Start of new season boosts region’s hockey fervor


May 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; General view as fans arrive for game one of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders at CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the Pittsburgh Pirates get ready for their first playoff game in 20 years and the Steelers try to dig out of an 0-3 hole, it’s easy to forget that another hockey season is already upon us.

But while there will be plenty of time to discuss the Penguins as they reload for another run at the Stanley Cup, recent puck-related developments in western Pennsylvania signal that the sport’s continued growth in the area stretches far beyond the local NHL club.

Thursday night’s All-American Prospects Game at Consol Energy Center is the latest proof of that. The second-annual talent showcase was contested at the home of the Penguins, but it highlights the game’s grassroots instead of its professional pinnacle. Although the crowd was middling, the fact that USA Hockey chose Pittsburgh as the host says much about the region’s enhanced standing in the game.

The AAPG may end up being just a preview of attractions to come. As reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-ReviewPenguins CEO David Morehouse indicated the franchise will prepare a bid to host the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships. The WJC became more visible than ever to area sports fans last winter when a host of Pittsburgh-trained players led Team USA to the gold medal.

Stepping up a level, local Division I college hockey is set to drop the puck, including both sides of the rising Robert Morris University program. As described by public address voice of the Colonials Larry Snyder, the RMU men and women may be in for a rebuilding year, but they’ve never had a larger profile on the Pittsburgh sports scene.

Part of RMU hockey’s presence includes the annual Three Rivers Classic at Consol Energy Center. Last December’s revamped event featured perennial NCAA power Miami and Ohio State, while this year’s version welcomes storied Boston College and Bowling Green in addition to Penn State.

The Nittany Lions have much to anticipate as well. Both the men and women will soon begin play at the brand-new Pegula Ice Arena in State College, an $80-million, 6,000-seat facility that has instantly given both programs every opportunity to compete with the best of college hockey.

While the women will continue their stay in College Hockey America, the men will take part in the inaugural season of the Big Ten hockey conference. A six-team league to start, the B1G also includes more traditional hockey powers Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

“This is just a very exciting time for Penn State hockey,” said second-year Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky at last week’s Big Ten hockey media day in St. Paul, Minn. “We’re all here to compete against the best. Such great and storied programs are in this conference, so it’s an incredible honor to be a part of it.”

Gadowsky helped guide the Lions to a respectable showing last season, the program’s first in NCAA D-I. Penn State’s 14-15-0 record as an independent featured road wins over Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

“I think the experience is something we all grew from, and certainly gave us an indication we’re moving in the right direction,” Gadowsky said. “We’d all like to have another year, but to have those experiences is very valuable.”

Increased hockey fervor across Pennsylvania helps Gadowsky recruit top athletes, including youngsters who grew up rooting for the Penguins or the Flyers. Additionally, the men’s club program was successful for many years prior to making the jump to varsity.

“The hockey community was something that pleasantly surprised me when I got to campus,” Gadowsky said. “There was a passion for hockey in Happy Valley already. Our student ticket sales [this year] had to be shut down because there were too many [students] missing class to stand in line. That is a good problem to have.”

The men’s program will open its new building, funded almost entirely by a grant from Buffalo Sabres owner and Penn State alum Terry Pegula, on Oct. 11 against Army. The women get their shot seven days later vs. Union.

Hockey is thriving in all corners of the region, from the Penguins to the college programs, the high-level juniors in Erie and Youngstown to the hard-working pros in Wheeling. Don’t miss your chance to be part of a sport trending upward.

Thanks to the Big Ten athletic communications office for contributing to this report.