The NHL draft takes place this Friday, June 24 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN. And while all eyes are on the top six to eight players, one Pittsburgher could make history as the highest drafted native of the ‘Burgh to ever be drafted by an NHL team. In fact, the first round could see a trio of Pittsburghers (John Gibson, Brandon Saad and J.T. Miller) walk to the stage. That really blows my mind.
Growing up a few counties east of this city in the 1970s and ‘80s, I didn’t know much of anything about hockey until Mario Lemieux was drafted. There just wasn’t much news about the NHL or any other forms of hockey in my hometown. But Mario changed all of that. And as the Penguins won more and more games (and Wayne Gretzky won a Cup with Edmonton and then made a splash in Los Angeles), the NHL moved into the limelight locally and I became more and more addicted to the game. My friends and I scoured the USA Today in the mornings for box scores on games, I began searching out hockey cards (hard to find back then!) and of course we all bought Penguins merchandise and took road trips to the Civic Arena.
But one thing we didn’t do is take up the game. And that’s because there simply wasn’t anywhere in my neighborhood to find an ice rink — let alone skates, sticks or even pucks.
In the spring of 1991 I moved to Pittsburgh to attend college. A year later I watched the Penguins win their second Stanley Cup and my friends and I paraded through the streets drinking beer and high-fiving fellow hockey fans. Hockey hit the mainstream in Pittsburgh and more attention was paid to the game at the grassroots level.
I still have never laced a pair of skates, held a real hockey stick or stepped on to a sheet of ice. But obviously a lot of kids in this region did. It will be nice to see a few more of them drafted this Friday. It would be even nicer to see one of them come home to play.