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Penguins, Chatham University bring college hockey to Hunt Armory

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With Robert Morris hockey on the shelf through the 2023-24 season, the Chatham Cougars men’s and women’s teams are the new local college hockey teams on the podium.

Now the center stage itself is also new. For a few nights at least.

The Cougars men’s team will play a game at the Hunt Armory against King’s College Friday night at 7 p.m. It will be the first college game in the newly repurposed Shadyside building. In November, the Pittsburgh Penguins, City of Pittsburgh, and Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh cut the ribbon on the redevelopment landmark as a seasonal ice rink. It is the city’s first new ice cover in more than 20 years.

The rink is funded by the Penguins, along with NHL and NHLPA. According to Kevin Acklin, Penguins chief operating officer, the franchise and league “seek to provide children from urban neighborhoods with more opportunities to learn the game of ice hockey.”

With Chatham’s campus just half a mile away from the Armory, Acklin sees an opportunity to help grow the college game in Pittsburgh as well.

“The Penguins are partnering with Chatham University to continue to strengthen their men’s and women’s ice hockey program,” Acklin said Wednesday. “They have expressed an interest in working with the Penguins and the city to build a longer-term future at Hunt Armory. It’s truly historic that Chatham will play the first NCAA hockey game at the Armory, and we hope to continue working together and even help take their program to Division I levels.”

Discussion of the Chatham to Division I hockey program has been minimal in the past. But with the Penguins giving voice to that hope — as well as at least partial use of the facility — that adds credibility to the conversations.

Both the men and women’s programs are only scheduled for two games at the Armory this year. And the number of seats is limited to 300 under city zoning codes for a seasonal job. But men’s coach Michael Gershon is excited about the Cougars’ chance to christen the new ice pack.

“Having the opportunity to showcase the building and what the Penguins and the city have done with the historic building is amazing,” Gershon said. “Our guys are really excited to be first – the opportunity to be first in anything. We’re trying to build this program. There’s a lot of firsts that we’re trying to create. This just adds to the legacy of what we are trying to do here by building this program.”

Making Hunt Armory the permanent home for both Cougars programs isn’t the immediate goal.

Acklin described the building’s first season as a “test year” for the Penguins and the URA to focus on “youth education programs and to better establish our Black hockey program and create recreational opportunities for city residents.” As Acklin pointed out, it would be necessary to convert the Hunt Armory into a permanent year-round facility to forge a permanent link between the school and the ice rink. For now, it is only used seasonally between the end of November and March 1. Acklin says such progress would require “additional investment in permanent ice-making facilities and insulation, and would require additional city approvals.”

For now, however, the connection with Chatham is twofold.

• Involving a university team in the mix raises awareness of the building’s capabilities to accommodate local teams and its public skating. It also furthers the franchise’s hopes of expanding the game at the college level.

• From Chatham’s point of view, the goal is to have a few games closer to campus for players and fans to focus more on the program. The men’s team currently plays in Valencia at Frozen Pond Arena. The women are at the Pittsburgh Ice Arena in New Kensington. Both facilities are approximately 35 minutes from campus.

“Everyone wants to be as close to school as possible, especially in terms of the students’ experience,” Gershon said. “We would do well to get a few more people near the campus. Just the convenience factor. For students who don’t have to get on a shuttle and just walk down, that’s extremely important to me and hopefully to the sports department and the school. That’s one of the reasons we’re trying to make this work: to make the student experience exciting for our athletes and Chatham and the surrounding community.”

Gershon, a former assistant on Robert Morris’s Division I program, wouldn’t speculate on Acklin’s long-term hopes that Chatham might make the jump to DI. And a university spokesperson had no comment on the prospect.

But one thing is clear: a newly renovated building just a five-minute drive from campus that bears the stamp of the NHL and the Penguins certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise noted.

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