PITTSBURGH – Like every hockey-obsessed kid who grows up in Pittsburgh -- and there are tens of thousands of them -- Rob Madore and Andrew Blazek always wanted to pull on a Penguins sweater. Not one you can buy at the team merchandise store, but the real deal.
The two college players -- Madore is a goalie at Vermont, Blazek a defenseman at Robert Morris -- are doing exactly that this week at the team's prospect development camp, which concludes Saturday afternoon with a scrimmage at Consol Energy Center that is open to the public for free. The invited but undrafted college players from suburban Pittsburgh were permitted to attend as long as they paid their own expenses.
Putting a price tag on the invaluable experience they're receiving this week could prove difficult -- especially for Madore, a 23-year-old who is already wearing a Penguins jersey – the real one – for the second time in his amateur career.
To prove it, Madore has a much-scarred goalie mask and one of those can-you-believe-this tales that no doubt will be retold to multiple generations in his family, which has long loved the Penguins.
In December 2006, Marc-Andre Fleury was unable to practice one day, leaving Jocelyn Thibault as the only healthy goaltender. Then-coach Eddie Olczyk didn't have time to bring up a goalie just for practice, so he called Madore, who was 17 at the time, and asked him to step in. Madore, a state championship-winning goalie at Peters Township High, had played both with and against several of Olczyk's sons.
"It's as surreal now as it was then," Madore said of his day in an NHL net.
Only the night before, he was stopping his high school teammates' shots. Fifteen hours later, he was turning aside those of Sidney Crosby, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi and John LeClair. And if the Penguins initially had any intent of taking it easy on him, that didn't last long.
As Olczyk explained that day, shooters are shooters in hockey and it doesn't matter if it's Martin Brodeur or their grandmother in net, they're trying to score.
"I've got my old mask, and it's still got some cracks in it from Sergei Gonchar taking shots at my head, " Madore said. "I don't know what I did to tick them off, but they certainly did not let up on me. "
Imagine the stories Madore related when he was asked at his high school practice that night, "Hey, how come you weren't in school today?"
"I don't like to toot my own horn and I wasn't planning on saying anything, but I got there and my teammates were giving me a hard time," Madore said. "Any time a goal went in that night it was, 'Oh, you can stop Sidney Crosby, but you can't stop me.' They gave me a good time for about a week or so."
This week, Madore is stopping shots by Eric Tangradi, who gained NHL experience this past season with Pittsburgh, plus three first-round draft picks and nearly two dozen other prospects at the Penguins' camp. He is hoping to build his reputation, as well as his confidence, as he readies for his senior season at Vermont, the alma mater of Stanley Cup-winning goalie Tim Thomas of Boston.
While Madore and Blazek are among the six players in camp who don't have pro contracts, they don't feel as if they're being handled any differently than those who do.
"The players don't treat you like they're better than you. They're great guys and willing to help you along and help you further your own career and show you some things that made them successful," Madore said. "It's really nice to see."
Only a generation ago, it wouldn't have been possible for the Penguins to bring in locally grown prospects such as Madore and the 22-year-old Blazek, who grew up in suburban Upper St. Clair, Pa., before deciding to stay in his hometown to play Division I hockey at Robert Morris.
"My family had season tickets when I was growing up," Blazek said. "Going to all those games makes it even better to be here. My room was littered with Penguins gear, and I had all their posters on the wall."
Call it the Mario Lemieux effect.
When Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh as a French-speaking 18-year-old in 1984, there were only six hockey rinks in the Pittsburgh region, few organized leagues for youngsters and next to zero NHL prospects in the region.
Fast forward 27 years and three Stanley Cup championships later for a franchise that Lemieux starred for and now co-owns, and there are more than 20 rinks in or near Pittsburgh and numerous leagues for both male and female players. Children as young as 8 play on travel teams, and an impressive number of prospects bypass the final two years of high school to play junior hockey each season.
"My generation, we didn't grow up playing hockey -- on ice or in the gym," said Penguins vice president Tom McMillan, who was a Penguins beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when Lemieux played. "Now, fathers are passing it on to their sons and mothers are passing it on to their daughters. It all comes from Mario coming here. The generation that grew up watching him, they're parents now and they're passing hockey down the same way that everyone else's parents passed down football, baseball and basketball over the years. That's a big step."
Four of the top 65 picks in last month's Entry Draft were from Pittsburgh, which had never had a homegrown player be drafted by and play for an NHL team until forward Ryan Malone did so for the Penguins in the 2003-04 season.
"It's nice to see that Pittsburgh kids and Pittsburgh teams can compete with the best from Chicago and Minnesota and those hockey hotbeds," Madore said.
The Penguins have been forerunners in facilitating the growth of hockey in a region that has long been better known for turning out Hall of Fame-caliber football players such as Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and Tony Dorsett. Not only does the team arrange scores of community appearances annually for its players, the Penguins run free training and conditioning camps for youngsters -- not just for boys, but also for girls, as part of the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.
A section of the team's website (www.penguins.nhl.com) is devoted to amateur hockey, and schedules, scores and news are constantly updated. The Penguins also held an informational seminar in May on youth hockey concussions, one of the first stages of their "Heads Up" program that is designed to help reduce the number of injuries sustained by young players.
"There's really been a concerted effort, and it's picked up the last four or five years under (team president) David Morehouse and (general manager) Ray Shero, both of whom are hockey dads," McMillan said. "There's even more and more of a grass roots effort. We're trying to get it (hockey) to be part of the normal gym class curriculum. And while we can't specifically affect the development of elite hockey players, the more people we get playing, that's going to happen."