Ask any young hockey player in Pittsburgh what they want to do when they grow up and chances are skating for the hometown Penguins will be high on that list. For members of the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Squirt Minor team, sitting in the same spot as Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin has already become a reality.
The Penguins Elite presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods not only sat in the stalls of their heroes during this weekend’s PPE Icebreaker Tournament, but the team also won the tournament (more here on the championship).
Playing hockey at CONSOL Energy Center is just one of the many perks that youth hockey players in the newly formed organization will get to take advantage of throughout their season. The Penguins Elite is the newest AAA amateur hockey association in the Pittsburgh region. Formerly the Pittsburgh Hornets, the organization has teamed up with Dick’s Sporting Goods and the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and looks to give the best players in Western Pennsylvania not only a chance to compete at the highest peaks, but also develop them into quality people as well.
“I think we’ve attracted the highest level of talent in Pittsburgh in each of the birth years, and that’s what our goal was,” said Rich Hixon, the Penguins director of strategic development. “We’ve got the right kids in place and we’re now working to make sure that we continue to develop them and provide proper coaching. The focus isn’t always the product on the ice, but it’s developing (the kids) into great people too and I think that’s a big part of what the program is about.”
The development in the Penguins Elite starts at the Squirt level, ages 9 and 10. In all, the program carries 13 clubs, eight boys teams and five girls teams, all competing at the AAA level.
If an NHL, college, or major junior player is a native of Pittsburgh, odds are they’ve spent some portion of time in the organization as a youth. The program has produced former Penguins Ryan Malone, Eric Meloche and Nate Guenin, as well as current Penguins defenseman Dylan Reese. In addition, former Penguins forward and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Bryan Trottier, and NHL Referee, Stephen Walkom, serve on the program’s board.
The coaching staff also boasts some recognizable names with Penguins alum Mark Recchi and former Wheeling Nailers defenseman Cliff Loya on board. Loya is the head coach of the Squirt Minor team, and is thrilled to be part of the organization for the second time, first as a player, and now behind the bench.
“It’s real important to identify the better players in the area, especially at the younger ages, and make sure that they’re playing against this kind of competition,” Loya said. “They have to work hard and play as a team, so I think it’s great what the NHL Penguins are doing with this organization.”
Loya is just one of the examples within the program of someone who has been around the game their entire life at the higher levels. Hixon says that this aspect is what helps to set Pittsburgh Penguins Elite apart.
“That’s the one unique piece that sets this organization off from a lot of the others and a lot of the amateur programs in the area,” Hixon said. “Most of the coaches have played at a high level. They know how to teach the basic skills and the fundamentals, but they also know the X’s and O’s and they’re helping to develop these kids. We’re fortunate that we’ve got guys like Cliff that have come back to the marketplace and are now entrenching themselves back into youth hockey to teach what they’ve learned along the way.”
Heather O’Donnell’s son Shawn plays for the squirt minor team. As a parent, she’s pleased that her son can get much more out of this experience than just learning how to play the game.
“There’s more focus on skill development and the long-term vision of growing youth hockey in Pittsburgh rather than winning today,” O’Donnell said. “To me, that’s just so important. We’re developing young men and women that are learning leadership skills and how to work hard rather than just focusing on the quick win.”
The smile on Shawn’s face as he stood outside of the NHL visitor’s locker room after his game speaks volumes as to the unique chances that he and his teammates are receiving.
“Getting to play (at CONSOL Energy Center), those are the best opportunities,” Shawn said. “It’s really fun.”
Loya is having fun as well. He says that his favorite part about being involved with Pittsburgh Penguins Elite is coaching the best kids in the area, and giving them a chance to succeed in all aspects of life.
“At all levels with this organization, winning and losing, it’s important, but it’s not the biggest thing,” Loya said. “Teaching them life lessons, but also being able to compete and give a good showing for the city and the organization is great.”
As Hixon explains, the program exists and strives to not only develop quality hockey players, but quality people as well. And the potential always exists for further advancement down the line.
“The goal is to maximize every kid’s potential in the program,” Hixon said. “Whether that is college, major junior or pro, we want to maximize each child’s potential both on and off the ice.”
It’s likely that the next Ryan Malone is already skating somewhere in the program. Perhaps his last name is O’Donnell.
“If you ask my son what he wants to do when he grows up, it’s play hockey,” O’Donnell said. “Just being able to give him this opportunity at a young age is going to help him potentially achieve his dream.”