The Robert Morris logo will be unmistakable on the Consol Energy Center ice this weekend. It’s a red, white and blue reminder to the thousands college hockey fans expected to descend on Pittsburgh for the NCAA’s Frozen Four that the Steel City’s love of the game goes far beyond Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
It will be a milestone of sorts for a program that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
It will also be highly visible evidence of hockey’s strengthening foothold in western Pennsylvania, one that could one day soon rival the hotbeds in places like Detroit, Minnesota and New England.
From a burgeoning youth scene – try finding a rink within an hour’s drive of downtown that isn’t packed on a given night – to an ever-expanding crop of proven young talent dotting college and professional rosters to a Division I program that nearly made its first NCAA tournament this spring, the fastest game on ice is sizzling in a place where football has long been king.
“It’s becoming the eye of the storm,” said former NHL defenseman Dave Hanson, a member of the Hanson Brothers from “Slap Shot” who has watched the sport’s growth in the area since taking over as executive director of the Island Sports Center in 1998, one of the many ice hockey facilities that have sprouted up over the last 20 years.
No offense to Frozen Four finalists Quinnipiac, Yale, St. Cloud State or UMass Lowell, organizers hope in some way the true star of college hockey’s crown jewel may be the city the game nearly abandoned.
For all of Lemieux’s magnificence, hockey was dying in 2003. The Penguins were bankrupt, struggling and threatening to move if a replacement for decaying Mellon Arena could not be found. The NHL lockout soon followed in 2004, and the interest in hockey that flourished during Lemieux’s prime began to dwindle.
“It went from a sprinter’s pace to a snail’s pace,” Hanson said.
Yet Robert Morris pressed on with its plan to bring college hockey’s highest level to the area. Coach Derek Schooley crisscrossed the continent to sell talented high schoolers on a vision of starting something he insisted would be competitive sooner rather than later.
It wasn’t always easy. Crowds at the Island Sports Center for Colonials home games during those first few years were a modest gathering of family and friends. The lack of local talent was obvious. Things improved, but not quickly.
Then Sidney Crosby came along. And Evgeni Malkin. They were teens when they were selected by the Penguins in the NHL draft. And they became teammates who made the Penguins relevant again and fanned a spark that has turned into a region-wide blaze.
Crosby’s No. 87 jersey may be as popular as any member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Malkin’s No. 71 is not far behind. Yet their success did more than generate new fans and rescue a franchise that has sold out every game for the last six years. Crosby and Malkin’s arrival created new players too.
“They made it cool,” Schooley said. “Everybody wants to play now.”
The future of the NHL in Pittsburgh is finally secure, Lemieux – now a co-owner – didn’t just sit idly by. Over the last eight years, the team has done what it can to nurture the game. Through corporate sponsorship or donations through the club’s foundation, the Penguins have made hockey more affordable so that kids interested in playing can focus on development and their parents can stop worrying about how to pay the bills.
“They’re concerned about the youth hockey, concerned about the high school hockey and college hockey,” Schooley said. “Hockey is growing by leaps and bounds, a lot of that effort comes from the Pens.”
Two decades ago, there were a handful of youth teams in the Pittsburgh area. Now there are dozens.
The sport’s initial bloom during Lemieux’s career paved the way for the likes of Columbus Blue Jackets forward R.J. Umberger – a Pittsburgh native who played collegiately at Ohio State – and Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They have given way to the likes of John Gibson, J.T. Miller, Vincent Trocheck and Riley Barber. All four players are from the Pittsburgh area and helped USA Hockey to the gold medal in the World Junior Championships in January.
“You’re always going to have the cream rise to the top, you just have more of it,” Hanson said.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik – the longest-tenured player on the team – called the glut of talent being groomed in western Pennsylvania jarring. The Boston College alum spent much of the offseason lockout skating with the current group of Eagles, a roster that included three players from Pittsburgh. Boston College won the national championship last season.
“When I was coming up, you had guys like Umberger and Malone,” Orpik said. “Now it seems like every year there’s three or four guys from around here going in the draft or playing really high level collegiately.”
With Crosby signed for the next dozen years, it’s still too early to tell whether the interest in the game will march in lockstep with the success of the Penguins. Yet Umberger sees the success of Robert Morris – which won 20 games for the first time this season – and Penn State’s recent move to Division I as proof the passion for hockey isn’t limited to the guys wearing black and gold.
“Robert Morris has done a great job. Penn State’s going to add a lot now,” Umberger said. “When you have players in the past couple of decades like Mario and (Jaromir) Jagr, Crosby and Malkin, it’s hard for people there not to fall in love with hockey.”
The arrival of the Frozen Four – coming just two years after Pittsburgh hosted 68,000 fans at Heinz Field for the NHL’s Winter Classic – transcends simple interest in the superstar wattage provided by the Penguins.
More than 13,000 out-of-town visitors are expected to cram Consol Energy Center while the Stanley Cup favorites spend the weekend in Florida. Tournament organizers hope the newcomers see more than a national champion crowned. They hope they see a city embracing the sport at all levels.
“It just continues to grow,” Hanson said. “Pittsburgh is really starting to make its mark and this is a great chance to showcase that.”