Former Penguins forward Ryan Malone showed Pittsburgh can produce NHLers
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Pittsburgh Penguins’ practice facility in Cranberry is a magnificent structure. With two rinks as well as state-of-the-art training and medical facilities, it’s one of the finest hockey-focused facilities you’ll find in the Western Hemisphere.
It also serves as a shrine of sorts to the presence of the sport in Western Pennsylvania and the person who has had the largest impact on it.
There is a display of Mario Lemieux that includes memorabilia from his days as a youth player in Montreal as well as a black No. 66 banner hanging off a wall overlooking the rink the Penguins usually practice in.
And, oh yeah, the entire building is named after him.
His isn’t the only name you’ll find in that venue.
Pete Babando, Grant Lewis, John Zeiler and others also have posters on the wall.
They’re not exactly household names, but they’re part of a select fraternity of Western Pennsylvania natives who have played in the NHL.
One member of that group who probably is far more familiar to anyone with an interest in the Penguins or the sport in general is Ryan Malone.
The Upper St. Clair native served as a rugged power forward for the Penguins in the 2000s. In 2007-08, he served as Evgeni Malkin’s left wing and helped the Penguins advance to the Stanley Cup final that season, their first in 16 years. During Game 5 of that series, he was struck in the face by a one-timer from teammate Hal Gill.
Malone would return later in the game and provided a screen for teammate Petr Sykora on his goal in the third overtime period.
The son of former Penguins forward-turned-scout Greg Malone, Ryan Malone was one of the first players from the region to reach the NHL. A fourth-round pick in 1999 by his father and the Penguins, Malone showed there was a path to the NHL from Western Pennsylvania more than a decade before the 2011 draft that included future All-Stars such as Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson of Whitehall and Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck of Upper St. Clair.
Also in that draft class were Vancouver Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, a Gibsonia native who contributed to two Stanley Cup championship squads this decade, and Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller, a two-time 20-goal scorer who grew up in Coraopolis.
“I was happy to get drafted at all,” said Malone, who lives in Minnesota and attended the Penguins’ morning skate Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. “Growing up in Pittsburgh, a few kids went to Junior B. You never heard really about anyone going to a Division I school. I know R.J. Umberger and Jason Crain were some guys that kind of paved the way, along with myself there, to kind of help realize we can go to a higher level of hockey. From there, you can see the trickle-down effect.”
Umberger, of Plum, was the first Western Pennsylvanian to be drafted in the first round when he went No. 16 overall to the Vancouver Canucks in 2001. Crain, of Natrona Heights, played four seasons at Ohio State with Umberger in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Looking back to when Mario (Lemieux) and all those guys brought the (Stanley) Cup to Pittsburgh, that was the big boom.” said Malone, who also played for the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers. “It helped guys like myself get more rinks around. The trickle-down effect all through Western Pennsylvania has been amazing. It’s been great to hear names get called from Pittsburgh.”
Beyond that ballyhooed class of 2011, there are a handful of other Western Pennsylvanians in the NHL or on NHL contracts. Defensman Matt Bartkowski of Mt. Lebanon is on a two-way deal with the Minnesota Wild, and Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns, a native of Wampum, is sidelined indefinitely because of lingering concussion issues.
Then there is Sam Lafferty, a forward recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Monday. The 25-year-old native of Hollidaysburg grew up a fan of the Penguins and is more a part of the “Sidney Crosby generation” than the generation influenced primarily by Lemieux. Lafferty watched plenty of Penguins games as a child during the mid-2000s when Crosby and the Penguins were on the rise towards becoming Stanley Cup contenders.
Malone was a big part of that surge for the franchise, on and off the ice.
“It kind of speaks to the people of Pittsburgh and the growth of the game,” said the 39-year-old Malone, whose NHL career ended in 2014-15. “It’s such a great sports town. Bringing those Stanley Cups there just really gave it that stamp in the hockey world. We can make great hockey players. Your dream should be the NHL, not just to go play junior hockey or college hockey. You should really shoot for the NHL. You can set that goal really high.
“It’s obviously difficult, but there’s no reason you can’t because guys before you have done it.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .