A lot of people may not know it, but 1984 was the year everything changed in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Penguins were a mess. In fact, they routinely had smaller crowds than the local indoor-soccer team and were still several years away from their first Stanley Cup.
But that year marked the arrival of Mario Lemieux, a man who would not only turn the team around, but would inspire Pittsburghers to start producing hockey players. Before that you either played football or waited for your uncle to get you a union job. Nowadays, we are like Canada South: We pronounce the word “out” differently than the rest of the world, we wear mullets, we have bad weather and we make great hockey players. Mario was so good that we all wanted to produce little “Les Magnifiques.” Currently Pittsburgh has six players in the NHL.
R.J. Umberger was the most recognized thing about Plum High School before the recent — well, let’s just call them scandals — made the news. He was just the second Western Pennsylvania-born NHL player after Ryan “Bugsy” Malone. In 1998, Umberger led the Plum Mustangs to a Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League AAA league championship against Central Catholic. In that season, Umberger scored 116 points in just 26 games. Unfortunately for Pens fans, he dons the black and orange of the hated Philadelphia Flyers, which means there’s a chance that some of his family members don’t root for his team.
Brandon Saad was born in 1992, the year the Penguins hoisted Lord Stanley for the second time. Twenty-four years later he has two Cups of his own. The Pine-Richland graduate won both of them with the Chicago Blackhawks, in 2013 and 2015. Saad established himself as a clutch prime-time player when he had eight goals, including two game-winners, in the post-season. As a reward, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Ohio to play for the less prestigious Columbus Blue Jackets. A $36 million contract helped ease the pain.
John Gibson is straight outta Whitehall; he’s the only goaltender on the list, and a good one. He made the NHL All-Star game this season as a member of the Anaheim Ducks. That’s the team Emilio Estevez used to coach, if the movies are to be believed. After a storied career with the USA National team, Gibson made his pro debut at the age of 20. Not only that, he had a shutout in his first playoff game. He’s only 22 now and has a chance to be the best of the bunch.
Vincent Trocheck is also only 22 and already a starter for the Florida Panthers. His teammate Jaromir Jagr had two Stanley Cups under his belt when Trocheck was born. Trocheck was born in Upper St. Clair but his family moved to Detroit when he was 13. He had 22 points last year in Miami and has already surpassed that total this season.
Mike Weber is a Seneca Valley native who has had a solid NHL career as a defenseman. Weber played for the Pittsburgh Junior B Penguins and wound up being drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 2006. He is Pittsburgh-tough for sure. In a game against the Rangers, Weber was on the receiving end of a cheap shot by Tanner Glass. Weber lifted Glass by the scruff of his neck and put him into the penalty box. Don’t mess with a Seneca Valley Raider.
Matt Bartkowski shunned the golfers and water polo players of Mount Lebanon to play hockey. Now in Vancouver, Bartkowski played several seasons with the wicked Boston Bruins. As a defenseman, he doesn’t score much, but really makes it count when he does. His first-ever NHL goal came in the playoffs, in Game 7 versus Toronto.
In all, 15 players from Western Pennsylvania have cashed a check earned playing pro hockey. That’s pretty good for a football town. So when you’re trapped in the house on those cold nights with nothing to do, get busy making those future hockey players.