John Gibson had so much fun attending Penguins games growing up, upon returning home he’d start his own hockey game in his living room using makeshift sticks and pucks.
The Pittsburgh native has come a long way from his humble beginnings on his parents’ floor, as he is now the top-ranked North American goaltending prospect for the 2011 NHL Draft, according to mid-term rankings released by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau on Monday.
“It’s obviously an honor and a place you want to be,” Gibson said. “But I just try to keep it in the back of my mind and worry about the season. Then at the end of the year, that’s when it means the most, to see where your name’s on the list then.”RELATED: Gibson Is Top-Ranked North American Goaltender For 2011 NHL Entry Draft >>
The last year has been a whirlwind for the 17-year-old senior, who currently plays for the U.S. National Development Under-18 Team in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The path to success hasn’t been the smoothest for Gibson, who got cut from a number of triple-A teams in the area growing up. As a freshman at Baldwin High School, he tried out for the varsity hockey team and didn’t make it.
But persistence pays off, as Gibson discovered when he tried out for the Pittsburgh Hornets triple-A hockey club as a sophomore. He ended up making the squad, and it turned out to be the break he needed.
“From there, I had a really great year and that just led to good things,” Gibson said.
The U.S. National Team Development Program scouted him at a tournament that same year, inviting him to camp as one of the 46 top prospects before offering him a position on the team.
“It all happened really fast,” Gibson admitted. “I honestly didn’t know much about the team and didn’t think I had much of a shot because I had always been looked over, so I didn’t think I had that much of a chance. But I went with it, and it worked out.”
Worked out is an understatement. Although the restaurants in Ann Arbor may not quite measure up to Pittsburgh's – "They don't have any Primanti's sandwiches," Gibson joked – he’s enjoyed plenty of success over the past two years with the program, especially at the international level.RELATED: Memorable Night For Pittsburgh Native Bartkowski >>
Gibson led his team to gold at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Timmins, Ont., going 3-0 with a 1.33 GAA and a .957 save percentage.
He also helped the USNTDP Under-18 team claim its second-straight Under-18 Four Nations Cup in Sundsvall, Sweden, back in November, making 25 saves in an 8-3 win over Switzerland on Nov. 13.
Gibson wasn’t born yet when the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. But his parents, Jack and Sue, grew up huge fans of the team and ultimately instilled that love for the Penguins into their son. It’s what got him started playing the sport.
“Whenever I was little, they’d always take me to Penguins games,” Gibson said. “I grew up watching them on TV. So that was a big influence on me, because it got me introduced to the game.”
After watching John play hockey around the living room, his parents put him in a pair of skates and gave him lessons around age 4. He joined his first team at age 5, and although he started out playing defense, it became instantly clear that Gibson had the goalie instinct.
“My first year, I played defense,” he said. “But I played defense from inside the net, like I stood right next to the goalie inside of the net. So from there, my parents thought it would probably be a good idea to probably try me out as goalie.”
Gibson grew up playing developmental hockey with with current USNTDP teammates Barrett Kaib of Upper St. Clair and J.T. Miller of Moon and East Palestine, Ohio. They’re three of the five Pittsburgh area players projected as top prospects for the draft, to be held June 24-25 in Minnesota.RELATED: Pittsburgh's Influence Will Be Felt At 2011 Entry Draft >>
“I played with them when I was little,” Gibson said. “They’re definitely two of my best friends on the team, just since I’ve known them for a long time.”
All three have committed to playing for colleges in the fall. Gibson will attend the University of Michigan, while Miller will suit up for the University of North Dakota and Kaib will skate for Providence College.
As a Pittsburgh native, Gibson looks up to Penguins superstars like Sidney Crosby
and Marc-Andre Fleury
. But it’s hometown boys like former Penguin and Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone that he grew up idolizing.
“(Guys like Malone) were guys that I looked up to and said ‘Hey, maybe that can be me one day if I keep working hard,’” Gibson said. “With them coming out of the same area as me and playing for the organization, I’ll always look up to them and try to put myself in those shoes one day and maybe do what they’re doing.”