Penguins Elite program hopes to take local amateur hockey to next level

| Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been very active in the youth hockey community.

With a multitude of camps, programs and clinics, the organization has committed itself to helping grow the game in the region and provide as many opportunities as possible for youngsters participate at almost every age.

Now, the organization hopes to take local amateur hockey to the next level. It teamed up with Dick's Sporting Goods and the Pittsburgh Hornets amateur program to create a new amateur program called Pittsburgh Penguins Elite.

It features 13 teams (eight boys, five girls), 11 of which play in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, which spans coast to coast and is the premier amateur youth hockey league in the United States.

The girls teams were formed in 2009, while the highly successful Hornets boys teams were moved into the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite organization this year without skipping a beat.

“We wanted to find a way to make this happen and attract the best kids in Pittsburgh on one team and compete nationally and internationally to see how we do,” said Rich Hixon, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Executive Director of Strategic Planning. “We're fortunate we were able to work with the Hornets and the girls programs and work with a major sponsor like Dick's.

“A major focus and initiative for the Penguins is to grow the sport at all levels. We've done that with our many other programs. With the Penguins Elite, our goal is to get the best players under one umbrella. So far, we've done pretty well across the board with the boys and girls. We're fortunate to be able to do something like this and fortunate to have the ownership that believes this is the right thing to do.”

Many amateur teams have an affiliation with the NHL teams in their respective cities. However, the Penguins' investment goes much deeper than just lending its name and colors.

“By any metric you look at, the Penguins are not only among the most successful hockey franchises, but the best sports franchises. That's the same approach they are bringing to amateur hockey,” said Chris Stern, the Penguins Elite's Director of Coaches as well as the Midget Major head coach.

“What the Penguins and Dick's have brought to the table dwarfs anything that has taken place in this market before. The Penguins have been terrific about integrating their approach into our established approach. That's raising the level even higher.”

Local amateur teams have made their presence known on a national level. The Penguins got involved to help bolster the area's reputation as a hockey hotbed.

“We've been fortunate. The Hornets have had a tremendous program. I think this program only helps attract all the best kids — same with the girls program,” Hixon said. “The goal is to make this the premier program in the marketplace so that Pittsburgh's best talent is competing with the best teams from Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, etc.”

Getting the best talent is important, but the organization wants to help its coaches improve, too. The Penguins' NHL coaching staff has been more than happy to help out, discuss strategy, break down video, etc.

“Already, Coach Bylsma has conducted a coaching session for us. The coaches were able to interact with him and exchange ideas,” said Stern, who coached in the Hornets organization for many years. “Coach Granato and Coach Reirden have been great helps, too. We can't thank them enough. Ultimately, that helps the entire hockey community.

“If you have better coaches and more players and better players, kids will have more fun, which will ultimately lead to a better product. Not only just getting them out there, but keeping them excited and keeping them fresh because hockey is a long road.”

The teams, which will be based out of the new Penguins training facility in Cranberry once it is constructed, have practiced and played games at Consol Energy Center, which is another added bonus. Primarily, they practice and play at area rinks, too.

In addition, the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite will host two major tournaments: The Pittsburgh Girls Thanksgiving Classic (more than 100 teams) and the boys Tier 1 National Championships for the Under-18, U-16 and U-14 age groups in April.

“Having the Penguins' name attached to the program helps get big games and tournaments,” Hixon said. “That's one of the initiatives, too, to bring a major tournament or more to the marketplace to showcase not only our youth hockey community, but the city as well.”

The Penguins Elite program gives the area's top talent an option to play closer to home.

“Kids are able to stay in Pittsburgh and play at the highest level without having to leave home if they don't want to. That's another important thing,” Stern said. “Our league is 24 teams from coast to coast with teams in Boston all the way to Los Angeles. It truly is the top midget hockey league in the country.

“We're very fortunate that the NHL organization became interested in partnering with us. It's been a seamless transition. … It's exciting. As you can imagine, it's recharged everyone's batteries. Like Badger Bob Johnson always said, ‘It's a great day for hockey.' Well, that excitement is something we all feel. That's a product of what the Penguins organization has brought to the table.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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