Year after year, the Boston area produces plenty of hockey talent.
And, the Pittsburgh Penguins certainly have benefited.
The Penguins’ roster features three players who grew up in the Boston area – defensemen Brooks Orpik, Ryan Whitney and Noah Welch. A fourth blueliner – Rob Scuderi – grew up in New York, but attended Boston College.“I think it’s pretty neat,” Welch said. “I know Brooksy and Scuds played together and Whitney and I pretty much grew up with each other. Now, all four of us are teammates, so it’s a cool thing.”
While they are teammates now, Pittsburgh is not the first place they got to know each other.
“I remember playing against Noah. We got to compete against each other for a couple years in high school. It was always fun. I really remember him well,” Whitney said. “Brooks and I went to high school together. He was a senior when I was a freshman. My next three years in high school, I went and watched him play in college. I saw Scuds when I was there watching, too. It’s cool.”
It started with Orpik and Whitney attending Thayer Academy. When Orpik graduated in 1998, he attended Boston College, where Scuderi had just completed his freshman season. Orpik and Scuderi played together at BC for three years 1998-2001. Meanwhile, Whitney and Welch continued to compete against each other in the Boston area during high school and college. Whitney went to Boston University (2001-04), while Welch attended Harvard (2001-05).
The quality of college hockey in the four Boston-area NCAA Division I institutions (Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University and Harvard University) is something that motivated the local players, along with the powerful high school squads and quality hockey schools and camps.
“For me, growing up, I know prep school hockey is really big. Plenty of guys played prep school and went on to D-I colleges,” Welch said. “There are tons of hockey schools right in the greater Boston area and there are so many colleges around. You have BU, BC, Harvard and Northeastern right there. So, as a kid growing up, you just grow up watching those teams and the competitive hockey is right there. It’s pretty amazing that you have three guys on the same team who grew up in Boston and four defensemen who all played for Boston schools. That’s pretty cool.”
“For a long time, there has been great high school hockey around there. In the Midwest, you see a lot of kids play junior hockey and in the USHL, but when I was growing up and before that, prep, public and catholic schools in Boston all had great hockey programs,” he said. “Plus, there are four D-I schools in Boston and then there’s Maine, there’s New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s never-ending. It’s all ECAC and Hockey East. Because of that, kids get opportunities and really turn into good players.
“Growing up, I think every young kid went to college hockey games, whether it was BC or BU, Harvard or Northeastern. You always grow up wishing to play for one of those schools and that was the case for me. It was the same case for Noah. You see that type of thing and you want to grow up and kind of imitate those guys. Luckily, I had the chance to and a lot of kids in that area have had the chance, too.”
It also helps that Boston-area natives like to go back home and pass on their knowledge to the next generations.
“A lot of guys, after their playing careers – either college or pro – reside in the Boston area. So, you have experience there with the guys who live there and end up coaching and teaching at hockey schools, so you learn from them,” Welch said. “I think some of the best coaches are in that area and that obviously helps develop talent.”
“I think that guys don’t forget where they came from,” Whitney said. “They’ll give money to their high schools or colleges and it helps them build nicer programs and nicer arenas – stuff like that. I think that helps, too.”
In addition, many Boston-area players take advantage of the region’s strong youth hockey programs.
“The other thing is, the USA Hockey Massachusetts satellite program is really big. I think one of the better ones in the country,” Welch said. “Whitney and I grew up playing in that. I think at a young age, you get exposed and start playing against kids from other countries. It’s really competitive.”
Whitney believes that the Boston area will continue to churn out top prospects with that solid hockey environment in place.
“With a lot of talent coming out of there, I don’t think you’ll ever see it end,” he said. “Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan – those are the three states that produce a lot of talent. I think it’ll kind of always be that way.”
Now, when they travel around the NHL, they can’t help but see some familiar faces.
“It’s pretty cool. Especially going to BU, there are a ton of BU players in the NHL,” Whitney said. “You see all those guys and give them a friendly hello even if you don’t know them; you still went to the same college and played for the same coach. It’s pretty cool to see all those local guys and guys who have been around New England and spent time around there – familiar faces.”
Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, Welch said he can usually spot an East Coast native pretty quickly.
“You can always tell an East Coast guy either from the accent or the personality. I lived on the West Coast this summer and there were a bunch of people from the East Coast out there and it was cool,” he said. “When you meet a guy with a Red Sox hat on, you ask him where he’s from and can spend about 10 minutes playing the ‘do you know’ game. At some point, you’ll have a mutual friend.
“The teams I’ve been on, even last year in Wilkes-Barre, there were a couple Boston guys, and it was a lot easier getting to know them. That said, it’s not like you just have your Boston clique or something like that. There are plenty of good guys on this team from all over.”
He hopes the cycle continues.
“When I was in high school, I used to watch Scuds and Brooksy play. Then I go to college and see them do well at this level, then I graduate and am up here with them. It’s pretty cool,” he said. “Hopefully, there are some guys who came to watch me play when they were in high school and are on their way up right now, too. Maybe when they get to this level, I will be able to help them out like some of these guys have done to me.”