Kevin Morrison – Pittsburgh Junior Penguins (May 15, 2011):
First, can you tell readers how the league got started, it’s mission and what’s in store for the upcoming season?
The Pittsburgh Jr Tigers (as we were know then) were affiliated with the then Eastern Tigers who were a member of the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey Association (PAHL) that first iced teams at the Monroeville Mall (center court) before moving to a rink in Plum Borough and then on to the Blade Runner Ice complex in Harmarville where our Jr Penguins have been skating since.
The Pittsburgh Jr Tigers started as an independent hockey team at the Jr C level back in 1997. We were a ruthless group of 19 and 20 year old castoffs from other clubs that took their frustrations out on their opponents; old time hockey. In the early years, our roster was thin in numbers, but exceptionally talented. The team played a merciless game that often brought them controversy. Additionally, while the team’s on-ice performance was stellar, their off-ice antics left a lot to be desired.
Our primary focus early on was to change the attitude of the players and become a well respected program.
We quickly learned that we needed to trade off some of our best talent for a team that could win and lose with dignity. Right about then, the Eastern Tigers merged with the Pittsburgh Amateur Penguins and the rest as they say is history.
As the Jr Penguins, we grew in popularity and numbers to the point where we expanded to as many as five teams that included Tier I Midgets and a host of Jr teams from Jr C Developmental, Jr C and two Jr B teams competing in two different Leagues throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast corridor. Back then, we provided opportunities for players who were looking for an alternative to midget hockey and a program where they could travel by charter bus and room as a team, play 20-minute periods and more. That formula resulted in signing
the more mature players who were ready to step their game up to get to the next level.
Even without the big name players, we proved year-in-and-year-out that our teams could compete well against top level players three and four years older then them. Along the way, our teams became a regular at the Jr Nationals attending that stage nine times over a ten year stretch.
Today, and new for the 2011-12 season, we are mothballing our two Jr B Franchises so that we can ice Tier I Midget teams at the U16 and U18 levels. These teams are our development squads looking to make our Flagship Junior A Penguin team while they are still in high school and have time to climb the ladder to the higher Junior levels in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and United States Hockey League (USHL) where they place players in the NCAA DI and DIII programs regularly.
In fact, throughout the season, we will move players from our both of our midget rosters to the Junior A Penguin roster so they can get a taste of what that level demands. We will also work directly with a couple of the NAHL teams and possibly the USHAL Phantoms to move our top Jr A Penguin players to their roster during the season when the need arises.
While we rode the coattails of the Eastern Tigers and the Amateur Penguins in the early years, since then, we’ve grown not only in numbers, but also in prestige and have become an attraction to the hockey community for players looking for an opportunity to advance. In fact with the recent acquisition of the North American 3 Hockey League (3HL) by the NAHL, our team has become a direct feeder to the next level where we expect to place several players each season into the NAHL. For area student athletes, there is a greater significance to
our Jr A Penguins being a member of the 3HL with a direct pathway to the NAHL.
How does your tiered program work and how does it enhance the player’s ability to improve their skill-sets?
Our Midget teams will compete at the elite level for the upcoming season in Showcase events partnered with the higher level Jr leagues including the USHL, NAHL, EJHL, MnJHL and NorPac. This scheduling format guarantees a scouting presence at their showcase events. In addition to these games, the U16 and U18 teams will compete in other Tier I Tournaments and augment their schedule with games against other Tier I competition in home and home game sets.
Throughout the season, we will promote players from both of our Midget teams to compete in weekend games at the Jr A level by rostering them on our Jr A Penguin team right up to the player trade deadline. This will give our younger up-and-coming talent an opportunity to see what the demands are at the next level in advance of being there on a regular basis.
How are players ultimately chosen for each team and who is eligible to play in the leagues/teams?
Like all area Tier I Midget program teams, we hold open tryouts for our U16 and U18 teams in April. By attending these tryouts, our staff is able to identify players of interest and make offers to compete in our Program.
This year, we had 85 players trying out for the two teams with a cap on the rosters at 20. Because we also ice the Jr A Penguin team, we were able to identify players on interest for that team during these tryouts also. Therefore, we were able to overload the Midget U18 roster knowing that a few of those made an offer to play U18 would be moving up during our planned Jr A Penguin tryouts scheduled in June and July.
Players interested in competing on one of our three teams range in age from the 91 to the 96 birth year (including players age 16 through 20). Although this includes a six-year span, most of the older 91’s and 92 have already moved on to college or the higher Jr levels. Most of the players competing on our Jr A Penguin team are the area’s best high school juniors and seniors plus some post grads looking to hook up with an NCAA DIII program a year or two out of High School. We also attract several out-of-town talented players to add flavor to the team and program.
In our first two seasons in the 3HL, our Junior A Penguins have gone 63-28-2-0inning 69% of our games and making the playoffs both seasons. Individual accomplishments by our players include:
In our 1st season:
The 3HL has a unique player procurement system that allows each member team the opportunity to recruit new players they feel could help their program through a Free Agent Draft. The Draft is designed so that each team is able to select local players (within 75 miles of their home rink) in the first eight rounds. Then, there are no restrictions placed on teams drafting players in rounds nine through twenty.
For the current season and Draft, the Jr A Penguins actually have ten of the favorable selections in the first eight rounds due to a couple trades made last season. This will help us keep more local players here in Pittsburgh from being snatched up by competing clubs in the 3HL.
Preparing for the draft can be exhausting. We have a Scouting and Recruitment Director with his own Scouting staff that follow players throughout the season. We scout players at specific exposure camps throughout the mid-Atlantic region and the Midwest. Also, because we always take an active role in the Leagues we compete in working with the top talent attending All-Star and Top Prospects events, we gain a clear knowledge of the talent that is available there as well.
Then the fun starts. The Head coach works in unison with the Scouting staff updating the Draft Board with changes daily based on correspondence with the players via email and telephone. All the while he is maintaining the Board; the scouting staff is continuously researching leads on players that express interest in the program through the internet and video archives made available by Fast Hockey, the nation’s premier online destination for streaming video of amateur hockey games around the world.
Then, each season in early June, the Draft takes place between the member teams. For some, things can get interesting when player trades are made.
In addition to the Draft, each team in the league offer two tenders to players they could be interested in. hese tenders are provided with conditions locking a layer in to a specific team in advance of the Free Agent Draft. They are more valuable to the team because they are unrestricted with respect to geography. The Tenders and Draft selections along with the fact that all returning players remain the property of their team from the prior season make for an interesting pool of talent available to the Club prior to the Teams tryouts.
Hockey in Pittsburgh really seems to have improved tremendously with area players like Gibson, Saad, Miller, Trocheck and Houser all ranking high for the NHL draft. What do you attribute this to and how do you keep the momentum going?
Advances in local player movement to the higher levels in recent years can be attributed to several factors including improved facilities, better coaching with a greater focus on player development and the use of modern technology. Add this to the improved access to player statistics and performance history through sports management software and league affiliations and you can see drastic changes where doors are opening for players capable of advancing. The bottom line is that more players are being recognized for their accomplishments giving them a greater chance to advance.
Player performance is recorded and more easily identified with the high tech advances and especially through the use of web sites, recording of real time player statistics, documented performance history through sports management software, and internet broadcast to actually view players without having to pack your bag to see someone play. All Scouts these days have passes to the video archives so that they can watch players of interest. This allows them to narrow their search and be more efficient with their time and expenses.
At the same time, the players and their parents are better educated about what is in front of them for their sons at a much earlier age. This then gives them the opportunity to explore for themselves what options lie ahead for them and prepare them to make better choices along the way.
What affiliation and involvement do the NHL Penguins have with your league, if any? How do they get involved, if so, to help promote the league, players and hockey in Pittsburgh and the youth level.
The NHL Penguins have always embraced the youth hockey community. While they are careful not to create direct affiliations with specific clubs, they do support the youth programs in so many ways. By visiting their web site, you can see where they play a key role in the YMCA Junior Penguin through their Youth Hockey Network. There, you’ll see that they also promote Sled Hockey events and so much more.
Perhaps their most significant contribution is with their Little Penguins Learn to Play program where they’ve provided opportunities for more than a couple thousand of the youngest hockey enthusiasts from the tri-state region to be introduced to ice hockey. Together with Reebok and Dicks Sporting Goods, they provide equipment free to player’s ages 4 to 7 so they can begin to enjoy the game.
The NHL Penguins also sponsor other programs including their Inline Breakout Tournament, Dek Hockey Penguin Fall Classic and Power Play Tournaments, Highmark Player of the Month and Bob Johnson Player Awards and so much more. They also operate camps and clinics for players of all ages and they promote all the area Inline, High School, Amateur and Junior Leagues and teams.
Also, recently, the NHL Penguins hooked up with Point Streak, the industry leading real-time scoring and statistics technology provide these services to grassroots hockey including the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League (PAHL) and Pittsburgh Interscholastic Hockey League (PIHL). With the assistance of the NHL, a network of sites has been developed for each of the teams in the PAHL and PIHL.
And finally, the NHL has begun to develop youth and amateur hockey initiatives to advance the game of hockey in this region. They remain committed to the growth and development of youth and amateur hockey not only for the players, but also for the infrastructure required to support its growth.