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USA Hockey and Pittsburgh Have Come A Long Way Since 1980

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Hey my next thirty years I'm gonna have some fun

Try to forget about all the crazy things I've done
Maybe now I've conquered all my adolescent fears
And I'll do it better in my next thirty years

No, those lyrics were not sung back in 1980. Instead they were turned into the No. 1 single, “My Next Thirty Years,” by country singer Tim McGraw in 1999. While the words refer to McGraw anticipating his 30th birthday, they also help describe the transformation of USA Hockey, and Pittsburgh’s influence on the game, that has taken place since the ‘Miracle on Ice’ on Feb. 22, 1980.

When Herb Brooks’ group of young college students were in the process of staging the most dramatic upset in the history of sports, hockey was but a blip on the radar across the United States and in the city of Pittsburgh, as hard as that is to believe.

Thirty years later, the U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team appears poised to pull off another stunning gold medal run in the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Leading the way for the Americans are Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, Upper St. Clair native Ryan Malone and Penguins general manager Ray Shero, one of the team’s architects. The Americans will take on Finland Friday at 3 p.m. for the right to play in Sunday's Gold Medal Game.

Yes, hockey is alive and well in the U.S., thanks in no small part to the exponential growth of the fastest game on earth in the Steel City, which at this point should probably be referred to as the new “Hockeytown.”

Probably the most ironic twist in this whole story is Pittsburgh has a Canadian to thank for making this city such a hockey hotbed.

Attendance at the then-Civic Arena was about a third of what it is today when the Penguins finished dead last in the NHL standings following the 1983-84 campaign. But that all changed with the selection of franchise savior Mario Lemieux with the top pick of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.

"Badger" Bob Johnson was the head coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team.
Credit - Getty Images
Lemieux not only reversed the Penguins’ fortunes, but his on-ice brilliance inspired hundreds of youth across the city to play hockey. Rinks began springing up in places such as Harmarville, Delmont, Bethel Park and Warrendale.

Then, Lemieux and Co. really raised the profile of hockey in Pittsburgh – they captured back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and ’92. Those two championship squads were loaded with USA Hockey connections.

“Badger” Bob Johnson, head coach of the ’91 team, was a legend within USA Hockey. A three-time NCAA national champion at Wisconsin, Johnson was the president of USA Hockey prior to coming to Pittsburgh. Johnson was also the head coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, and his son, Mark, a former Penguin, was the leading scorer for the Americans at the 1980 Olympics.

Craig Patrick, the general manager who hired Johnson, was an assistant coach under Brooks on that 1980 team. Patrick and Brooks would team up again in 2002 as Patrick served as the GM and Brooks the head coach of the Americans’ silver-medal winning team in Salt Lake City.

Kevin Stevens, arguably the top power forward in the game when the Penguins were winning their first Cups, and goaltender Tom Barrasso, who still holds many of the team’s netminding records, were also Americans. Speedy Shawn McEachern tallied a huge goal against the New York Rangers in the ’92 postseason just months after representing the U.S. at the Albertville Games.

My next thirty years I'm gonna settle all the scores
Cry a little less, laugh a little more
Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear
Figure out just what I'm doing here

As the Penguins continued to have success and grow in popularity throughout the ‘90s, hockey in Pittsburgh, and on a national level, continued to trend upward.

Team USA shocked a heavily-favored Canadian squad at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 by posting back-to-back 5-2 victories in the final round after Canada won the opener. John LeClair, who finished second in scoring on the U.S. squad, later skated for the Penguins from 2005-06.

Six years later the U.S. once again made noise on the international level when Brooks’ 2002 Olympic team reached the Gold Medal Game at Salt Lake City before falling to Lemieux and Canada. At the time, Brooks was a scout in the Penguins organization. He also served as interim head coach for Pittsburgh during the 1999-2000 season.

Team USA forward Ryan Malone hails from Upper St. Clair, Pa.
Credit - Getty Images
Although the Penguins hit some lean years at the beginning of the 21st century, their return to prominence was led in part by Malone, the first Pittsburgh-born player to suit up for his hometown team. Malone’s arrival marked just the beginning of Pittsburgh’s influence on the NHL.

R.J. Umberger, a Plum native, became the first Pittsburgher to be drafted in the first round of the NHL draft when the Vancouver Canucks selected him 16th overall in 2001. Other Pittsburgh products to see NHL action since Malone and Umberger include Bill Thomas (Fox Chapel), Nate Guenin (Hopewell), George Parros (Washington), John Zieler (Pittsburgh), Mike Weber (Pittsburgh), Grant Lewis (Pittsburgh) and Christian Hanson (Venetia).

Thomas (2007-08) and Guenin (earlier this season) have joined Malone in fulfilling the dream of pulling down a Penguins sweater.

I think I'll take a moment, celebrate my age
The ending of an era and the turning of a page
Now it's time to focus in on where I go from here

Thanks to Team USA’s performance thus far in Vancouver, the overall success of USA Hockey in international competition over the past calendar year and Pittsburgh’s contributions continuing to develop talent, American success on the ice should only continue.

In three major amateur international tournaments over the past year, the U.S. has tormented Canada, which prides itself on winning such things.

America’s run began with a 2-1 victory over the Canadians in the semifinal of the 2009 World Under-18 Championship last April. The U.S. went on to defeat Russia to take home the gold medal.

On Jan. 4 of this year, local products John Gibson, J.T. Miller and Barrett Kaib led the U.S. National Under-17 squad to a 2-1 victory over Team Ontario in the Gold-Medal Game at the 2010 World Under-17 Challenge.

One night later, the Americans blew a two-goal lead late in regulation against Canada, but tallied the winning goal in overtime to win the World Junior Championship, 6-5. Both of the latter victories came on Canadian soil.

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was instrumental in the Americans' 5-3 defeat of Canada.
Credit - Getty Images
Two more Pittsburghers, Stephen Johns and Brandon Saad, play for the U.S. National Under-18 team. Johns is a projected first-round pick this season, while some scouts consider Saad a potential top-10 selection in 2011.

At the 2010 Olympics Pittsburgh continues to have a great influence within USA Hockey.

The United States’ 5-3 victory over Canada on Sunday was a huge television success within the Tri-State region as the Pittsburgh market posted a 13.0 rating, higher than any other U.S. market.

Malone has been one of the top American forwards with goals in each of the first two contests in the preliminary round. Orpik was instrumental in the upset of Canada by slowing down the Sidney Crosby unit.

Even the color commentator bringing the action into your living room has connections to Pittsburgh. Eddie Olczyk, a 1984 U.S. Olympian, is calling the games for NBC. Olczyk played for the Penguins, was a broadcaster and served as head coach from 2003-05.

Pittsburgh’s impact on the Games stretches beyond the men’s tournament. Former Robert Morris University goaltender Brianne McLaughlin is one of the netminders on the U.S. Women’s team. McLaughlin and Team USA will face Canada at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday for the gold medal. Canada also has a tie to the Penguins as forward Jennifer Botterill, a four-time Olympian, is the sister of Penguins assistant general manager Jason Botterill.

USA Hockey has certainly come a long way over the past 30 years, thanks in large part to the influence Pittsburgh has had on the sport. As great as these three decades have been, the best looks like it has yet to come.

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