PITTSBURGH –The future is bright for USA Hockey.
The second annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, showcasing 40 of the top young American-born hockey players, served as proof as Team White, coached by Mark Johnson, topped Team Blue, headed by Joe Mullen, 5-2, Thursday at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“I think [USA Hockey] is in a great position,” said Johnson, who began his professional hockey career in Pittsburgh and helped lead the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team to a gold medal in the Miracle on Ice.
“A lot of credit goes to USA Hockey for different grassroots programs where people are continually working, and now we’re reaping the benefits. All of the sudden, this is the second year where we had a game with our top 40 players, and eight or nine years ago you probably couldn’t have done that.”
Fans witnessed stellar goaltending, an up-tempo attack on both sides, dazzling skill, solid defense and punishing hits on Thursday.
Goaltenders Edwin Minney and Thatcher Demko took center stage early, allowing a combined one goal through one and a half periods before the teams finished the game with an offensive explosion, scoring six total goals in the third period.
The AAPG, which debuted last year in Buffalo, N.Y., has quickly established itself as a big-time event for fans and scouts. The game was played in an National Hockey League arena for the second consecutive year, and with seven players in this year’s game identified as “A” prospects by NHL Central Scouting Services, the talent level was high.
Americans have represented 23 percent of players picked in the first two rounds since the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, up from 12 percent between 1984-98. Several developmental programs, including the United States Hockey League and USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, helped boost those figures, paving the way by preparing players for NCAA Division I and NHL careers.
“You always hope they gain some confidence when they play in a game like this and the experience of it, so when they get into tournaments and stuff like that they’ll have that confidence that they can play in front of a lot of scouts and people and feel comfortable,” said Mullen, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and the first American-born player to score 500 goals.
The prospects shined at CONSOL Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Penguins, and an area of the country that has witnessed remarkable and rapid growth since Sidney Crosby entered the league in 2005.
“The growth and energy right now for ice hockey in western Pennsylvania is at an all-time high,” said Johnson, son of legendary former Penguins’ coach Bob Johnson.
The action started Thursday with the goalies.
Demko, a freshman at Boston College, turned aside all six shots faced, while Minney, a Michigan State recruit who currently plays on the U.S. National Under-18 Team, stopped 16 of 17 shots, as the two held the high-powered attacks to just one goal through a period-and-a-half.
“Ed played a great game,” Demko said. “He had a lot of action early and kind of stood on his head. I wasn’t tested too much, but when the shots came I tried to stop them.”
Team White’s Dylan Larkin, a University of Michigan recruit, was the only one to score through two periods, sweeping a shot between Minney’s pads from the top of the crease on a feed from game MVP Keegan Iverson.
“I thought I played really well, but that was a reflection of how my team played,” Minney said. “It seemed like there were a lot of shots, but at the same time they were outside shots.”
The action heated up in the third period for Team White goaltender Blake Weyrick and Alex Nedeljkovic, of Team Blue.
The teams exploded for six goals, the first three coming six-and-a-half minutes apart, while the last three, including an empty-netter, spanned a little more than three minutes.
Team White’s Sonny Milano netted the game-winner at 10:54 of the third, giving his team a 3-1 lead. The University of Notre Dame recruit slipped behind the defense, took a feed from teammate Alex Tuch and used a smooth deke to elude Nedeljkovic’s poke check before sliding the puck into the back of the net.
“I was just kind of waiting by the net hoping the other team would turn it over and they did,” Milano said. “My linemate, Alex, made a great play and fed me in front of the net and it was pretty easy from there.”
It wasn’t easy for Team White to hold the lead from a hard-charging Team Blue, but Weyrick did his best to shut the door, stopping 19 of 21 shots faced. His finest save came when he robbed Tyler Sheehy with a sharp glove save while moving side-to-side during a two-on-one, helping Team White stay ahead by two at the time.
“I saw the odd-man rush and I just tried to get my glove over there and keep myself square and in front of the puck as much as I could,” Weyrick said. “That was my focus.”
The focus of the event itself was on spotlighting the players and their accomplishments. Regardless of the outcome, Johnson and Mullen viewed Thursday’s game as a success and a testament to the bright future of American hockey.
“These young men all want to play in the NHL one day and this is the next step in trying to help their development,” Johnson said. “Anytime we put an event like this, especially in these NHL cities like Pittsburgh with a hockey buzz, it’s going to help these kids grow.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.