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Pens reflect on time in USHL as Fall Classic gets underway

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

The hockey world descends upon Pittsburgh this weekend as UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex hosts the DICK'S Sporting Goods USHL Fall Classic for the fourth-straight year from Sept. 26-29. 

All 16 USHL teams will be represented, playing two regular-season games, in front of more than 400 NHL, collegiate and amateur scouts. With the addition of other youth tournaments for Under-14, U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-18 there will be more than 2,000 youth players in town over the weekend. 

"It's kind of our Super Bowl for us to start our season," said USHL president and commissioner Tom Garrity. "Everything the Penguins do, it's first class. The way they treat the players, the way they treat the league office and how they handle and promote it, everyone loves it.

"We can't imagine it not being here."

The Penguins are not only a host of the event, but have several alumni on their roster, including Zach Aston-Reese (Des Moines/Lincoln), Casey DeSmith (Indiana), Jake Guentzel (Sioux City), Adam Johnson (Indiana/Sioux City), Bryan Rust (U.S. National Team Development Program) and Chad Ruhwedel (Sioux Falls). 

"For them to come here to Pittsburgh is great for the city. It's great for the USHL kids," said Aston-Reese, who played in the USHL from 2010-13. "They get to come to an NHL (practice) rink. I get to see old coaches and guys I played with that are now coaching."

Many of the former USHL players remember participating in their own Fall Classics. But things have changed a lot since those days. 

"It was in the Sioux and not every team came," DeSmith said. "To see how much the league has grown and what it is now is pretty cool." 

The USHL has grown into one of the best developmental leagues in all of major junior hockey. 

"It was huge, especially when you're playing against older guys in the league," said 40-goal scorer Guentzel. "The USHL does a really good job of preparing you to get to the next level."

It also was a major stepping stone for players, helping them prepare for the life of a hockey player both on and off the ice. 

"It was the perfect building block to go from high school/prep school to go up to college," DeSmith said. "You get away from your family, live on the road, have that traveling mentality with a lot of long road trips. It's a long season. It's almost your first taste of pro hockey. Off the ice with the travel it reminds me of Wilkes and Wheeling more than college."

"The schedule, it's the first time away from home for me," Guentzel said. "You're on your own. You have to adjust to that lifestyle of being on your own. It gets you ready for the pro schedule. I enjoyed my time there."

Despite the grueling schedule, Aston-Reese said: "I wouldn't trade that experience for anything." 

"To go live on your own, you have more independence than the average 16-, 17-year-old," Aston-Reese continued. "It's a pretty good experience from an off-ice standpoint. You learn how to grow up and take care of yourself at an earlier age." 

The league is producing more and more top-end talent and NHL players. 

"It shows how good the league is that all the NHL and college scouts are here," Guentzel said. "It's a good opportunity for kids. I think that's what you dream of, to have an opportunity like that."

"(Thursday) the Penguins are practicing before our games start," Garrity said, "and the kids can walk out there and see these guys and know that they actually played in our league and that's attainable."

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