Face-Off First Impressions

USHL Kicks Off The Season In Style Under The Watchful Eye Of NHL And College Scouts
Joe Sager



It's the goal of each of the member teams that make up the United States Hockey League to help advance players to the next step of their hockey careers. And judging from the numbers, they do a great job of that. 

Look no further than the number of players who move on to play college hockey, many of whom will one day suit up for a National Hockey League team.

What better way to continue that legacy than to open the regular season with a four-day smorgasbord of hockey in front of more than 400 pro, college and amateur scouts?

That's what happened for the fourth straight season at the 2019 Dick's Sporting Goods USHL Fall Classic. In front of many watchful eyes, the USHL brought together its 16 teams in Cranberry Township, just north of Pittsburgh, to play a pair of regular-season games at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which serves as the Pittsburgh Penguins' training facility.

"It's really turned into a marquee event," said USHL President and Commissioner Tom Garrity. "Back when I got involved in the league with Sioux Falls in 2012, we had regional showcase events. Half the teams went to Sioux City and the other half went to Omaha. Both really were well done. We had a lot of scouts and fans at both.

"What is happening now in Pittsburgh is way beyond what we ever thought. Our kids show up and play two games that count and every scout under the sun is there in one room, so to speak. The players are all getting exposure, which is our goal."

The USHL had 55 players selected at the 2019 NHL Draft and more than 400 players on team rosters last year committed to NCAA Div. I programs. For many, being seen at the Fall Classic event begins that path to pro and college hockey.

"The Fall Classic has evolved to become a priority scouting event that provides all 31 NHL clubs an initial look at some of the top talent available for the NHL Draft playing at one site over four days of entertaining and competitive games," said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. 

While most of its teams are based in the Midwest, the USHL is happy to head east and come together in suburban Pittsburgh.

"Even though it's traditionally not in our footprint, we get kids from all over the U.S.," Garrity said. "It's kind of a chore for our teams to get there, but the way Pittsburgh, its fans and community have treated our league and players, it's worth the trip and it's worked out well.



"The atmosphere is fantastic, too. The energy is really, really high and there's a big swell of scouts and fans. I think the whole thing, from soup to nuts, is pretty amazing."

In conjunction with the USHL games, there's an invitational youth event featuring some of the country's top teams competing at the 14U, 15U, 16U and 18U levels at various rinks in the area.

"They started the youth event a couple years back and it's really taken off," said USHL Director of Player Personnel Luke Curadi. "A lot of work goes into it. Our staff, even starting at the very top with Tom Garrity and Denny Scanlon and on down, everyone contributes to this in one way or another."

The youth event provides even more opportunities for scouts to see players.

"We get all the top teams into the event and it's a no-brainer. It's the perfect setup," Curadi said. "Having USHL games and some quality youth teams, it's great for every NHL and college scout. Everyone is there doing their due diligence and making their own assessments. I think this is one of the premiere events people will see throughout the year."

In addition to playing in front of a bevy of scouts, the youth players get a chance to see USHL hockey games-and the league's top players-for themselves, too.

"That definitely serves a purpose to a 15- or 16-year-old who has heard about the USHL and knows our track record of moving players on to NCAA hockey," Curadi said. "They can see for themselves the level they have to work toward and it can motivate them to up their games."

With the addition of 15U and 18U games this season, which doubled that part of the event to 64 teams, Garrity says the event could grow even bigger in the future.

"It's drawing more and more interest. It's really strengthened our relationship with USA Hockey and the NHL," he said. "It's evolved into a situation where there are more scouts and fans each year. The youth tournament has grown exponentially.

"I don't know where they'll put everyone; it was pretty much packed every night. We've had to work some kinks out over the years and the Penguins have been amazing partners. We plan on trying to get it bigger and bigger, though."


Joe Sager is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.




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