TAMPA, Fla. -- Ryan Malone certainly had the connections to hear about the tales and triumphs of the United States Olympic hockey team.
He knew Herb Brooks, who coached the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" gold medal squad. He could have talked international hockey with his father, Greg, a former Penguins player and head scout and now head pro scout for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He could have absorbed Olympic lore over the past several years just hanging out with NHL teammates and opponents who have worn the American colors at the Winter Games, guys like John LeClair, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano and the Penguins' Bill Guerin.
The things is, until the 2010 Winter Games approached, it just never occurred to Malone that he would be anything more than a spectator when it came to Olympic hockey.
"When we were growing up, if a kid went away to play Junior B it was a pretty big deal," said Malone, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound winger from Upper St. Clair who is in his second season with the Tampa Bay Lightning after playing for the Penguins.
Now the youngsters in Western Pennsylvania have a new aspiration.
Malone, 30, was named to the American Olympic team yesterday that will compete in Vancouver in February.
"You think of everyone back in Pittsburgh, and when I left home I wasn't really the best local kid around," Malone said. "Even making the Penguins, I'm sure everyone had something to say."
There were knocks that he wouldn't have blossomed into a rugged and prolific power forward or made a trip to the 2008 Stanley Cup final without riding the coattails of Penguins star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
"Now it's kind of nice to get something accomplished without Sid or 'Geno,' " said Malone, who faces those two today when the Penguins play at the St. Pete Times Forum.
He and the U.S. will have to get past gold-medal favorites Canada, with Crosby, and Russia, with Malkin, in Vancouver.
"Those are good friends, and it will be a good experience for all of us," said Malone, whose coming months include the Olympics, Tampa's push for the playoffs and the expected April arrival of his and wife Abby's second son.
Malone is among the first wave of Western Pennsylvania prospects who have made it to the NHL. Others include R.J. Umberger of Columbus and former Penguins forward Bill Thomas.
"It's been great. Before, most kids were going to Penn State club hockey or West Virginia club hockey," said Malone, who was a fourth-round draft pick by the Penguins in 1999 and played four years at St. Cloud State before turning pro.
He has 35 points in the first half of this NHL season and among his 19 goals are seven game-winners, which led the league going into last night. He leads the Lightning with a plus-minus rating of plus-8.
"He's got good hands for a big guy," Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet said.
"He's going to be huge for just the stuff you're looking for in those games. Every game is like a playoff game. A lot of pucks get to the net, a lot of pucks get behind the net, a lot of pucks get on the wall. And that's Ryan's forte. You need players like that."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721. First Published January 2, 2010 5:00 AM