It’s quickly become cliche to refer to Pittsburgh as a burgeoning “hockey hotbed” or some other similar label. The recent NHL Draft at CONSOL Energy Center provided another opportunity for media members – both local and national – to gush over the rising popularity of the sport in western Pennsylvania and the surrounding area.
The crux of these pieces usually zeroes in on the Penguins and their successes both on and off the ice, as they should, since the franchise is ultimately responsible for piquing interest in hockey among Pittsburghers for the past 45 years and counting.
No disrespect to Crosby, Malkin, Jagr, Lemieux, Pronovost, Larouche, et al, but Pittsburgh has yet to take the last step to truly establish itself as a hockey market. That final frontier? Developing youngsters for the NHL without shipping them abroad.
Certainly, this type of endeavor takes time. R.J. Umberger and Ryan Malone (son of former Penguin Greg) were the first two Pittsburgh-born players to really make their marks as NHL difference-makers, the latter with his hometown Penguins. But while Umberger (Plum) and Malone (Upper St. Clair) both grew up here, they had to leave the Commonwealth to prepare for college hockey.
Umberger destroyed area high school hockey with 116(!) points in 26 games for Plum before finding greater challenges in Ann Arbor, Mich., with the U.S. National Team Development Program. Malone, with his amateur scout father calling the shots, headed to Minnesota to attend the famed Shattuck St. Mary’s prep, the same school that has since produced Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby, among many other pros.
The Pens just locked up Crosby to a 12-year deal and are in talks to bring Parise to town via free agency, but one of their initial signings this month is much more significant to the ‘Burgh’s stature in the game. His name is Dylan Reese, the former Rangers draft pick who broke into the NHL with the Islanders during the 2009-10 season.
A quick, puck-moving defenseman from Upper St. Clair, Reese fits right in with the way the Penguins like their blueliners to play. He also skated in the final regular season game at Mellon Arena, appropriately enough. But what makes him stand out is that he stayed in Pittsburgh for his junior-aged development.
Astute observers will remember the Pittsburgh Forge, members of the junior “A” North American Hockey League for just two seasons, from 2001-03. Happily for Reese, his career converged perfectly with the brief existence of the Forge, who played home games at the complex now known as the RMU Island Sports Center and were coached by former Penguins boss Kevin Constantine.
Following a stint with the midget level (ages 14-18) Pittsburgh Hornets travel team – which continues to crank out elite players – Reese hit the NAHL circuit for the only two seasons in Forge history, claiming a league title and ringing up an impressive 64 points in 104 games. He then went on to Harvard where he starred for four years before moving on to the AHL.
And now the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Reese can be termed the first Pittsburgh-trained local player to suit up for the Penguins. Can there be more like Reese in the future? Sure, as it’s always possible to go directly from high school or midget hockey to college, although that transition would be unlikely in western PA.
Although the Forge are long-defunct, there are two regional options for junior hockey. The first is the Youngstown Phantoms, just across the border in Ohio and about a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh city limits. The Phantoms are set to enter their fourth year in the Tier I United States Hockey League, which is the country’s undisputed top junior league.
Also, the NAHL is set to make a return to the area this fall as the Johnstown Tomahawks rev it up at the storied Cambria County War Memorial Arena, reviving hockey in the Flood City after the ECHL’s Chiefs relocated two years ago. With Robert Morris boasting a pair of NCAA Division I teams at Neville Island, there are many choices to see young players on the rise.
Greater Pittsburgh is steadily making progress as a place where you can watch not only the world’s best skate, but also those aspiring to the game’s highest echelons. It’ll always be a pro sports town, but locally-bred amateur talent will keep pucks popular from the bottom up.