Growing up playing hockey, Mark Recchi couldn’t wait to get out on the ice for camps in the summertime.
Heading out onto the ice today with a different role as an instructor, kids at the Pittsburgh Penguins Scrimmage Camp at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon were able to learn firsthand from the three-time Stanley Cup champion and former Penguins player.
“These camps are great,” Recchi said after one of his afternoon sessions. “It’s really good for the kids. This is how you get better. And if you come out and work hard at it, you’re going to get better.”
Recchi is one of several special guests who will help instruct at this week’s camp, which will run through Friday. John Gibson, one of four Pittsburgh-area players drafted in 2011 (Anaheim, 2nd round, 39th overall), joined him on Tuesday.
Top 2012 draft-eligible prospects Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray, Mikhail Grigorenko and Alex Galchenyuk will visit camp on Wednesday, while the three other Pittsburgh-area players drafted in 2011 – J.T. Miller (NY Rangers, 1st round, 15th overall), Brandon Saad (Chicago, 2nd round, 43rd overall) and Vince Trocheck (Florida, 3rd round, 64th overall) – and local product and Robert Morris defenseman Andrew Blazek will help out on Thursday.
They join head instructor and Penguins radio color commentator Phil Bourque, Penguins power skating consultant Marianne Watkins and goalie instructor Mike Chiasson in helping develop the hockey tradition that continues to grow in Western Pennsylvania.
“I think back to five years ago to the level of play and the way it was to the way it is now, it’s significant,” Bourque said. “It’s pretty glaring when you take a look at where we’ve come from to where we’re at right now as a hockey organization and as a hockey community. That means coaching is better, the players are more involved and the parents are more involved. They are willing to do more and it’s definitely showing.”
It’s schools like these that have helped produce a new generation of local hockey products in the NHL, most recently Miller, Saad, Gibson, and Trocheck. They remember how influential summer hockey camps and the instructors that ran them were on them when they were growing up playing hockey in the area, and hope they can have that same effect on the kids they’ll work with this week.
“When I was younger I was looking up to guys locally and now it’s kind of weird that I’m there,” said Gibson, who named current NHLers and Pittsburgh natives Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger as players he especially idolized as a youngster. “It kind of hasn’t sunk in yet but I’m sure it will.”
While camper CJ Simione was glad to meet a legend in Recchi and a future NHL star in Gibson, he also enjoys showing off the new skills he’s learning – like the proper technique for a slap shot, taught to him by Recchi – at the end of the camp to all the instructors.
“(At the beginning of the week), it’s the power skating and your skills,” Simione said. “But in the end you come together and scrimmage. Then you get a chance to really show off all your skills.”
With the recent success of the Penguins and the dramatic improvement of the Pittsburgh amateur hockey program as showcased by last year’s draft class, it’s easy to see why the three-time Stanley Cup Champion Recchi has come back to help build on the city’s budding reputation as a hockey hotbed. It’s also a reason why former Penguins assistant coach and current Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo continues to bring his kids to the camp.
“This hockey camp was big for us for a lot of years,” Yeo said. “It’s real nice for the kids to come back and see all their friends and see all their coaches and get a chance to participate again. I have two kids in the camp, a 15-year-old daughter (Braeden) and a 13-year-old son (Kyler), and they look forward to this every year.”
Now with Pittsburgh hosting this year’s draft on Friday and Saturday at CONSOL Energy Center, Recchi believes this will be a great experience for the Pittsburgh kids.
“It’s huge any time you can get a draft and to get something like this from the NHL. It’s wonderful for the city,” Recchi, the seven-time All-Star said. “Not just for the city, but also as a spotlight for the kids. It’s what it’s all about.”
Bourque agrees with Recchi, stating that the NHL Draft coming to Pittsburgh can help the kids in Pittsburgh watch the prospects entering the 2012 NHL Draft and realize what happens when you put in the work to succeed.
“I don’t think people in Pittsburgh realize how big of a deal this is,” the two-time Stanley Cup Champion said. “I think once it gets here and once all the media coverage starts, people will realize that this is a big deal. … To go down to the draft and watch what happens to these young men that get to realize their dreams and have something special happen in their life and get drafted in the first round, it’s something you can’t put into words.”