Finder: Western Pa. has a hockey pipeline

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Hockey history, at least as it pertains to this little corner of the vulcanized-rubber planet, was made Thursday night on the other side of the Commonwealth: Two Western Pennsylvania natives played on the same NHL ice, on the same NHL team. Twice as nice, eh?

Let the record show this extraordinary ice trail was blazed by Nate Guenin of Hopewell High and Plum's R.J. Umberger, Philadelphia Flyers, Wachovia Center, Jan. 18, 2007. Guenin, a defenseman summoned hours earlier from the minors, tallied two hits, a blocked shot and 10 shifts of professional ice time. Umberger, a forward regular, logged an assist, a plus-1 and 17 shifts in a 4-2 loss to the Islanders.

Still and all, it was a great day for Pittsburgh Hornets hockey, for all of local rinkdom. A first.

Sure, Eric Meloche and Ryan Malone of Upper St. Clair, both products of the same travel-intensive youth program at the RMU Island Sports Center, played 25 Penguins games together in the 2003-04 season. But Malone and Meloche are genetic anomolies, for one: Both are from NHL fathers. For another thing, Meloche is a Quebecois and returned to his birthplace in his late teens. So this past Thursday in Philly marked the inaugural time that two, true born and hockey-reared Western Pennsylvanians shared NHL ice.

"Pretty amazing," Umberger offered over his cell the day after, just before the Flyers bused to New Jersey for a game yesterday. "It was a pretty historical day for Pittsburgh and especially the Hornets organization.

"We were joking [Thursday] that, growing up, we never thought two guys from the same team would grow up and play in the NHL -- and on the same team now."

"Anybody would be lying if they told you they could foresee kids playing in the NHL, because there are so many variables," added Joe Gaul, their former coach and the current Hornets director of player development. "But it doesn't surprise me, because they worked so hard at 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, whatever."

It says something about the Hornets, about Western Pennsylvania hockey, about an ice trickle-down effect (more on that in a minute), when two boys from a football hotbed -- two Picksburg dudes -- crash the pro party reserved for Canadians, Euros, Russians and U.S. collegians from New England, Chicago, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Colorado. It says, perhaps: This little corner has arrived.

Eleven former Hornets have been drafted by NHL teams. Sixty-two have played or are playing in U.S. colleges, the Ontario Hockey League or America's highest junior-hockey level. Umberger, Guenin, Malone and Meloche, whom Guenin left behind with the Flyers' AHL Philadelphia Phantoms, make this a certifiable pipeline, with kids such as Upper St. Clair's Dylan Reese still to gush.

Umberger and Guenin, Beaver County's initial NHLer, started out playing youth hockey against one another. Then they joined the fledgling Hornets in the early 1990s, and their team of 1982 birth-year boys dazzled for the next quadrennial. By the time Umberger ascended to the U.S. National Team Development Program, Guenin and the fellas were winning the prestigious International Silver Sticks tournament, for which a Hornets sweater sits in a trophy case at Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame. From college scholarships to the draft to the Hockey Hall to this: shared NHL ice. "I think we really opened the doors for Pittsburgh," Umberger said of the 1982s, which included John Zeiler, the No. 5 scorer as a rookie for AHL Manchester.

Just when the future of the local professional hockey franchise is being bartered and negotiated by unwitting politicians, Guenin and Umberger's historical footnote should strike them like a kick in the noggin. The Penguins do more for Western Pennsylvania than provide wintry night entertainment, fantasy-league fodder and an estimated $48 million to the economy for all those hockey nights in Pittsburgh. A new arena would do more for the region than hockey games, ice shows, monster-truck jams, concerts and the like. Rather, each of these vital community assets directly affects one key resource -- our children.

Don't merely accept the word of a father whose 14-year-old plays for two hockey organ-I-zations while entertaining notions underneath his helmet of days playing in college, possibly even beyond. Don't simply go by Gaul, who remembered Guenin wearing No. 5 (now No. 65) in honor of the Penguins' Ulf Samuelsson and offered, "I'll give you an analogy: What if you [ask], 'If I don't eat my vegetables and vitamins, will I still be healthy?' You'd be foolish not to realize the cause and affect there."

Take it from Umberger: Without any Penguins here, hundreds of kids would have hit curbs instead of ice. "You could probably cut the number of rinks in half," he said. "It would be devastating."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1724.


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