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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

October 31st may be Halloween, but don’t count on too many hockey players knocking on your door.

Instead, there will be plenty of tricks and treats in store at ice rinks around the region as the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League opens its season with a 15-game schedule.

The Road to the Penguins Cup begins.

“It’s a great time for us. We’ve worked all summer for this,” PIHL commissioner Ed Sam said. “We have a great number of teams this year in all the classes. We’re going to see some good competition out there, so we’re excited. I talk with the coaches and they are ready to go. It’s that time.”

Hockey arenas will be buzzing with high school hockey action from Halloween until late March when PIHL teams in three classifications (AAA, AA, A) battle at Mellon Arena for the Penguins Cup championship and a berth to the state title game.

“There’s nothing like playing at Mellon Arena. The kids love it. The coaches enjoy it,” Sam said. “As long as we can always hold that carrot out to them, they will always look forward to it and be excited about it.”

Bethel Park (AAA), Peters Township (AA) and Bishop McCort (A) captured Penguin Cup titles last year in the only championship hockey games played at any level at Mellon Arena in 2005.

“We had a wonderful year last year that culminated with the Penguins Cup. Unfortunately the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t play, but that allowed their marketing department to step up to the plate and really help us,” Sam said. “Everybody stepped up to the plate. Now we’re going forward this year and doing some different things at the arena.”

The Penguins did not play last season because of an NHL labor dispute. However, the NHL’s loss was the PIHL’s gain as Pittsburgh’s organization enhanced its strong ties with local high school hockey.

“We feel that probably this past year was a turning point for high school hockey,” Sam said. “The people at the Pittsburgh Penguins have just been wonderful and they don’t have to be. It’s just heartwarming that they care enough about the sport and care enough about the kids that they do this. I really thank everybody involved with the Penguins that they do what they do. I can’t thank 84 Lumber enough and Maggie Hardy and everything she has done to make things happen for the PIHL. I really appreciate what they have done as well.”

Sam believes the Penguins do more for high school hockey than most other professional teams anywhere.

“I don’t see it in football; I don’t see it in baseball. I don’t see it outside of the Pittsburgh Penguins,” he said. “At the end of the year, we play the Penguins Cup and the eastern side plays the Flyers Cup and we get together to play the state championship game. I don’t see [the cooperation] at the Philadelphia Flyers. Even prior to last year we played the Penguins Cup at Mellon Arena. The Flyers Cup, with the exception of Class AAA, has never been played at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. I think the cooperation with the Pittsburgh Penguins is extremely unique, whether it’s regionally or locally.”

Mark Shuttleworth, the Penguins’ director of amateur hockey, agrees that the organization’s relationship with local amateur hockey is a unique, yet strong bond.

“We’ve really embraced the high school community. It’s grown proportionally for as long as the Penguins have been here. I do think we are pretty unique and among the leaders [in the NHL] with our relationship with the high school leagues,” he said. “Each year, even if it’s something little, we’re always doing something different with the local amateur hockey leagues; it’s a good thing for us and for the community that we have the commitment as an organization to do that.”

The Penguins’ support has helped area high school hockey grow over the years.

“When I go out and talk PIHL to people, they are very polite and help out as much as they can,” Sam said. “When I say the Pittsburgh Penguins are involved, they stand up and listen. It’s very important.”

In addition, high school hockey in Western Pennsylvania continues to improve dramatically. It’s starting to show on the national level. The Penguins’ Ryan Malone (Upper St. Clair) and Philadelphia prospect R.J. Umberger (Plum) both played high school hockey while growing up in Pittsburgh. Malone, 25, is a top forward for the Penguins, while Umberger, 23, was the first Pittsburgh-born player to be drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. They represent the first wave of NHL talent from this region.

“I have been involved with hockey for about 20 years and there has been a big increase in the ability of the kids. It’s just amazing,” Sam said. “The high school games are good, fast and exciting to watch. The improvement of the skill level of the players has just grown. “This has always been a football area, but Pittsburgh is really starting to be recognized as a place to look for good hockey players. We’re not Minnesota or Boston yet, but we’re making progress, the kids are making progress and the coaches are making progress and that’s what’s important.”

While the talent is evolving, so are the ice arenas, which are popping up all over the region.

“For a long time, we only had about six or eight [rinks] at the most,” Sam said. “This year, we’ll be using 28 different pads of ice in just the Western Pennsylvania area.”

That is a huge factor in the improvement of local hockey, which has allowed area teams to build up their programs and venture out of the region for games.

“A lot of these programs 10-15 years ago were pretty fledgling. They might practice once a week and play one game a week,” Shuttleworth said. “In the later part of 1990s, they were able to practice four or five times a week and play a couple games. Now, teams are starting to go out of the region to play in really good tournaments. They’re not just facing the best competition in area, but some of the best competition in the country and Canada. As teams do more and more of that, they are all improving and the product is getting better.”

The PIHL features 49 varsity high school teams in all three classifications split between two conferences as well as 22 varsity programs in an “Open” classification in addition to junior varsity and freshman-level programs. The PIHL continues to expand.

“We’re just excited that it’s a growing sport. Every year we seem to have more and more players playing high school hockey,” Sam said. “We got a great boost in 1984 when Mario [Lemieux] was drafted. We’ll see that same boost with Sidney Crosby being drafted. We’re excited about the growth of the sport. We’re already talking about next year and we have some associations that aren’t in the PIHL this year that are planning to be in the PIHL next year. We’re excited about that and looking forward to that.”

High school hockey is not a state-sanctioned sport under the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. The high school hockey teams in the western part of the state fall under the PIHL, while those in the eastern side are split up among a variety of leagues. Regardless, West meets East for Pennsylvania Cup championship games in all three classifications following the Penguins Cup and Flyers Cup title games every year.

“We actually feel we have a better program than what the PIAA has,” Sam said. “Not that we wouldn’t want to be a part of the PIAA, but we feel we have taken some steps. One thing we have already done that maybe some day PIAA sports will have to do – our sports are all self-supported. Every parent sticks their hand in their pocket and pulls out money for these kids to play hockey. We’re already there so we think we have a better program.

“We do hope that some day the state sanctions high school hockey. We don’t know in what form, but we’d hope we could work that out with them,” he continued. “If you just took what they do right now and apply it to hockey, it probably wouldn’t work. There are so many restrictions on football, basketball, baseball and others – where they play their games, when they play their games, etc. – that it might not work for hockey because hockey is all over the board in terms of what they do.”

Sam would like to see the eastern side unite and join the PIHL so all teams could fall under one organization.

“There are seven [leagues in the eastern part of the state] and they don’t fall under one banner,” he said. “We had three banners at one time, but we unified. We hope that some day soon we can make that happen on the eastern side. We specifically named our league so it would fit everybody.”

Unification would require a reclassification of the eastern teams.

“When we say Class AAA, ours is based on male in enrollment in schools, their classifications might not be based on enrollment like all the other sports are,” Sam said.

All that doesn’t really matter to the players, though. They just want to play for state bragging rights.

“They just want to play hockey,” Sam said. “They like to be playing for a championship. They are excited about it.”

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