For many years, western Pennsylvania has been known as the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”
Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas are some of the football greats who hail from the Pittsburgh region.
Recently, the area has produced some top hockey talent, notably NHL veterans Ryan Malone and R. J. Umberger, and newcomers J.T. Miller and Brandon Saad.
However, Pittsburgh’s “Goaltender Generation” has burst onto the scene at the college and Junior hockey levels. No Pittsburgh goalie has reached the NHL, but that could change soon.
John Gibson leads the way. The 2011 NHL second-round draft choice of the Anaheim Ducks helped lead Team USA (which had three other Pittsburgh-born players) to gold at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. He was named the tournament’s top goaltender and most valuable player.
More recently Gibson was named one of three goaltenders to play for the U.S. National Team at the IIHF World Championship, joining Mike Richter (1986) and Mike Dunham (1992) as the only U.S. netminders to play in both tournaments in the same year.
“John Gibson is an excellent goaltender,” said Ron Rolston, who coached Gibson at the National Team Development Program. “He has a big upside, big potential. He’s big, athletic. He’s got a lot of pro potential because of his size and his competitive nature.”
Pittsburgh’s goaltenders have claimed the 2011 and ’12 NCAA Div. I national championships. Kenny Reiter backstopped the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2011, and Parker Milner guided Boston College to last year’s title. Mike Martin was on the St. Norbert College squad that captured back-to-back Div. III titles. Rob Madore is now plying his trade in the AHL after a stellar four-year career at Vermont.
Mike Houser, who turned pro with Cincinnati of the ECHL, became the first American to claim the Canadian Hockey League’s Goaltender of the Year Award last season with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights.
This year, five local men – Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State), Matt Skoff (Penn State), Bryce Merriam (RPI), Greg Lewis (Clarkson) and Milner (BC) – and two women – Lindsay Holdcroft (Dartmouth) and Katelyn Pippy (Cornell) – were starting goaltenders at D-I programs.
So, what’s in the water in those Three Rivers?
“I think every goaltender that came out of Pittsburgh has been naturally gifted,” Hildebrand said. “But, you need that person to bring that talent out and that person to make sure you’re working hard and doing all the right things, too.”
Shane Clifford and Jeremy Hoy are those guys. Clifford is a former minor league goalie and Penguins assistant coach. He runs the Shane Clifford Goalie School. Hoy owns Finish First Sports Performance. Both men have gained national acclaim in their crafts and are sought out by many organizations.
“We have a lot of great resources, especially those two guys,” Reiter said. “All of it compliments each other. Shane understands the position on a different level. He has played the game, and he’s worked in the NHL. Jeremy is great at looking at our position and helping us come up with a lot of specific exercises to be prepared to handle how hard the season is on your body.”
Clifford, a Cincinnati native, landed in the area in 1997 and began teaching goaltending lessons. Along the way, he’s landed goaltending jobs with a variety of college, amateur and professional teams, including a stint with the hometown Penguins.
“He taught me everything I know,” Hildebrand said. “I was incredibly fortunate to start going to him when I was young. He is so specific to detail. He is incredibly talented.”
Hoy has experience working as a performance coach at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., Duquesne University, Robert Morris University, as well as a variety of other coaching positions at many different levels. He has directed and hosted many summer performance camps and clinics, speed and agility camps and team training programs for sports such as hockey, wrestling, soccer, football, basketball and tennis.
“It’s really refreshing to have someone not only give goalie-specific workouts, but hockey-
specific workouts,” Milner said. “Those are hard enough to find. Someone who is willing to tweak your workouts like that is a great asset for us to have around Pittsburgh.”
From wherever they are scattered during the hockey season, the goaltenders look forward to coming back home to see each other, and work out with both Clifford and Hoy.
“It’s a cool environment to be around. It makes working out much more tolerable hanging out with friends,” Milner said. “It’s great to be around excellence and to be around people as talented or more talented as you are.”
The workouts can get pretty competitive (in a positive way) – and the female goaltenders don’t back down, either.
“It’s nice to have a gym like Jeremy’s. There are always a lot of hockey players there, but half of them are goaltenders. It’s a great place to talk and reconnect,” Holdcroft said.
“I was really lucky to be able to grow up and be surrounded by great goaltenders. These guys are bigger and play at faster level, but really that pushes me. The guys are super welcoming and supportive, but competitive at the same time. There’s an important balance that works really well.”
This group of goaltenders, which was inspired by Massachusetts native Tom Barrasso and the Penguins’ 1991 and ’92 Stanley Cup championship squads, hopes the goaltender pipeline continues.
With the Penguins claiming a Stanley Cup in 2009 and igniting a second hockey boom in the area, that’s a very real possibility. They want to do whatever they can to help inspire the next group, too.
“I remember how cool it was looking up to the older goalies from the area and getting to work with them at Shane’s camps,” Milner said. “It’s a great opportunity for me to be that role model for some of the younger goalies.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer base in Pittsburgh.
Photos By Images on Ice; Getty Images (3)
Western Pennsylvania goaltenders continue to leave their marks in Junior, college and professional ranks. Here is the list:
John Gibson (2013 WJC championship and MVP with Team USA, Anaheim Ducks 2011 2nd round pick, Kitchener Rangers-OHL)
Kenny Reiter (2011 NCAA D-I champ at Minnesota Duluth, Bridgeport-AHL)
Parker Milner (2012 NCAA D-I champ at Boston College)
Mike Houser (2012 CHL Goalie of the Year, Cincinnati-ECHL)
Rob Madore (Vermont, Charlotte-AHL)
Jake Hildebrand (Michigan State)
Matt Skoff (Penn State)
Bryce Merriam (RPI)
Greg Lewis (Clarkson)
Tom Comunale (UConn)
Mike Martin (2011, ’12 NCAA D-III champ, St. Norbert College)
Steve Perry (NAHL, committed to Clarkson)
Colin DeAugustine (Penguins Elite, USHL draft pick)
Scott Brown (AJHL)
Lindsay Holdcroft (Darmouth)
Katelyn Pippy (Cornell)
Brianne McLaughlin (2010 U.S. Olympian hails from Sheffield Village, Ohio but played four years at Robert Morris University)