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Pittsburgh enjoying another hockey resurgence

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Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008

The Penguins' latest run at a Stanley Cup has sparked renewed hockey interest in a region that Plum native R.J. Umberger, recently traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets from the Philadelphia Flyers, says is ripe for increased production of homegrown NHL talent.

Currently, seven players from Western Pennsylvania are listed on NHL rosters.

"It's definitely getting better," Umberger said Saturday during a visit to Center Ice Arena in Delmont. "With the Penguins doing better here, with the young guys they brought into their organization, it's just like what happened in the '90s with Lemieux and all of them. It's just going to keep sparking the hockey interest here."

Umberger, a center who played for the Flyers during the past three seasons, was joined by Jefferson Hills native John Zeiler and Sewickley native Nate Guenin for an autograph session that attracted hundreds of people.

The event was organized by Brian Poe of North Huntingdon, the arena's pro shop manager whose company, The Hockey Doctor Inc., manufactures custom hockey equipment.

"The goal now for Pittsburgh is you get to a place where kids can develop here and you don't have to leave," Umberger said. "Having junior hockey here would be good. You could go to Robert Morris (University) and continue playing here in Pittsburgh instead of leaving your home at 16 years old. I think that's the next step for Pittsburgh."

Despite the summer heat, hockey fans emerged in droves and eagerly lined up yesterday with shirts, sticks and other memorabilia to be signed by the three Pittsburgh-area players.

"Hockey has come a long way in Pittsburgh and I think it's going to get better and better with players like Crosby, Malkin and Fleury," Zeiler said, referring to three of the Penguins current stars, centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fluery.

Zeiler is a right wing for the Los Angeles Kings and Guenin, a defenseman, was Umberger's teammate last season in Philadelphia.

"It's big for the area to have a couple of Division I programs (Robert Morris and Mercyhurst)," Zeiler said. "I tell people I'm from Pittsburgh and sometimes I think they wonder. But with all the new rinks going up around here, you've got a ton of them in the area. The kids are really starting to understand what it's all about."

For a brief time, the city was home to a junior hockey program -- the Pittsburgh Forge enjoyed several highly successful seasons during this decade before disbanding -- but now, many aspiring hockey players again are forced to move elsewhere at an early age to improve their skills.

Umberger said the time may be right for Pittsburgh to try it again, and he hopes someone will be able to include the city in the junior ranks once more.

"It might have been a little premature before," he said. "If interest keeps growing here, eventually, it would be great to see a team here again. It's something that could work out."

And Umberger tied the idea directly to the Penguins' current success.

"If they keep playing like they are, and keep those exciting, young players, you've got to think that it's going to spark interest more and more for the young kids."



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