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Winter Classic starts hot hockey year in Pittsburgh

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Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010

The Winter Classic isn't a one-off outdoor game between the Penguins and Washington Capitals on New Year's Day. It's the launch of what could be the region's greatest hockey year.

During the next 12 months there will be signs across Western Pennsylvania pointing to what Robert Morris University men's hockey coach Derek Schooley called "the start of something good."

» At the NHL level, the Penguins again look like Stanley Cup contenders and likely will play the first postseason games at Consol Energy Center.

» At the prospect level, winger Brandon Saad of Gibsonia leads a group of five local players expected to be drafted into the NHL.

» At the college level, Robert Morris is charging toward what would be its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

» At the youth level, enrollment numbers are on the upswing -- especially among girls -- for a fourth consecutive year, according to USA Hockey.

"You wonder if something like the Penguins' run of the last three years, and with the exposure of the Winter Classic, you wonder if there will be a ripple effect in 2029 similar to the New England effect from the 'Miracle on Ice,' " NHL central scouting's E.J. Maguire said. "You think about that a little bit because it seems possible."

Saad is a projected top-five NHL draft pick, according to independent scouting service Red Line Report. He is the No. 2-rated Ontario Hockey League prospect by central scouting.

Plum's R.J. Umberger of the Columbus Blue Jackets is the lone Pittsburgh-born player drafted in the first round. That was in 2001, but a decade later the talk is of Pittsburghers being drafted.

"Tell me that when I started playing, and I would've been thinking, 'No way!' " Saad said. "Back then I didn't think of Pittsburgh and hockey. I just thought of playing hockey.

"I guess that's how far we've come as a hockey town. Now we've got a group of guys coming. It's not just me."

Those guys, all legitimate draft prospects, according to central scouting, include: forwards Vince Trocheck (Pittsburgh) and Jonathan Miller (Moon); defenseman Barrett Kaib (Upper St. Clair); and goalie John Gibson (Whitehall). Trocheck and Miller are considered possible late first-round picks.

"When (Mario) Lemieux and (Jaromir) Jagr went away, we saw a downfall at the youngest age level, the mites and squirts," said Dave Kosick, coach of the Pittsburgh Viper Stars, an 18-and-under AAA team. "The introduction of Sidney (Crosby) and (Evgeni) Malkin has brought a rebirth, a second renaissance of hockey."

Penguins president David Morehouse's goal is to extend this second renaissance into a permanent positioning of Pittsburgh as a hockey town, not just a Penguins town. It is the team's reasoning behind turning Winter Classic week into a hockey carnival that includes Robert Morris, PIHL and PAHL clubs, and public skates on a second outdoor rink.

"We looked at the Winter Classic as a validation of how far we've come as a hockey town," he said. "We wanted to include everybody, because we believe we're going to keep growing."

Tribune-Review sports writer Dan Stefano contributed to this story.




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