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RMU hockey basks in 'Burgh spotlight

| Thursday, June 21, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley believes one player’s arrival probably helped his college hockey program as much as any other: Sidney Crosby. Robert Morris

Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley believes one player's arrival probably helped his college hockey program as much as any other: Sidney Crosby.

The Penguins superstar never played for the Colonials, but without him, the city wouldn't have the healthy hockey scene that helps Schooley recruit players and fans, he said.

The city also might not have quickly constructed a new arena, a prerequisite for Robert Morris to host the NCAA's Frozen Four in April.

“Hockey was on a downswing in 2003 when we started the program,” said Schooley, a Western Michigan graduate who built RMU's Division I team from scratch. “Hockey in Pittsburgh really didn't start growing again until the arrival of Sidney Crosby.

“Since then, hockey has really picked up, and you see that in the youth programs that are bursting at the seams.

“That rejuvenated the Pittsburgh hockey base, and we're very happy to be benefactors. The Penguins have been excellent to us. I can't say enough about how fortunate we've been.”

Marquee events like this weekend's NHL Draft, the 2011 Winter Classic and two Stanley Cup finals have raised the city's professional hockey image. But Schooley wants to grow Pittsburgh into a major college hockey town, too.

The plan starts in December, when Robert Morris hosts a four-team tournament at Consol Energy Center, which will include Penn State, Ohio State and Miami (Ohio).

But that's just a warm-up for April, when the college hockey world visits Consol Energy Center for the NCAA men's hockey championship.

“This is going to be a big year for college hockey in Pittsburgh,” Schooley said. “People are more excited about college hockey in general than they ever have been. People are realizing it's a tremendous brand of hockey.”

Schooley has built Robert Morris into a solid program in nine years: He has wins over three top-ranked teams.

During a four-year span, the Colonials upset No. 2 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., beat No. 8 Boston University in a tournament and won back-to-back games against Miami (Ohio) when the Redhawks were ranked No. 1 in the nation.

“The tried-and-true programs carry the name recognition,” said Joe Gladziszewski of InsideCollegeHockey.com. “Teams like Boston College, Minnesota, Michigan and Maine are the names people come to know. But win, and you'll get notoriety.”

This will be Robert Morris' third season in the 12-team Atlantic Hockey Association, which includes Rochester Institute of Technology, a Frozen Four team in 2010. The Colonials were seventh last season with a 13-9-5 conference record, 17-17-5 overall. This season begins in October.

The Colonials have 12 scholarships, six fewer than some programs. But the gap between them and the elite has been closing.

“There's so much parity in college hockey,” Schooley said. “There are only 58 Division I hockey teams, so that helps the smaller programs.”

The sport is growing. Penn State will join Division I hockey this season, and the Big Ten will form a hockey conference beginning in 2013.

Schooley has benchmarks for growing his program. Making the NCAA Tournament ranks high on that list.

“To get over the hump,” Schooley said, “you've got to get the tournament.”

Or maybe host it.

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at charlan@tribweb.com.

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