Malone, Umberger prove local kids can make it in the NHL
Thirty years ago, it was a snap decision.
Kids growing up in Western Pennsylvania put on their football pads, buckled their chinstraps, emulated Terry Bradshaw in their back yards and dreamed of being the starting quarterback for the Steelers.
Very few considered lacing up their hockey skates, becoming the next Jean Pronovost or quarterbacking the Penguins' power play.
But once Mario Lemieux arrived in town in 1984 and led the franchise to two Stanley Cup championships, that attitude suddenly started to change.
Mr. Lemieux, the Penguins' Hall of Fame center and owner, gets a big assist for helping Pittsburgh-area kids realize that they, too, can excel at something other than football.
"I started watching the Penguins in the late '80s, and it was because of Mario Lemieux that I started skating," Philadelphia Flyers center R.J. Umberger said. "All my friends were playing football and baseball, and I was for a while, too. But I fell in love with hockey because of Mario, and have been playing it ever since."
Mr. Umberger was the first Pittsburgh-area player selected in the first round of the National Hockey League Entry Draft in 2001, the 16th overall pick.
Two years later, forward Ryan Malone became the first born-and-trained native of the area to play in an NHL game, debuting with the Penguins, who had selected him in the fourth round of the 1999 draft.
Mr. Umberger got his start on skates at Plum High School, Mr. Malone at Upper St. Clair.
"Mario created the first renaissance of hockey in Western Pennsylvania," said Penguins president David Morehouse, who grew up in Beechview and attended South Hills Catholic. "And now what we're seeing is Renaissance II with Sidney Crosby.
"Pittsburgh has always been known as a place that produces Division I college football players and NFL players. But now, you've had this development of hockey in Western Pennsylvania.
"Pittsburgh is becoming an epicenter for hockey."
Make no mistake, Western Pennsylvania will never be confused with U.S. hockey hotbeds such as Minnesota, Michigan or New England, but players no longer get a chilly reception when they tell their friends they are playing hockey.
"[Pittsburgh's] not arrived as a hockey town ... but it's definitely on its way up," said Mr. Malone, who now makes his offseason home in Minnesota. "The hockey explosion here in Pittsburgh is a great thing to see.
"I think you've got to give a lot of credit to the hockey associations for continuing to develop players. And with Robert Morris having Division I hockey now, that's a big plus."
In addition to Mr. Umberger and Mr. Malone, four other players who went to school in the Pittsburgh area have played in the NHL this year. They include Phoenix's Bill Thomas (Fox Chapel), Philadelphia's Nate Guenin (Hopewell), Los Angeles' John Zeiler (Thomas Jefferson) and Buffalo's Mike Weber (Seneca Valley).
Also, 19 Pittsburgh-area players are competing in hockey at the Division I level and another seven have committed to Division 1 schools for next season.
"Did I think I'd ever see the day when we'd have this many good hockey players coming out of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania? Probably not," Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League commissioner Ed Sam said. "It's unreal."
More rinks, more leagues
Youth hockey has experienced a significant boom since Mr. Lemieux landed in Pittsburgh.
There were only six indoor ice rinks in the region then as opposed to more than 30 now. The number of high school players has climbed from 500 to 3,000.
Nine amateur associations fielded approximately 70 or so teams back then. Today there are 30 amateur associations with more than 250 teams, involving approximately 4,000 players.
"You're going to see more and more kids like Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger come out of this area because the facilities are not only better, so is the skill level," said Dave Hanson, general manager of the Robert Morris' Island Sports Center.
Stiffer competition and better coaching also have helped improve the on-ice product, said Mr. Hanson, whose son, Christian (Peters Township High School) plays for Notre Dame.
"Around here in the early '70s, coaches would throw a bag of pucks on the ice and say, 'Go get 'em,' " said Mark Shuttleworth, director of amateur hockey for the Penguins. "In the '80's, the coaching started to get a little bit better. And now it's top shelf."
Mr. Umberger and Mr. Malone are among 11 former Pittsburgh Hornets who have been drafted by NHL teams. Mr. Malone also had a stint with the Amateur Penguins. The Hornets and Amateur Penguins are the two largest and most prominent travel teams for young hockey players in the region.
A year ago, a group of local high school players representing Team Pittsburgh won the prestigious Chicago Showcase tournament.
"The hockey teams around here are producing a lot of high-end kids," Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley said. "Pittsburgh is starting to get noticed for its talent."
Like most players from here, Mr. Umberger and Mr. Malone had to leave the area for more extensive training before entering college.
Mr. Malone departed Upper St. Clair after his junior year to play for hockey powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota -- the same boarding school Mr. Crosby attended at age 15. Mr. Malone then played with Omaha in the United States Hockey League prior to an outstanding college career at St. Cloud State in Minnesota.
Mr. Umberger moved away after his sophomore season at Plum to join the U.S. national team development program. He also played three years at Ohio State.
"I was born into hockey," said Mr. Malone, whose dad, Greg, is a former Penguins' player and scout now working in a similar capacity for Phoenix. "I've had a Penguins jersey and helmet on since I was a little kid. As soon as I started skating at age 2, I had a stick in my hand."
Prior to Mr. Malone's NHL debut, three players born in Western Pennsylvania had played in the league -- Pete Babando (1947-53), Gerry O'Flaherty (1971-79) and Bob Beers (1989-97) -- but all left the area at a young age.
The first two local kids drafted by NHL teams were Chuck Chiatto (North Catholic) and Andy Cesarski (Latrobe). Mr. Chiatto was picked in the 12th round by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983, while Mr. Cesarski was a 10th-round selection of the St. Louis Blues in '87, but neither played professionally.
During that period, Dee Rizzo (Allderdice) was one of the few Pittsburgh-area players competing in major college hockey. He was a member of Michigan State's 1986 national championship team.
Robert Morris has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but Mr. Schooley has had some success with his fledgling program since it debuted in the 2004-05 season.
The Colonials, one of 59 Division I teams, upset No. 2 Notre Dame last season and No. 8 Boston University earlier this year.
"It's been a great opportunity for me here at Robert Morris," said Sean Berkstresser (Kiski Area), who previously played for the Pittsburgh Forge, a defunct Junior A Tier II team. "I've been able to stay at home and play hockey, and we've beaten some really good teams along the way."
In mid-November, Robert Morris played Ohio State at Mellon Arena. Five local players were on the rosters, including Mr. Berkstresser, Eric Trax (Peters Township) and Denny Urban (Baldwin) from Robert Morris and Sergio Somma (Plum) and C.J. Severyn (Beaver) from Ohio State.
Mr. Severyn, a seventh-round draft pick of the Calgary Flames last year, played for the Hornets as a youngster and Mr. Somma for the Amateur Penguins.
"More kids are getting scholarships from Pittsburgh and moving up the ranks, which is nice to see," Mr. Severyn said.
"I'm 20 years old, the same age as Sidney Crosby, and he's the best player in the NHL," Mr. Somma said. "It's pretty easy to relate to him and want to follow him."
Robert Morris and VisitPittsburgh, with backing from the Penguins, are preparing a bid to host the 2013 Frozen Four, hockey's equivalent of basketball's Final Four, in the Penguins' new, yet unnamed arena.
In the meantime, Mr. Schooley hopes to lure more Western Pennsylvania players to his program.
"Wouldn't it be unbelievable if a kid from Pittsburgh could play his youth hockey here, his high school hockey here, his college hockey here and his pro hockey here?" Mr. Schooley said. "It's a long shot, but it could happen sometime."
(On the site, there's a list of players, etc that are in the NHL from western PA, interesting stuff though)