Frozen Four a Jewel for Hockey-Crazed Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH – The Robert Morris logo will be unmistakable on the Consol Energy Center ice this weekend, a red, white and blue reminder to the thousands of college hockey fans expected to descend on Pittsburgh for the NCAA’s Frozen Four that the Steel City’s love of the game goes far beyond Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.

It will be a milestone of sorts for a program that didn’t even exist a decade ago.

It will also be highly visible evidence of hockey’s strengthening foothold in western Pennsylvania, one that could one day soon rival the hotbeds in places like Detroit, Minnesota and New England.

From a burgeoning youth scene – try finding a rink within an hour’s drive of downtown that isn’t packed on a given night – to an ever-expanding crop of proven young talent dotting college and professional rosters to a Division-I program that nearly made its first NCAA Tournament this spring, the fastest game on ice is sizzling in a place where football has long been king.

“It’s becoming the eye of the storm,” said former NHL defenseman Dave Hanson, who has watched the sport’s growth in the area since taking over as executive director of the Island Sports Center in 1998, one of the many ice hockey facilities that have sprouted up over the last 20 years.

No offense to Frozen Four finalists Quinnipiac, Yale, St. Cloud State or UMass Lowell, organizers hope in some way the true star of college hockey’s crown jewel may be the city the game nearly abandoned.

For all of Lemieux’s magnificence, hockey was dying in 2003. The Penguins were bankrupt, struggling and threatening to move if a replacement for decaying Mellon Arena could not be found. The NHL lockout soon followed in 2004, and the interest in hockey that flourished during Lemieux’s prime began to dwindle.

“It went from a sprinter’s pace to a snail’s pace,” Hanson said.

Yet Robert Morris pressed on with its plan to bring college hockey’s highest level to the area. Coach Derek Schooley crisscrossed the continent to sell talented high schoolers on a vision of starting something he insisted would be competitive sooner rather than later.

It wasn’t always easy. Crowds at the Island Sports Center for Colonials home games during those first few years were a modest gathering of family and friends. The lack of local talent was obvious. Things improved, but not quickly.

Then Sidney Crosby came along. And Evgeni Malkin. They were teens when they were selected by the Penguins in the NHL Draft. And they became teammates who made the Penguins relevant again and fanned a spark that has turned into a region-wide blaze.

Crosby’s No. 87 jersey may be as popular as any member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Malkin’s No. 71 is not far behind. Yet their success did more than generate new fans and rescue a franchise that has sold out every game for the last six years. Crosby and Malkin’s arrival created new players too.

“They made it cool,” Schooley said. “Everybody wants to play now.”