They file out of a locker room and waddle like a bunch of little penguins down the hallway that leads to the frozen expanse at the Island Sports Center in suburban Pittsburgh.
Most are decked out in black or white – what else would you expect – Penguins jerseys, many adorned with the number 87 on their backs. Whether they are veterans of the ice or trying the game for the first time, these 4- to 7-year-olds share something in common with their idol, Sidney Crosby. They are all part of the on-ice revolution taking place in the Steel City.
Waiting at center ice is Bob Arturo, the rink’s hockey director and a man who boasts that his primary job is to “sell fun.” Having grown up in the area, Arturo breaks into a big smile when he sees the next generation of Pittsburgh hockey players hit the ice, literally and figuratively.
“Every program we have here, from Learn to Skate and Learn to Play to house leagues and adult leagues, our No. 1 priority is making sure the kids have fun,” Arturo proudly states.
There’s no doubt that these are fun times for everyone involved in hockey in western Pennsylvania. With due respect to Warroad, Minn., and Detroit, the label of Hockeytown may soon be on the move.
The area has always enjoyed a rich tradition of producing some of the best football players the game has ever known, and the Steelers have long dominated the hearts and minds of local sports fans while holding an iron-fist grip on the sports pages and nightly newscasts.
But hockey in and around Pittsburgh has experienced an unprecedented growth spurt over the past decade. According to local officials, participation at the Mite age group has increased 180 percent, more than 80 percent in Squirts and 44 percent in Peewees since the 2006-07 season.
Local administrators credit a number of factors, from the success of the Penguins, the “Crosby effect,” his Little Penguins program and the advent of the American Development Model, which has been embraced by local hockey leaders since its inception.
“We’ve been fortunate over the last 20 years. We went through the Mario Lemieux era, which really helped kick hockey into gear here in western Pennsylvania,” says Paul Day, the Mid-American Hockey Association president who has been involved with local hockey for 25 years.
“Then, fortunately, seven years ago the little ping pong balls at the NHL draft fell in our favor and Sidney Crosby arrived in Pittsburgh. We’re probably looking at having increased our numbers over the last five to six years probably 50 percent again.”
Growing the game has been a team effort between the youth hockey community and the Penguins. Take, for instance, Crosby’s Little Penguins program. Each year the superstar teams up with Reebok and Dick’s Sporting Goods to donate 1,000 complete sets of equipment to beginning players. When the call goes up on the Penguins’ website, it takes seconds for parents to pounce, and the program quickly sells out.
Soon afterward, youth hockey associations and local rinks leap into action, carving out the ice time for these budding superstars to learn the game and eventually join a league.
“You couple that with what we’ve been able to do with our Affiliate block grant program, and it’s helped us get more players on the ice,” Day says. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
“Every program we have here, our No. 1 priority is making sure the kids have fun.”
It wasn’t like that when Derek Schooley arrived here almost a decade ago. The Penguins were struggling in an aging building and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. And then, the franchise and the hockey community caught lightning in a bottle when Crosby came to town, and the rest, as they say, is hockey history.
Now a perennial NHL powerhouse, the Penguins are leading the resurgence in the area that includes supporting hockey at all levels.
“The Penguins are all about growing hockey, and I commend them for their dedication to the game at all levels. It’s all part of their footprint,” says Schooley, the head coach of Robert Morris University’s Div. I hockey program.
“It’s just really taken off to the point where it’s taking away from the Steelers a little bit. It’s becoming a hockey town instead of a football town.”
Ray Shero is not only the general manager of the Penguins, he is also a devoted hockey dad. His oldest son, Christopher, represented the host squad at the 2013 Toyota-USA Hockey Tier I National Championships, while his youngest son, Kyle, was competing with the Pittsburgh Predators in Charlotte, N.C., in the Tier II 14 & Under division.
With all that’s happening with the Penguins in the midst of another Stanley Cup run as well as Nationals coming to the Island Sports Center for the second time in four years, the Frozen Four in town a week later, and the All-American Prospects Game heading here in September, it’s been a great time to be involved with the game at the local level.
“The support from the fans and the community has been outstanding. It says a lot about the people here, how passionate they are about the game of hockey and how well it’s grown here,” says Shero, who credits his bosses for taking a grass-roots approach to growing their fan base.
“It starts with our ownership who are really committed to youth hockey here … not just financially but through other means as well. Everyone is very passionate about youth hockey here, building it, maintaining it, cultivating it and making it the best that it can be. I think that Pittsburgh is well on its way to doing that.”
It only stands to reason as the ranks of players continue to rise, so does the quality. The number of players from around western Pennsylvania who are playing in Junior and collegiate programs continues to grow, as does the number of local kids who have made it to the NHL.
Pittsburgh natives Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger set the standard and have since been followed by young guns J.T. Miller, Brandon Saad and Christian Hanson. With the continued boom in youth hockey programs in the area, the number of local players competing at the top levels of the game is likely to increase in the foreseeable future.
“I’ve seen a lot when it comes to the growth of hockey in the area, and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been the beneficiary of the growth simply because more and more players leads to better players,” says Chris Stern, who recently wrapped up his 24th season of coaching in the area.
“We’ve had well over 100 Div. I players come through our organization. The quality of athlete and also the depth, it’s unbelievable how it’s taken off.
“I feel pretty fortunate to be here in this unique time because of all those things. I’m glad to be along for the ride.”