The Hockey Week Across America initiative, started by USA Hockey in 2008 as Hockey Weekend Across America, was created to “engage the hockey community in celebrating the sport of hockey at all levels and exposing the sport to new audiences.”
"It's about engaging the kids. It's about making sure they're having fun, making sure they want to come back to hockey." #HWAA 🏒#ADM regional manager Bob Mancini on @NHLonNBCSports for #HDIA ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/O1fVsRuMSI
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) February 17, 2019
Though the week long event is meant to celebrate hockey at all stages, making it to the NHL is often viewed as the end goal for most younger players.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, in particular, have a large cast of characters that are products of the USA Hockey program at five different levels. The 10 American-born players on the Penguins squad prove game in and game out that hockey isn’t just for Canadians anymore.
Junior Hockey Graduates
In the United States, junior hockey is open to players between the ages of 16 and 21 with leagues throughout different regions of the country.
The United States Hockey League (USHL) operates out of the midwest and is the only Tier I league sanctioned by USA Hockey. The USHL specifically provides an alternative to major junior hockey for players who intend to play NCAA college hockey before entering the professional leagues.
Four current Pittsburgh Penguins players completed their involvement with the USA Hockey program at the junior level before playing college hockey and breaking into the NHL.
Zach Aston-Reese, a 24-year-old forward from Staten Island, New York, got his start in the USHL with the Des Moines Buccaneers in 2010, playing just two games with the club, before moving on to the Lincoln Stars, where he stayed for two and a half seasons.
Aston-Reese played 122 regular-season games in the USHL, posting 16 goals and 34 assists for 50 points over three seasons. He also participated in the USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in 2012, before attending Northeastern University, where he played four years of college hockey.
The undrafted player has never suited up for a team that was not based in the United States. He signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Penguins in 2017 and played with their American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins before his NHL debut with Pittsburgh on Feb. 3, 2018.
In just two seasons with the club, Aston-Reese has played in 49 regular-season and nine playoff games, and has a total of 20 points between regular- and postseason.
Casey DeSmith, a 27-year-old goaltender from Rochester, New Hampshire, played junior hockey for Berwick and Deerfield Academies before joining the USHL with the Indiana Ice in 2009. DeSmith was with Indiana for two seasons, playing 59 regular-season games and recording 33 wins in that time.
Like Aston-Reese, DeSmith is both undrafted – signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Penguins in 2017 to start his NHL career – and has never played for a team that was based outside of the United States. He played three seasons at the University of New Hampshire before signing with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL in 2015, and the WBS Penguins in 2016.
DeSmith played his first NHL game with the Penguins on Oct. 29, 2017, entering the game in the first period after Matt Murray was pulled. In two seasons with Pittsburgh, he’s played 47 regular-season games, starting 39 of them, and has 20 wins, including a 6-5 victory over the Rangers during the first game NBC’s “Hockey Day in America” coverage on Feb. 17.
DeSmith has established himself as the Penguins go-to backup goaltender and signed a three-year contract extension with Pittsburgh on Jan. 11 of this year.
Though he leads the Penguins in goals this season with 28, and was a member of the Stanley Cup squad of 2017, Jake Guentzel was not selected by NHL.com as one of the best U.S.-born players under 25 during last year’s Hockey Weekend Across America.
Guentzel, the 24-year-old forward from Omaha, Nebraska, was drafted 77th overall by the Penguins in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Prior to being drafted, Guentzel played one season, 60 games, with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, racking up 29 goals and 44 assists for 73 points. During his one season in the USHL, he was named to the All-Rookie and Second All-Star Teams and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year.
Like his USHL graduate teammates, Guentzel has never played for a team based outside of the United States, playing high school hockey at Hill-Murray School in Minnesota before joining the Musketeers, and playing three years of college hockey at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Guentzel signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Penguins in 2016, and played one-and-a-half seasons with the WBS Penguins before joining Pittsburgh for 40 games in 2016-17.
In just three professional seasons, Guentzel has played in 181 regular-season and 37 playoff games. He has a total of 177 points between regular- and postseason. He signed a five-year contract extension with the Penguins on Dec. 27, 2018.
Though not a typical Penguins mainstay, Ruhwedel could be getting more NHL ice time in the near future while Olli Maatta is on injured reserve with an upper-body ailment.
The 28-year-old defenseman from San Diego, California, grew up playing both ice and roller hockey in Scripps Ranch before joining the Siouc Falls Stampede of the USHL in 2008. In two seasons with the club, he played 120 total games, both regular-season and playoffs, and had 35 total points. He played in the USHL All-Star Game in 2010.
The undrafted Ruhwedel has never played for a team based outside of the United States. He suited up for UMass-Lowell for three seasons in college before joining the Buffalo Sabres in 2012. He played stints with the Rochester Americans and WBS Penguins of the AHL before joining the Penguins as a free agent in the summer of 2016.
Though Ruhwedel was a member of the 2017 Stanley Cup team he did not play enough games to have his name etched on the Cup. The Penguins organization, however, recognized his contribution by awarding him a championship ring and a day with the Cup.
IIHF U18 World Championship Participants
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Under-18 World Championship is a yearly tournament designed to showcase the best men’s and women’s under-18 talent from around the world.
One current Penguins player ended his time with USA Hockey as a participant in the U18 World Championship since its creation in 1999.
Twenty-six-year-old Bryan Rust, a native of Pontiac, Michigan, joined the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in 2008. The program, founded in 1996, is composed of Under-17 and an Under-18 squads that participate in national events and help develop skills and acquire experience for U.S. born players.
The U18 squad participates in the IIHF U18 World Championships, and in 2010, Rust was a member of gold-medal-winning Team USA. In seven games, Rust had four goals and two assists for six points.
Following his involvement with the Development Program, Rust was drafted 80th overall by the Penguins in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He played four years of college hockey at the University of Notre Dame before joining the WBS Penguins in 2013.
Rust played his first NHL game for the Penguins on Dec. 13, 2014. Since then, he has played in 239 regular season games, 58 playoff games, and has a total of 130 points in regular- and postseason. Rust is also a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Penguins, earning the trophy in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017.
IIHF Ice Hockey World Juniors Alums
The IIHF World Juniors is a yearly tournament to showcase the best under-20 talent from around the world. This tournament generally draws the top hockey players in the age category, but some NHL players, though eligible by age, are unable to participate due to overlap with the professional season.
One current Penguins player has seen the world juniors as the pinnacle of his USA Hockey career.
Unlike some of his teammates, Brian Dumoulin did not play for a USHL team before starting college hockey. Dumoulin, instead, played high school hockey for Biddeford High School in his hometown of Biddeford, Maine, and participated in the 2008 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament with Team USA before playing college hockey at Boston College for three years.
In 2011, Dumoulin was selected to Team USA’s World Juniors roster, where they took home the bronze medal. Dumoulin played in six games and had two assists in the tournament.
Dumoulin was drafted 51st overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, but he did not make his NHL debut until 2013 after being traded to the Penguins.
He has played six seasons with the club in 302 regular-season and 66 playoff games. Dumoulin has 92 total points in his career with the Penguins. He was also a member of the back-to-back Stanley Cup squads in 2016 and 2017.
Ice Hockey World Championship Veterans
The Ice Hockey World Championship is a men’s hockey tournament, and is considered the highest profile annual international tournament event in the sport. The tournament takes place during the same time as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, meaning many of the league’s top players can’t compete for their national teams.
Two current Penguins players have capped their USA Hockey careers with visits to the Ice Hockey World Championships.
Nick Bjugstad, a 26-year-old forward from Minneapolis, Minnesota, has USA Hockey in his blood. His father, Mike, played Division-III hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his uncle Scott played at the University of Minnesota before playing in the NHL and participating in the 1984 Olympic Games.
Despite this history, Bjugstad turned down the opportunity to train with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in 2008, instead choosing to play for Blaine High School in Minnesota. In 2010, he participated in the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp and led all participants with seven goals in seven games.
While playing college hockey for the University of Minnesota, Bjugstad suited up for Team USA in the World Junior Championships in 2011 and 2012, capturing a bronze medal the first year.
Bjugstad was drafted 19th overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and made his debut with the team in 2012. Florida did not make the Playoffs in 2012 or 2017, affording Bjugstad the opportunity to play for Team USA in the Ice Hockey World Championships both years. They earned a bronze medal in 2013.
Matt Cullen has been affectionately ribbed for being the oldest active player in the NHL, and with age comes experience.
In 21 seasons, Cullen has played 1,493 regular-season games and 128 playoff games for eight different NHL clubs, seven of them – Pittsburgh, Florida, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, and New York Rangers – in America. He’s also a three-time Stanley Cup champion.
The 42-year-old native of Virginia, Minnesota, was drafted 35th overall by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, and began his stint with USA Hockey the same year. Cullen participated in the 1996 World Juniors tournament, grabbing four points in six games.
Cullen has played in the Ice Hockey World Championships four times, in 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2004. His personal best tournament came in 1999, when he had seven points in six games. However, the 2004 Championships were the most successful overall for Team USA, as they took home the bronze medal. Cullen had six points in nine games that year.
The Olympic Games Elite
Hockey became a permanent fixture at the Winter Olympic Games in 1924, though NHL players did not begin to participate until 1998, as the Olympics took place during the regular season. In 2018, the NHL again barred its players from participating in the Olympics.
During that 20-year timeframe, two current Pittsburgh Penguins players represented Team USA on the grandest world stage in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
Though Phil Kessel is best known by some as the bullseye at the center of a Toronto Maple Leafs media circus, some of his most notorious accomplishments have arisen through the USA Hockey program.
Kessel participated in the USA Hockey National Development Program for two seasons, starting in 2003. He set a franchise record for the most career goals with 104, and he became the all-time leader in points with 26, and goals with 16, in 12 games during the 2004-05 U18 World Championships where Team USA took the silver. He participated again in 2005, when Team USA took the gold.
Following his Development Camp performance, Kessel spent one year playing college hockey with the Minnesota Golden Gophers before being drafted fifth overall by the Boston Bruins in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Kessel made his debut with the Bruins during the 2006-07 season, but continued to stay active with USA Hockey. He played in the 2005 and 2006 World Juniors, and the 2006, 2007 and 2008 Ice Hockey World Championships, none of which resulted in medals.
As an NHL player, Kessel was the only rookie to be awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, and he has captured two Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017. But he also has some international hardware to display.
Kessel donned the Team USA sweater in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, where he took home a silver medal the first year, missing the gold thanks to none other than his current teammate Sidney Crosby.
In addition to the tangible awards and medals, Kessel is also just one of 27 NHL players to play 500 consecutive games, and on Feb. 16, he became one of just 17 American-born NHL players to reach 800 points. The only other active American player to reach this milestone is the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane.
Since entering the league, no American has scored more goals than Phil Kessel. pic.twitter.com/yiW9ax4pRz
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 16, 2019
A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, 32-year-old Jack Johnson has been involved in the USA Hockey program since 2003, when he attended the USA Hockey National Development Program for two seasons.
Johnson participated in the World U17 Hockey Challenge with Team USA in 2004, and in the World U18 Championships in 2004 and 2005 when they won silver and gold, respectively.
Though he was drafted third overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, he played two years of college hockey at the University of Michigan, and continued to suit up for USA Hockey events.
Johnson played in the World Junior Championships in 2006 and 2007, where team USA took the bronze in the latter year. He also participated in the Ice Hockey World Championships in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Johnson had the chance to compete for Team USA on the 2010 Olympic squad, alongside current teammate Kessel, and took home a silver medal for his efforts. Unlike Kessel, Johnson was selected to the 2016 Team USA World Cup of Hockey Roster. Team USA came in fourth of four in Group A.
Of his time with USA Hockey, Johnson said:
“My time spent at the NTDP was a big turning point in my career as it helped to achieve my goals. I not only developed on the ice but off the ice as well. The training is second to none, and the chance to represent your country is the greatest feeling in all of sports.”
Hockey Week Across America continues through Sunday, Feb. 24, with events geared toward social media interactions to grow awareness for the game in the United States. The theme for Monday Feb. 18 is Salute to Players, a day to “recognize the players at all levels that shape the love of hockey across the country.” The Penguins are not lacking in U.S. players that deserve a stick tap.
Christy is a proud Pittsburgh Penguins fan, and now a proud Pittsburgh Penguins writer for The Hockey Writers. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, with degrees in journalism and education. In her spare time, Christy enjoys listening to music, running her blog “Getting to Know Pittsburgh,” binge-watching TV shows, spending time with friends and family, and playing with her dog, Max.