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Former Penguins return for prospects game at Consol Energy Center

| Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

The Badger's son thinks his return to Pittsburgh makes a lot of sense.

Mark Johnson will take a spot behind one of the benches at Consol Energy Center for the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Thursday night. The game features 40 of the best American-born players eligible for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

“My dad would have been smiling a great big smile on his face,” said Johnson, a reference to his late father and the Penguins' first Stanley Cup coach, “Badger” Bob Johnson.

“His big passion was trying to get more players involved, getting more youth in the game, getting more rinks built. What's going in your community is just phenomenal, and he would have enjoyed it.”

Gibsonia's Brandon Saad played regularly for the Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks last season.

Four Western Pennsylvania-trained prospects helped Team USA to the most recent World Junior Championship.

Regional hockey supporters know that information by heart, but casual sports fans may not still be aware of the sport's growth at the youth level in and around Pittsburgh.

Western Pennsylvania's youth hockey membership increased by 4,395 — or 50.7 percent — over an eight-year span from 2005-13, USA Hockey reported. Last season, the region contributed 13,060 youth players to the commonwealth's No. 5 overall participation ranking.

Penguins CEO David Morehouse has made the expansion of youth hockey his top off-ice priority, and his organization is poised for a landmark season in terms of its association with USA Hockey.

Dan Bylsma will coach the American men at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He will take along one of his Penguins assistants, Tony Granato. Ray Shero is the associate general manger of that squad — a position that, if precedent holds, could get him the top spot for the 2018 Games.

Bylsma will drop the puck before the All-American Prospects Game.

The All-American Prospects Game will feature two former Penguins as coaches.

Joey Mullen, a scoring winger on the Penguins' 1991 and 1992 Cup clubs, will match up against Johnson, who broke into the NHL with the Penguins after helping the U.S. to gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Johnson followed his father's footsteps into coaching. He has won four national titles with the University of Wisconsin-Madison women and led the 2010 Team USA women to Olympic silver.

“It does make it more special that this is where I started my NHL career, and I have so many fond memories of Pittsburgh,” Johnson said. “Those fans are so loyal, so passionate. My dad won his Stanley Cup there. It's very enjoyable coming back, especially for something like this where I can give back to USA Hockey.”

A member of the Hockey and Penguins Hall of Fame, Mullen's image is prominently displayed at Consol Energy Center outside the home club's dressing room. He was the first U.S.-born player to score 500 goals.

Now an assistant coach with the Flyers, Mullen said he has not considered the Penguins' ties to USA Hockey, which also include former general manager Craig Patrick, an assistant coach on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” squad and architect of the 2002 silver-medal team.

“I never thought about it, but it's nice they're bringing people back that do have ties to the city of Pittsburgh,” Mullen said. “The city has done a tremendous job with youth hockey, and everybody in the sport knows Pittsburgh keeps growing in that manner.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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