South Xtra: Upper St. Clair native learns at Pens camp
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Only 22, Upper St. Clair native Andrew Blazek has already lived in such remote outposts as Des Moines, Iowa, Topeka, Kan., and Frisco, Texas, while playing junior hockey for teams based in those towns.
Funny, then, how Blazek ended up going to college back close to where he started.
A rising junior at Robert Morris University, Blazek could have easily commuted from his college residence or his parents' house for the NHL prospect development camp to which he was invited.
A defenseman, Blazek was one of 28 players to whom the Penguins played host over five days at Consol Energy Center last week.
"I'm staying at the hotel ... so it's good to be around the guys most of the time because you kind of get more of the team-bonding experience -- even though it's 25 minutes from home," Blazek said.
Blazek was one of only a handful of players who are not under contract with the Penguins organization invited to the camp, which was run on the ice by Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coach John Hynes and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, Penguins assistant to the general manager Tom Fitzgerald, Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche and Penguins player development coach Bill Guerin.
"I learned a lot all week from Billy Guerin and coach Hynes and coach Nasreddine," Blazek said. "Every time they say something to you, you take it to heart. It was a great week, a good step in the right direction."
Blazek began his hockey career as a youngster playing all around the area: the South Hills Amateur Hockey Association, the Pittsburgh Amateur Penguins and the Pittsburgh Hornets organizations.
He then played junior hockey in the United States Hockey League and the North American Hockey League -- changing positions in the process -- before settling in at Robert Morris.
"Thousands of stories," Blazek said. "Different people, different cities. You're going to run across a lot of different types of people, I guess you could say. So it's a good time, a good learning experience, real character-building.
"It was good to get away from home for a couple years and be on my own and grow up a little bit," Blazek added, "but I'm glad I'm back for school and I can come home once a week for a home-cooked meal with my parents.
"My parents love having me home, and it's good I can see my friends a little bit if I want to, so I like this city and I wouldn't mind staying around."
It's a long way to go if Blazek is to make Pittsburgh his permanent home while playing for the Penguins. But his showing in the development camp was a good start.
He made an impression on the staff, and he has set out to get bigger, stronger and faster.
"He's a very good skater, he's got a good shot, and you can see he's a mobile defenseman -- he can move the puck," Hynes said. "One of the things we look for from the 'D' is the ability to shoot the puck from the blue line, and he can do a good job of that."
But what Hynes said has impressed the organization most about Blazek is more intangible. In fact, Blazek shares that trait with the other local product to take part in the camp, goalie Rob Madore of Peters Township.
"Both of them have an unbelievable work ethic; they're two of the guys who are the first ones here and the last ones to leave," Hynes said. "And they're asking questions.
"You can tell they're really trying to take advantage of the opportunity and learn. They are definitely making a good impression that way."
First Published July 21, 2011 12:00 am