When Zach Aston-Reese was playing for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL during the 2012-13 season, he remembers going up against Jake Guentzel.
"I was playing center when I was at Lincoln, and I don't think I won one faceoff against him," Aston-Reese recollected with a laugh. "I always tell everyone that."
Which is completely understandable, as Guentzel absolutely tore up the league with Sioux City that season - finishing with 73 points (29G-44A) in 60 games and tying a Tier-1 USHL record with a 21-game scoring streak (16G-27A-43PTS). And now, a few years later, Aston-Reese is teaming up with Guentzel at Penguins training camp.
"Kind of funny how times have changed," Guentzel said with a laugh.
They are examples of the talent that have come out of the USHL, which is bringing its Fall Classic to UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry from Tuesday, Sep. 27 to Sunday, Oct. 1. All 17 organizations that compete in the league will take to the ice in one location for the first time since, coincidentally enough, the 2012-13 season.
Last year, the Penguins and the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms hosted the 2016 USHL Fall Classic East, and two seasons ago, the Penguins hosted the 2015 Pittsburgh Showcase, a regional USHL preseason event.
"We started this event a few years back and have seen it grow from just a few teams to now all 17 teams of the USHL," said Rich Hixon, president of the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. "So from that standpoint, we wanted to grow along with the event."
This year's event, which is an important evaluation benchmark for players heading into the 2018 NHL Draft, provides an ideal opportunity for management and scouts to view the top USHL talent available. Approximately 250 NHL scouts and college recruiters will be watching, along with fans who will have the chance to see future NCAA and NHL talent - including Penguins 2017 third-round pick Clayton Phillips, who plays for Fargo - under one roof.
"A lot of kids are going from AAA hockey into the USHL, then going on to play at some point in Division I or into the pros depending on their talent level," Hixon said. "This is a first-chance look to see what some of these players are like now that might be playing in the NHL in a year or two. It's really a great opportunity to showcase that level of hockey."
It's also a fantastic opportunity to showcase what the building - and the community - has to offer, especially during the two Tier I (AAA) tournaments for the top 16U and 14U players from the U.S. and Canada that will run in conjunction with the USHL Fall Classic.
The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which opened in the fall of 2015, is the official practice facility of the Penguins, is home to the Penguins Elite youth hockey program and has so much to offer players who are looking to advance in the sport.
It has world-class power skating and skill development, with the same high-level coaches who work with the Penguins available to train with youth and amateur players year-round.
"Our goal is to promote the sport itself, and to bring the highest level of amateur hockey in here is a great opportunity for us," Hixon said. "To showcase the facility and really make Pittsburgh that hockey hub for the region, I think it's important. We have this event, we had the World Cup of Hockey come in and practice here last year, we had an NWHL All-Star Game and are fortunate enough to have another NWHL game coming in this year.
"For us, it's really about showcasing the sport at all different levels so parents and kids all understand that pathway to play at the next level."
Fans interested in attending can purchase tickets at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex front desk starting at noon on Tuesday.