Nation’s top youth hockey players to showcase skills in Cranberry |
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Jonathan Bombulie
Penguins’ Chad Ruhwedel skates Wednesday Aug. 29, 2018 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

As a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins defense corps, Chad Ruhwedel visits the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry almost every day.

He wishes he had been invited there when he was an 18-year-old playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League as well.

Starting Thursday, the rink will host a four-day event called the USHL Fall Classic, a massive showcase of the best youth hockey talent the country has to offer.

When Ruhwedel played in the USHL, the nation’s top junior league, no such event existed. There was a fall showcase in Sioux Falls, but it included only half the league’s teams playing exhibition games.

While Ruhwedel appreciated that opportunity, it wasn’t the same as a four-day extravaganza with all 17 USHL teams playing two regular-season games.

“It’s pretty cool that it’s going to be real games that count toward the season,” Ruhwedel said. “I’m sure there will be a lot of (scouts) here watching.”

Rich Hixon, president of the Lemieux Complex, has seen the roll call of scouts scheduled to attend. Ruhwedel isn’t wrong.

“We’ll have 400 scouts in the building,” Hixon said. “We’ll have every NHL team represented from a scouting perspective. We’ll also have basically all the Division I schools watching the kids who will be participating, not just in the USHL games, but all the youth games. They’re looking for the next round of kids who are going to come through their programs and make a difference.”

Scouts are flocking to the event for a couple of reasons.

First, its scope is enormous. In addition to the USHL games, the top 16 teams in the country at the 14U, 15U, 16U and 18U levels will also be participating.

The showcase has spilled over into four other area rinks – Baierl Ice Complex in Warrendale, the RMU Island Sports Center on Neville Island, the Printscape Arena at Southpointe and the Alpha Ice Complex in Harmarville. Hixon estimated local hotels will fill up 4,000 room nights with players, families and scouts.

“It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s a tremendous event for Pittsburgh,” Hixon said.

Second, the quality of talent is top of the line.

Jack Hughes, the 17-year-old scoring sensation who is all but guaranteed to be the No. 1 pick in next June’s NHL draft, plays for the U.S. National Team Development Program’s entry in the USHL and is expected to be on hand. Seven of his teammates are also expected to go in the first round of the draft in the latest TSN projections.

Add in the age-group players and it’s safe to say the vast majority of the top American hockey players in the world between the age of 14 and 18 will be in Cranberry this weekend.

“This is the next level of player that is typically going on to (NCAA) Division I or is being drafted into the National Hockey League,” Hixon said. “The caliber of the talent is tremendous.”

And while it’s also a tremendous opportunity for those talented players to get recognized, Ruhwedel had a message for those whose shoes he was in about a decade ago: Don’t forget to have a good time.

“Play hard. Play to your strengths,” Ruhwedel said. “Yeah, there’s going to be people watching you, but don’t let it get to you. Go out and play. Enjoy it and have some fun. Those were some really fun years in my hockey career. It’s a great league.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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