at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.
While most of the guys dressed casually in khaki shorts and polos – Grigorenko even had on black pants and ridiculously shiny dress shoes – Yakupov strolled in wearing a loud, flowered polo with the collar popped and a pair of Armani flip flops.
“It’s my favorite shirt, so that’s why I’m wearing it,” he said with a big smile.
Unfortunately, he didn’t wear it the rest of the day.
Yakupov does an interview with TSN in an interesting getup.
The players held a low-key media session in their locker room before hitting the ice with the kids. Most of the media clustered around Yakupov, but I also got a chance to do a couple one-on-ones with Galchenyuk and Trouba (who had gotten into town about an hour before coming to the camp). They all seemed pretty wowed by the amount of reporters wanting to talk to them; Trouba even tweeted a picture of a scrum from his account (@JacobTrouba).
“Sometimes it gets tiring and you get tired of it, a little bit,” Galchenyuk said of doing interviews. “But then sometimes you think about it and realize you never had that before. The past two years I had a little media, but for the last month it’s been a lot and I’m getting more and more. It’s exciting to meet people and to see the questions they ask.”
The players got on the ice at 1 p.m. and worked with kids on one rink for about half an hour before walking over to the other sheet of ice to join the other group.
They all seemed to be having an absolute blast, Yakupov especially. The huge grin never left his face, and he kept playfully interacting with the kids the entire time he was on the ice. It honestly seemed like he was enjoying himself more than the kids were.
“For me, it was a great time skating with the kids,” he said, jokingly adding, “One kept wanting to slash me all the time. But I was having fun, so it was great.”
The prospects – who teasingly horsed around with each other on the ice as well – took time to sign autographs for campers and fans before heading out to the North Shore.
Yakupov helps a camper with their mouthguard (Getty Images)
Russia natives Yakupov and Grigorenko (Getty Images)
Galchenyuk pushes a camper around the ice
Watch and see for yourself the good times had by all:
SECOND STOP – ROBERTO CLEMENTE BRIDGE
When we were finishing up at the camp, someone showed me a cell-phone picture of the prospects’ next stop – the dek hockey rink that had been specially constructed on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. It looked AWESOME. I couldn’t wait to get there, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was much better in person.
Pittsburgh’s got almost 500 bridges, and the Roberto Clemente Bridge is one of its most famous. It’s closed to vehicular traffic on Pirates and Steelers game days, providing a pedestrian route to PNC Park.
For this event, they barricaded the bridge hours earlier than usual in order to construct the rink. It turned out fantastic and was, of course, just very unique. I mean, honestly – how many people can say they’ve played a game of street hockey in the middle of a bridge spanning the Allegheny River and providing a gorgeous view of the city?
Nail Yakupov laughs with a member of the Pittsburgh ICE program
Mikhail Grigorenko running in suit pants and dress shoes
Ryan Murray tries to jam one home
Yakupov all smiles as he battles along the boards
(All photos courtesy of Getty Images)
My intern Greg Fernandez wrote the story on the Pittsburgh-centric setup. You can access it here.
For a sweet time lapse of the rink construction and footage of the prospects taking on some local youth, click the play button below:
THIRD AND FINAL STOP – MT. WASHINGTON
Speaking of gorgeous views…
The prospects’ third and final stop is as Pittsburgh-esque as you can get. We got into the air-conditioned shuttle (unfortunately, we didn’t have time to take the incline) and drove up to Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington, which stands 367 feet high, overlooks downtown Pittsburgh and provides an absolutely stunning view of the city.
Anyone who comes to Pittsburgh basically has to visit Mt. Washington if they have time in order to take in the breathtaking view. And if you live here, you absolutely have to. I made it up a few months after I moved here in 2010 – my mom insisted we had to go, and now I’m so glad we did.
It’s special enough that the prospects made the trek. But what made it especially significant is that back in 1984, another highly-touted prospect named Mario Lemieux – you may have heard of him – traveled up Mt. Washington and took a photo for Sports Illustrated above the city he was going to call home.
It's a little small, but you get the idea...
And I've got to say, it’s pretty freakin’ awesome that the 2012 NHL Draft prospects replicated that now-classic photo...
From left: Nail Yakupov, Jacob Trouba, Ryan Murray, Alex Galchenyuk
* All photos courtesy of Getty Images
The prospects will experience more of Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Instead of holding an availability session with all the media that will be coming straight from Wednesday's NHL Awards in Las Vegas at a hotel, the prospects will do interviews over lunch on the "Empress" of the Gateway Clipper Fleet and then do batting practice at PNC Park.
I'll be following the prospects around all day again, so stay tuned for a blog detailing our adventures tomorrow evening.