Watching Mario Lemieux bring home Lord Stanley’s Cup to the City of Pittsburgh over two decades ago incited Denny Urban’s passion for hockey.
It started in the Pittsburgh youth leagues, cultivated into a successful high school career, through coveted positions in hockey’s junior leagues, and eventually to Robert Morris University, where he earned a Division 1 scholarship.
One of a growing list of local hockey talent, the Baldwin defenseman is living his dream, not only earning a trip to the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp but playing professional minor league hockey, even if it is in the lower-tier East Coast Hockey League.
“I cannot say I ever imagined myself doing anything other than playing hockey,” said the 24 year old in an email interview.
Urban began playing hockey at age five, working his way through youth and high school hockey before catching his first break with the junior team, the Youngstown Phantoms.
After graduating from RMU with a degree in accounting, the defenseman’s agent was contacted by the ECHL team, the Reading Royals. Urban signed his first professional contract in March 2011. He was named Rookie of the Year and won the team’s Ironman Award last year. His success is part of a growing trend of professional hockey talent coming out of Western Pennsylvania in the past few years. The distinguished list includes Ryan Malone, George Parros, R.J. Umberger, and current Penguin Dylan Reese.
In the 2011 NHL Draft, four out of a possible five prospects from the Pittsburgh area were selected by NHL teams, including J.T. Miller, John Gibson, Vince Trochek and Brandon Saad. Saad was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks. He played his first NHL game in the preseason of 2011 against the Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center and was greeted with a highlight real on the score board and a “Welcome Home” message.
“One of the many reasons that you see more and more kids coming out of Western Pennsylvania has to do with the success that the Penguins have had,” said Urban. He attributes a great deal this area of the country becoming a hot bed for hockey talent to the success of the Penguins and the growth of youth hockey in the area. He added that his alma mater hosting a Division 1 hockey team has helped as well because “kids can stay local and get an education while competing at a high level.”
Urban has practiced and skated in the off season with players like Gibson and Saad, whom have made the jump to professional teams. “Many of us skate and workout together in the summers so everyone that is playing hockey in the Western PA area kind of know each other and interact a lot in the summer.”
After participating in a rookie tournament following the 2011-2012 season with the Royals (now an affiliate team of the Washington Capitals), the team’s former NHL affiliate, the Maple Leafs extended the rookie defenseman an invitation to their training camp in Toronto.
“Every kid growing up that plays hockey dreams about playing in the NHL and having the opportunity to put on a jersey that has the NHL patch on it is so surreal,” Urban said of his first camp. “The first time stepping onto the ice for camp was one of the coolest experiences ever. You have the jersey of an NHL team on and you get to skate with guys that you look up to.”
Urban described the experience of being on the same ice as players whom have influenced him throughout the years. Players like the Leafs’ veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf and former Penguin Colby Armstrong, helped Urban and the other prospects get to know the city of Toronto. Urban seemed especially fond of Armstrong. “When he found out that I was from Pittsburgh, he and I got to talking about the city and really developed a friendship throughout the camp.”
Training camp wasn’t just about forming bonds though. Throughout the camp, Urban remained focused on what is necessary to reach the NHL level. “You have to bring your best every day because there are people that are looking to take your spot away from you.” An advantage of attending training camp for Urban was the opportunity to skate alongside and learn from players like Phaneuf, whom he looked up to growing up and influenced his continued interest in hockey.
Due to the NHL lockout, Urban attended his second training camp with the Calgary Flames affiliate American Hockey League Team, the Abbotsford Heat in British Columbia.
Urban stands at 5’10” and 177 pounds, placing him in the smaller spectrum of players. While he possesses a strong amount of offensive prowess, setting a school record at RMU for scoring by a defenseman, his main role is to prevent the opposition from scoring. “Not being the biggest guy out there, I have to work to contain people because I will not be able to use my body to knock people off the puck,” he explained. “So I have to work to contain them and get the puck that way.”
Adjusting to the lifestyle of a professional hockey player is also an experience that takes getting used to. The travel style between college and a professional team is much different. “You can be in three different cities in three days. So figuring out a way that you can get some rest on the bus as you head to the next city is the biggest key so that you can be ready for your next game.” The team travels to such places as Orlando, Las Vegas, and Cincinnati.
In addition to the physical and mental wear of being on the road for sometimes two weeks at a time, Urban and his teammates rely on one another to keep things light and fun by shopping, going out to eat, to movies, and playing pranks in the hotels. “When guys are out doing stuff some guys like to move their things into their hotel room or even move their hotel room out into the hallway.” Other practical jokes include filling trash cans with water and leaning them against the hotel door. “
From weeks at a time on the road, to the limited time Urban gets to spend with his family during the 72-game ECHL season, he remains motivated and ready for the next phase of his career.
“I get to wake up every morning and play a sport that I love so much. I always told myself that once I wake up in the morning and it’s a struggle to go to the rink and it becomes more like a job that I will quit.” He offers advice to other up-and-comers in the sport to enjoy the game for what it is because so few are able to dedicate their life to playing a sport. He says his love for the sport is what keeps him going each day.
Urban is on his way to a productive and successful season, scoring a power play goal in the Royals’ season opener on October 14 against the Trenton Titans, and also has an assist. If Urban keeps improving his game, he could look forward to a call up to the AHL team the Hersey Bears, a stepping stone toward the NHL level Capitals.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say I wish to play in the NHL but I am just taking it one year at a time to ultimately get to that level.”
— by Stevie Watson