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Pittsburgh Grows Into Hockey Hotbed

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania might not have a fancy nickname like “Hockeytown,” nor is it located in “The State of Hockey” – which is one of Minnesota’s unofficial nicknames for those of you scoring at home – but over the last decade, the “Steel City” has cemented its status as one of the rising hotbeds of the hockey universe.

Seven years ago, that statement would have been nearly impossible to believe.

J.T. Miller was selected 15th overall in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers.
As the sweltering summer heat swept through the region in 2005, the NHL was in the final stages of wrapping up a lockout that cost the league the entire 2004-05 campaign. Locally, the Penguins were coming off a NHL-worst 58-point season in the year preceding the lockout, and local amateur hockey numbers were in sharp decline.

Those fortunes changed with the fortuitous bounce of a ping-pong ball on July 22, 2005 – a stoke of luck that delivered wunderkind Sidney Crosby to the black and gold. In the blink of an eye, Evgeni Malkin joined the fold and the duo quickly transformed an up-and-coming team into Stanley Cup champions by 2009.

The on-ice and box office success achieved by the Penguins over the last seven years has increased hockey’s profile in Pittsburgh tenfold.

Before Crosby’s debut in October 2005, Pittsburgh didn’t have much of a presence within the hockey world outside of legendary Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux, who was winding down his illustrious career.

Sure, Upper St. Clair native Ryan Malone was coming off an impressive 22-goal rookie campaign with his hometown team, and Plum’s R.J. Umberger was set to make an NHL roster for the first time with the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers.

But at the time, despite the talents each displayed, both seemed more like exceptions rather than trendsetters.

While Malone, who helped the Penguins reach the Cup Final in ’08 before departing to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Umberger continue to produce annually on hockey’s grandest stage, the next generation of Pittsburgh-born players continues to make their mark on the hockey world.

The dramatic improvement of the Pittsburgh amateur hockey program was showcased one year ago at the 2011 NHL Draft in St. Paul, Minnesota, when four of the first 64 selections – J.T. Miller (NY Rangers, 1st round, 15th overall); John Gibson (Anaheim; 2nd round; 39th overall); Brandon Saad (Chicago, 2nd round, 43rd overall); and Vince Trocheck (Florida; 3rd round; 64th overall) – each grew up playing their youth hockey within the local amateur hockey ranks.

With his selection at No. 15 overall, Miller became the highest-drafted player from the Pittsburgh region, edging out Umberger, who was taken 16th overall by Vancouver in 2001. Gibson was the second goaltender taken in the ’11 draft.

Brandon Saad was part of a Pittsburgh draft class in 2011 that feature four players picked in the first 64 selections.
Saad, who slipped a bit on draft day after being considered a top-five talent earlier that year, became the first of the quartet to reach the NHL when he made the Blackhawks’ opening-night roster. He appeared in two regular-season and two playoff contests with the Hawks, while in between starring for the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

As good as Saad and Gibson were this year, named First and Third-Team All-OHL honors, respectively, neither was the best Pittsburgh-born player in the OHL.

That honor went to London Knights goaltender – and Wexford native – Michael Houser, who like the four players drafted in ’11 is an alum of the Pittsburgh Hornets ‘AAA’ program. Houser put together one of the finest junior seasons ever while leading the Knights to an OHL playoff championship and a runner-up finish at the Memorial Cup.

The No. 16-ranked North American goaltender available in this weekend’s draft according to NHL Central Scouting, Houser was named Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year, won the OHL’s Goaltender of the Year award and he became just the third American to win the OHL Most Outstanding Player award after posting a 46-15-0-1 record, 2.47 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. His 46 wins tied the OHL record.

Although Team USA had a disappointing showing at the 2012 World Junior Championship in late December, it is impressive to note that of the 23 players who comprised the Americans’ roster, four (17 percent) hailed from Western Pennsylvania – Saad, Miller, Gibson and defenseman Stephen Johns, a defenseman at the University of Notre Dame who was selected by Chicago in the second round (60th overall) of the 2010 NHL Draft.


RELATED VIDEOS:
Draft Day Interview: J.T. Miller
Draft Day Interview: Brandon Saad
Draft Day Interview: John Gibson
Draft Day Interview: Vince Trocheck



Next April, the 2013 Frozen Four – hockey’s version of March Madness – will come to CONSOL Energy Center. If recent Frozen Fours are any indication, there is a good chance somebody from the 412 or 724 area codes will factor heavily into determining a champion.

That’s because each of the last three winners – Boston College in 2012 and ’10, and Minnesota-Duluth in ’11 – have been buoyed by local contributors.

Leading the charge for Boston College this past April was a pair of Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils alums – starting netminder Parker Milner and defenseman Patrick Wey. On their way to leading the Eagles to the title, both players were named to the Northeast Regional All-Tournament Team.

Wey, who was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the fourth round (115th overall) of the 2009 NHL Draft, and Milner also played smaller roles on Boston College’s ’10 championship squad.

In between BC’s victories, Plum native Kenny Reiter helped backstop the University of Minnesota-Duluth to a Frozen Four championship over Michigan in ’11 – meaning the winning netminder from the past two national champions has come from Pittsburgh.

A young John Gibson with the Pittsburgh Hornets
Young players across the area from mites to high school players to stars at the college and junior level strive each day to become permanent NHL fixtures like Malone and Umberger. Dylan Reese, Mike Weber and Matt Bartkowski are three young defensemen with a sprinkle of NHL experience who appear poised to make that leap in the coming years.

The elder statesman of the group is Reese, 26, who like Malone hails from Upper St. Clair. Reese has played a combined 74 NHL games with the New York Islanders over the past three seasons. His best stint was this past year, especially down the stretch when he regularly topped the 20-minute mark while establishing himself as a solid two-way blueliner heading into next season.

Cranberry native Weber, 24, has the most experience of the three, suiting up for 132 games with the Buffalo Sabres. A punishing defender, Weber is probably most notorious to fans in these parts for not being afraid to mix it up physically with Crosby and Malkin in recent matchups against them.

Bartkowski, who just turned 24, made the opening-night roster for the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins this past season. The previous spring, he participated in Boston’s march to the Cup as a member of the team’s taxi squad. Ironically, each of Bartkowski’s first three NHL games during the ’10-11 season came against the Penguins, with one being played at CONSOL Energy Center.

As you can see, hockey is alive and well in Pittsburgh at all levels – and that’s without mentioning the vastly-improved Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League (PIHL) and the numerous players slated to join the college and junior ranks this coming season.

Thanks to the on-ice success of the Penguins translating throughout the local community to children of all ages, hockey is only going to continue growing in these parts well into the future.
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