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December 28, 2012

RMU hoping Three Rivers Classic provides local boost

It's a hockey night in Pittsburgh. Finally.

While the NHL hasn't solved its labor strife, there will be hockey in Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center this weekend. Robert Morris will take part in the inaugural Three Rivers Classic, a two-day tournament featuring Penn State, Ohio State, and No. 5 Miami (Ohio). The winner of the tournament will receive a trophy handed out by Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Blysma.

But for Robert Morris, the tournament is more than just a chance to showcase the program and try to capture a win. The Colonials have been playing downtown for the last six years, playing five college hockey showcases at Mellon Arena and Consol. This tournament takes on a bigger feel, as it serves as a bit of a dry run for Robert Morris in preparation for the Frozen Four in April.

"It's really a natural fit to do a tournament in the year we're hosting the Frozen Four," head coach Derek Schooley said. "It's kind of a trial run, a little bit, for some things that have to take place."

Senior associate athletic director Marty Galosi said that though the NCAA operates much of the Frozen Four, there are certain elements of this weekend's games that will give the Robert Morris staff a chance to evaluate Consol for a larger event.

"We have a role as the local/host school, even though it's hosted by Consol Energy Center and AEG," Galosi said. "We have a little larger stake than the three other schools this first year in terms of helping with operations and set-up and logistics."

Robert Morris has drawn well at Mellon and Consol, with the largest crowd coming during the Winter Classic week in 2010 in a game against RIT. That game brought in 6,957 fans, the largest ever for an RMU game. Organizers expect that record to be broken this weekend, as the lower bowl has been sold out and tickets went on sale Thursday for the upper bowl, which wasn't originally going to be open.

The NCAA takes a close look at crowd movement and all the bells and whistles during site visits during NHL games prior to the Frozen Four. With no NHL games currently available, the Three Rivers Classic will serve as a bit of a trial run.

"What will happen with this is we'll have significantly bigger crowds than we've ever had at downtown locations," Galosi said.

The tournament idea came from the arena management and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Robert Morris and the Penguins have had a close relationship since the hockey program was founded, and Schooley said that the organization brought the idea of a tournament to RMU when the Penguins received the Winter Classic in 2010.

"Unfortunately, they brought it up right when the Winter Classic was announced in July," Schooley said. "There's really no way to go about doing that on short notice, everyone has their schedule filled."

In the short term, the game against RIT was moved to Consol while Robert Morris worked to find potential partners for a future tournament. They found them in Penn State, in its first year as a program, and regular RMU opponents Miami and Ohio State.

"You want to go where some of your fanbase is," Schooley said. "Pittsburgh is a good hotbed for alumni of Ohio State and Penn State. To bring Miami here is great; they've played here at the Island and downtown."

The group has already secured next year's foursome, as Robert Morris, Penn State, and Bowling Green will be joined by current-No. 1 Boston College. The hope is that it becomes a regular, well-attended tournament and a staple of Pittsburgh hockey.

"They've really put an emphasis on growing the game of hockey in the city," Schooley said of the Penguins. "They know what their clientele is and the clientele likes hockey."

As for the actual hockey, Robert Morris will take on Penn State at 4:30 on Friday, followed by Ohio State and Miami. The losers will play a consolation game at 4:30 on Saturday, followed by the championship game later that night. Robert Morris already has a win and a tie against Ohio State, as well as a win against Penn State. Neither came easy, especially the 3-2 win over Penn State in State College prior to Christmas.

"They took it to us. I don't know if we weren't ready to play or had finals on our mind, getting for Christmas break, whatever it was. We kind of rope-a-doped our way to a 3-2 win," Schooley said. "They were aggressive, they played hard, and I think we played our best hockey in the last 12 minutes of the game."

Miami, a regular in the NCAA Tournament and atop the national polls, will be without two star players. Forwards Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly are currently playing for the U.S. National Junior Team in the preliminary round of the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. But Miami is still loaded with highly touted players and will likely be the favorite to win the tournament.

But Robert Morris is not just the perfunctory host. The Colonials are knocking on the door of the national polls and could find themselves breaking through with a championship. Schooley said RMU will have to follow the formula it's crafted on the nation's fifth longest unbeaten streak.

"We're getting good goaltending. Our defense is playing extremely well," Schooley said. "We're working hard and playing physical, and the things that we've had to do to be successful, we've done."

The game against Penn State Friday also comes on the heels of Robert Morris' tie against Ohio State in front of a packed crowd at the Island Sports Center. Given a strong performance, Robert Morris might find a throng of fans unlike any they've ever seen before pulling for them this weekend.

"This city is hungry for hockey," Galosi said.

Friday and Saturday, they'll get a chance to whet their appetites.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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