“Mr. High School Sports” – Remember When the PIHL Went Hollywood?
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By Matt Popchock
Once upon a time, Universal Studios asked the Pittsburgh Penguins to help them make a movie. In turn, the Pittsburgh Penguins, being who they are, invited the community, especially the hockey community, to participate.
Their involvement in the 1995 film “Sudden Death” was arguably the one redeeming quality of the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. It disappointed at the box office, and received lukewarm reviews.
Still, it captures the city of Pittsburgh and its passion for pucks in a positive light, which makes a trip down memory lane worthwhile. I still remember going to see it on premiere weekend, and I couldn’t help but check it out again when it was on one of the movie channels recently.
Some people who have been important figures in the growth of high school hockey and the evolution of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League skated as extras in the fictitious Stanley Cup Final Game 7. Perhaps some of these names ring a bell?
Jim Black is the current varsity head coach at North Allegheny, and Jim McVay, credited here under his nickname, “Mort,” is the longtime varsity coach at Bethel Park, which just won the Class AAA Penguins Cup title, defeating Black’s Tigers in triple-OT en route to the finals. Black won state gold with N.A. in 2007, upsetting the Hawks in the Penguins Cup Final in the process, after winning it in Class AA behind Pine-Richland’s bench in 2006.
Ed Figas was an assistant with the varsity program at Serra Catholic when the Eagles won three consecutive Pennsylvania Cups in Class A 2000-02, and he was also the first goalie in the history of that program. They are the only PIHL Class A team since the league’s formation to win three state championships in a row (by the way, McVay’s Black Hawks won three in a row at the same time).
Bob Gergerich is the president of IHC Hockey, Inc., a collection of hockey schools that teach players of all ages. Several former PIHL players, including R.J. Umberger (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Matt Bartkowski (Boston Bruins), have attended his schools and later served as youth instructors.
Matt Heufelder skated with Bishop Canevin’s varsity squad in the old SHIHL (South Hills Interscholastic Hockey League) when the Crusaders hoisted back-to-back Class AA Pennsylvania Cups in 1983 and 1984. Todd Heufelder played for that program when the Crusaders went all the way again in 1989, which would be their last state crown until 2011.
Dickie Rizzo and younger brother Brad Rizzo played varsity hockey at Allderdice, and Dickie played a pivotal role in helping the Dragons win their only Penguins Cup championship in 1988. The Rizzo family also played a pivotal role in the development of the Division I program at Pitt around the time the movie was released. On a side note, some local hockey historians argue Dickie and Brad’s cousin, Dee Rizzo, a star at Allderdice and later Michigan State, should have played in the NHL, though he did play minor-league hockey with the defunct Pittsburgh Knights of the original Mid-Atlantic Hockey League. Dee was one of the first in this area to play major college hockey and served as a technical consultant during filming.
Greg Simkovich, for the past four years, has been the stage manager and booth producer for hockey coverage at Fox Sports Net/ROOT Sports Pittsburgh, which annually provides tape-delayed coverage of the Penguins Cup Championship Series. He is typically responsible for producing sideline reports.
Dave Stonebraker recently became the head varsity coach at Plum. The Mustangs, entering their second season under his tutelage, are coming off a second-place finish in AA-Sec. 4 and a berth in the Penguins Cup Quarterfinals. Making their third straight postseason appearance, they defeated North Hills in their 2012 playoff opener.
Dave Stanton was an All-Star defenseman at Keystone Oaks, and he has been involved as a coach with a number of PIHL programs in the 17 years since the movie premiered. He currently runs a summer hockey camp out of Ice-O-Plex at Southpointe.
Tony Trovato was a standout at then-powerhouse Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the mid-1980s, back when the WPIHL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League) was still an independent league, and he presently serves as a PIHL on-ice official. Trovato played college hockey at Pitt.
Jim Weir was involved with the defunct varsity program at Belle Vernon, which reached the Class AA Penguins Cup Final in 1992. The football stadium at that school is named James Weir Stadium in honor of the elder Weir’s tenure as athletic director 1965-87.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)