By Chris Adamski
They came in from all over — Buffalo, Tennessee, Virginia, Atlanta… even Sweden. Forty talented hockey players. Just as important, 40 quality young men. But only a fraction were offered contracts with the prestigious Pittsburgh Junior Penguins flagship team.
The organization held its Open Tryout this past weekend at Bladerunners in Harmarville. Less than half of those who participated were invited back to the Final Tryout Camp July 22-24 to compete for the remaining spots on what will ultimately be a 24-player roster. Five were offered contracts already.
"I can tell you, the guys were real hungry," Jr A Penguins head coach Brian Cersosimo said. "They see the league that we're in and the opportunity that our organization presents with that, and they were happy to be there. "It was a very good and enthusiastic camp. The games between the teams were very high-tempo and very intense. It was a really elevated level of play for the guys."
The Junior A Penguins — part of an organization that also includes U18 AAA and U16 AAA teams — compete in the NA3HL. The Jr A Penguins have a legacy of developing players to move on to playing college hockey or at the Tier II Junior A level in the North American Hockey League. As such, it takes a special type of player to excel for the Jr A Penguins, who play an aggressive, up-tempo style under first-year Jr A head coach Cersosimo. "We look for a skill set," Cersosimo said. "We look for guys who can compete at the level we're at now and who have a high ceiling so we can develop them and move them up and on."
The Open Tryout was technically the second step in the team's tryout process, following the Pre-Draft Skate. The final tryout will be by invite only. As much as skating, puckhandling skills, size, strength and past history and production on the ice come into play when the Jr A Penguins fill out their roster, much of what a prospective player does off the ice factors in, too.
"The big thing that we found out that makes us very successful is how they are in the locker room and what their work ethic is away from the rink," Cersosimo said. "Are they doing workouts? Going to the gym three days a week? Working with a trainer? Are they doing their studying, keeping their grades up? Are they keeping a 3.0 GPA so when the time comes for games, they're able to play in them?
"What are they doing personality-wise to fit in with the other guys? For us, that's huge. We're trying to develop a team quickly and get everyone on the same page." The final roster is selected at the tryout July 22-24. One of the 25 roster spots will be left open so that the team can summon a deserving player from the Tier I Midget AAA teams during the season who has earned it.
Practices beginning the first week of August. Billet players are to report by Aug. 14. There's a long way to go before the season opener Sept. 10 against the Battle Creek Revolution at Bladerunners in Harmarville.
Last season, the Jr A Penguins went 29-16, fifth overall in the league. The team had the top two scorers in the league and the goalie with the most victories, so the standard was set high in that it makes for a tough act to follow.
But as much as a stellar win-loss record is the organization's goal and legacy, developing quality players for the next level — and quality people — is just as important. "The overall goal is to develop the person and the player," Cersosimo said. "We understand that — even if they are playing at this level — not a lot of kids are going on to play hockey as a profession. But we know they're going to be somebody's boss, somebody's employee, somebody's husband, somebody's father. We try to prepare them for everyday life when they leave our program.
"Hockey will take them so far, and we've had players move on to the NHL and (pro) minor leagues, the NAHL, the USHL… Wherever they go, we make sure they're prepared as a player and also as a person. We want them to be successful in whatever they do. We've talked a lot about how many players moved on to higher levels of hockey, but there's also guys who move on to be FBI agents, community leaders and more. We're just as proud of those guys."