When Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley arrived in Pittsburgh nearly a decade ago, it was an ailing hockey city.
Despite an NHL dynasty in the 1990s thanks to a guy named Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in a state of duress. The team was forced to file bankruptcy and there was talk of moving the team to Kansas City.
But then, after the NHL lockout canceled the 2004-05 season, the Pens got their first brush of good fortune and won a draft lottery that allowed them to select a kid named Sidney Crosby.
That, according to Schooley, didn’t simply benefit the Penguins, it rebuilt hockey in Pittsburgh.
“Hockey was on a downward spiral,” Schooley said. “Then lo and behold they got the envelope to get Crosby and that’s one of the things that’s really exciting in Pittsburgh. It’s really growing.
“Hockey is busting at the seams in Pittsburgh.”
Indeed, recent years have allowed hockey at all levels in Pittsburgh to grab a national stage.
Starting with the construction of the Consol Energy Center, something Schooley believes was accelerated because of the team’s success with players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the city has hosted two Stanley Cup finals (winning one), the NHL’s premier event, the Winter Classic and now this weekend’s NHL Entry Draft.
Now it’s college hockey’s turn to jump into the fray. On Friday, coinciding with the draft, Robert Morris teamed with College Hockey Inc. to host the Western Pennsylvania College Hockey Summit. Seventeen Division I head coaches were joined by 60 potential college hockey players to give these players the know-how and tools to become a college hockey player.
“The turnout was tremendous,” Schooley said. “These kids were really impressed by the educational package they get with college hockey. They learned a lot about college hockey.”
Next season, Robert Morris will team with the Penguins and the Consol Energy Center — a partnership that Schooley calls “tremendous” — to host the inaugural Pittsburgh College Hockey Invitational. The late December event will feature host Robert Morris as well as Ohio State, Miami and Penn State.
And, of course, next April college hockey will really take the main stage in Pittsburgh when the Frozen Four comes to the Consol Energy Center.
All of these events bring players with dreams of playing college hockey — and possibly one day in the NHL — to the city of Pittsburgh, which otherwise they might not visit. In doing so, they’re seeing what really is a hidden gem.
“Any time you can show kids the city of Pittsburgh, it’s a positive,” Schooley said. “It’s a gorgeous city, it’s an up-and-coming city.
“You’ve got a little bit of everything here. You’ve got the Penguins, the Pirates, the Steelers. So it’s getting better all the time. People like Pittsburgh.”
The other hope is that this growth for the sport of hockey in the area will have a trickle-down effect to youth hockey. There was a burst of area players who took up the game when Mario Lemieux wore the Penguins sweater. Schooley believes that’s something that will happen again in the Sidney Crosby era.
“That would be a benefit to our program because we want to keep the best kids at home,” Schooley said. “The better Pittsburgh youth hockey gets, the better for us.”
And all of it goes back to the arrival of a kid named Crosby and the success of a team that once was on life support.
“It’s about the Penguins organization taking a liking toward growing hockey,” Schooley said. “It’s not just saying they’re growing hockey but taking an active role in doing it at all levels.”