For an inaugural event, this weekend's Three Rivers Classic will have a familiar feel to it.
Robert Morris, Penn State, Ohio State and Miami (Ohio) will take the ice at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh's first major midseason college tournament, hoping to provide respite for a lockout-starved hockey city.
"I think this is an excellent field and should be an exciting two days of hockey," Colonials coach Derek Schooley said. "Hopefully people that are missing hockey will get behind college hockey because it is an excellent product. Players play extremely hard and play with a lot of passion."
Today's semifinals will feature Robert Morris facing off against Penn State and Miami taking on Ohio State. The two winners will play in the championship Saturday, and the losers will play in a consolation game. The semifinals are rematches of games that took place two weeks ago. Robert Morris beat Penn State, 3-2, in State College, and the RedHawks won at Ohio State, 3-1.
"Both teams are familiar with each other, so that will probably carry over from last game," Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. "You've still got to play the game."
The connection of these four teams goes beyond just this season. Penn State is new to the party, in its first year in Division I, but Robert Morris has played Miami and Ohio State routinely throughout its nine-year history. The Three Rivers Classic is the evolution of showcase games the Colonials have played against the Buckeyes and RedHawks at Consol Energy Center or Mellon Arena in previous years.
Schooley said he also hopes to develop the rivalry with Penn State. The Nittany Lions will play at Robert Morris next year, and the teams are set to be the hosts of the Three Rivers Classic for the foreseeable future.
"I think it's natural that you develop rivalries with schools that are in your area," Schooley said.
With Penn State joining the competition (and entering the ultra-competitive Big Ten next year), these four programs will likely be at the forefront of recruiting a burgeoning Pittsburgh youth hockey scene.
Three of the four teams have Pittsburgh-area natives on their rosters. Miami's leading scorer, freshman Riley Barber, hails from Washington, Pa. Barber will not play this weekend, though, as he is in Russia playing for Team USA in the IIHF World Junior Championship.
"Pittsburgh is becoming a very well-known hockey area," Schooley said. "The growth of hockey has been tremendous with the growth of the Penguins."
Even though pro hockey players haven't occupied Consol Energy Center since the Penguins were knocked out of the first round of the NHL playoffs last year, they still have an impact on the college players taking the ice this weekend.
"You start talking about Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin, all those things, these guys, it's all they thing about. Our guys are on cloud nine right now," said Ohio State associate head coach Steve Rohlik, who will coach the Buckeyes this weekend while head coach Mark Osiecki serves as an assistant for the U.S. team at the Junior Championship.
For now, Schooley said he hopes the Three Rivers Classic becomes an annual fixture on the Pittsburgh sporting calendar, and said that perennial power Boston College has already committed to play in next year's event.
"I think anytime you can play for a championship, whether its the beginning of the year or at Christmastime, it's something you can really focus on and be a springboard," Schooley said.
Sam Werner: email@example.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.