Three Rivers Classic a success at the gate

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OK, not everyone will look back on the inaugural Three Rivers Classic college hockey tournament as an unqualified success.

Miami, which entered the weekend as the No. 5 team in the country, won't have many fond memories of its 1-0 loss to Robert Morris in the championship Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.

And Ohio State surely isn't going to celebrate having nothing to show for its participation other than losses to the RedHawks and Penn State.

Of course, no one is happier than the Colonials, who earned the title, and especially goalie Eric Levine, who rejected all 99 shots he faced over the weekend.

But the people who put the event together -- from Robert Morris officials to the people who run the arena to Penguins executives -- came away from it feeling pretty good, too.

David Peart, the Penguins senior vice president of sales and service, recalled that when the idea of such a tournament was conceived -- over beers and cheese curds, he said -- at the 2011 Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn., the prevailing sentiment was that "if we could get 5,000 or 6,000 to attend each of the two sessions, that would be a really big first event for us."

Well, the organizers managed that. And quite a bit more.

Attendance at a Friday doubleheader was 11,663, and 10,797 turned out for the games the next day.

That's a total of 22,460, essentially double what initially had been projected.

"That we would exceed 10,000 for both days is something we're really thrilled about," Peart said.

The tournament was the first of its kind here, but won't go down as the most significant college hockey event of the season in the city, because the 2013 Frozen Four will be contested at Consol Energy Center.

That's mostly an NCAA production, but Peart said the Three Rivers Classic was "a little bit of a dry run" for what is to come at the end of the college hockey season.

"Not just for us as a building and an organization, but also for the market, to be more familiar with collegiate hockey," he said. "When you take the energy and excitement of collegiate sports and apply it to the national championship, it's a neat experience."

While Frozen Fours are the pinnacle of the college game and draw fans from across the country, they make it to a particular venue only once every decade or so.

The Three Rivers Classic, conversely, stands to become a staple on the region's sporting calendar.

Organizers see Robert Morris and Penn State being fixtures in the field -- "They're both in our footprint, so we know there are a lot of Penguins fans who support both of those schools," Peart said -- with at least one high-profile program in the mix every winter.

Next season's event will feature Boston College and Bowling Green, and teams such as Michigan and Minnesota are seen as potential participants in coming winters.

"We think that's a really viable pair of schools to couple with an elite team every year, and then maybe you go for a regional draw," Peart said.

"That way, you're appealing to the alumni, who have an affinity for one of the schools, and someone who's going to be intrigued by seeing elite college hockey in our marketplace."

Although neither Robert Morris nor Penn State is formally committed to taking part in future events, it's hard to imagine either would decline. The tournament not only is a good recruiting tool, but has an obvious appeal to the schools' supporters.

"If you looked in the stands and heard the Penn State alumni and fans, I mean, how much fun is that to play in front of them?" Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky said.

Peart acknowledged "some hiccups" while staging the Classic for the first time, but added that "I don't know that there were any [major] misses."

Still, there is tweaking to be done.

Peart said organizers would like to have tournament games televised live rather than on tape-delay, and that first-day pairings will be reconsidered. This time, pitting Robert Morris against Penn State Friday assured there would be a local/regional representative in the title game.

"I think we want to talk about ways to get folks to come here to watch both games in that first session, and both games in the second session," Peart said.

"We can do that by the initial scheduling, I think. I don't think we put as much thought into that on the front end as we probably could have, or should have."

If that was indeed a mistake, it was a rare one by the organizers. Only Robert Morris goalie Eric Levine had fewer.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter: @MolinariPG.


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