Growing up as an Alex Ovechkin fan in Pittsburgh wasn’t always easy for Logan Cooley.
“I definitely got a lot of hate for it,” said Cooley, an 18-year-old center for the US National Development Team and a top pick for the 2022 NHL draft. “I was a huge Ovechkin fan. Loved the way he played. Loved the way he scored goals. I just saw him with the Caps and became a huge Capitals fan.”
Cooley was the only Capitals fan in his circle of friends deep in the heart of Pittsburgh Penguins country. Which made things awkward when the Penguins appeared to have their rival’s number in the playoffs — until they didn’t anymore.
“Definitely a lot of heartbreak for Caps fans. But 2018 was a good year,” Cooley said, referring to the postseason as Washington went through the Penguins en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
His Ovechkin fandom could be interpreted as a symbol of rebellion or a failure of indoctrination. Cooley actually got his start in hockey thanks to Ovechkin’s nemesis Sidney Crosby.
“He started out as Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguin as part of the ’04s [birth year]the first group we had,” said David Morehouse, former Penguins president and the manager who helped start Crosby’s youth hockey program in Pittsburgh.
Crosby approached Morehouse with a desire to create a program that would allow local athletes who could not afford to play hockey to play. The two sat down in a Pittsburgh Marriott for lunch and made plans: Crosby was at Reebok; the Penguins team sponsored Dick’s Sporting Goods; and both the captain and his team were willing to pay their own money.
This is how “Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins” was born.
“Sid didn’t grow up as a rich kid. It was important to him to break down a lot of those financial barriers so kids could try the game he loves so much,” Morehouse said.
The manager and his captain urged both sponsors to eventually cover all the gear the players needed – from head to toe, including their jersey and a kit bag.
“I remember when we first printed the jerseys the idea was that all the players would wear different numbers,” Morehouse said. “But everyone wanted 87. So every jersey had Sid’s number on it.”
In the first year of the program in 2008, 400 children between the ages of 4 and 7 signed up for the team. One of them was Logan Cooley.
“I always grew up with hockey,” Cooley said. “My parents decided to take me in [the Little Penguins] and I’ve loved the game ever since.”
He had two uncles who played Division I college hockey. Both of his brothers played – his older brother Eric played for Ohio State last season.
“I was the first to do the Crosby program. I don’t remember much because I was about 4 years old,” Cooley said. “They gave you free gear, a chance to run around and have fun out there. I really remember that. And every time you’ve had Crosby out there and you’re learning from one of the best players in the world, that’s pretty cool being young.”
Cooley said the program didn’t focus too much on everything Crosby did on the ice.
“I think everyone was just trying to get up on their skates back then,” he said. “But [Crosby] means a lot. Anytime you have the opportunity to learn from Crosby, it’s great. I had the opportunity to see him in Pittsburgh every night. Just to see what he’s like as a person and as a player.”
As a player, Cooley mimics Patrick Kane more than Crosby or Ovechkin. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, as is Kane.
“Since he’s the same height as me, I’ve watched him use his skills to maneuver bigger guys,” Cooley said. “How good his hockey IQ is. Such a fun player to watch. I definitely took stuff from him and used it in my game.”
The NHL is a lot friendlier to a player Cooley’s size today than it was when Kane was first picked overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007. Cooley lists the names of undersized stars who excelled this season, such as Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Hughes and Trevor Zegras.
In the case of Zegras, he excelled as a rookie while populating the highlight reel, which Cooley noticed.
“He’s a guy you watch when Anaheim runs,” he said. “Especially as a USNDT colleague. The passes he deducts. The Michigan he makes. He’s not afraid to try anything out there and I think I’m that player too.”
The US National Development Program has come into play with great frequency in recent NHL drafts. Luke Hughes went 4th to the New Jersey Devils last year while Tyler Boucher went 10th to the Ottawa Senators. Jake Sanderson was #5 in Ottawa in 2020. The Devils picked Jack Hughes as their #1 pick in 2019, while the Los Angeles Kings picked Alex Turcotte as their #5 pick.
Cooley is poised to be a top-3 pick in the NHL draft next week, with the first round scheduled for Thursday night in Montreal (7ET, ESPN).
“It’s a 1-2-3 spread. But anything can happen on draft day,” he said. “It’s an odd draft. There is no consensus #1.”
Montreal has the top pick, followed by the Devils and the Arizona Coyotes. If center Shane Wright becomes No. 1, as many still expect, would Cooley know where he’s going?
“I don’t know. Does New Jersey want a winger or…?” Cooley considered. “I honestly have no idea. Arizona has shown a lot of interest. But it’s hard to say at the moment.”
He admits he was keeping an eye on the published mock drafts leading up to the first round.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t do it,” he said. “But it’s something you can’t pay too much attention to because it can get in your head and mess up your game. Now that the season is over and nothing’s really going on, you can look at it a little bit more.”
With these mock drafts come scouting reports on Cooley’s game, which he reads with interest when he’s not taking it to heart.
“You’ll always want to see the mostly good stuff,” he said. “But there are some people who say my two-way game is bad, little things like that. You have mixed feelings about that. But it doesn’t change me as a player.”
There are aspects of his game that he would like to improve before he gets drafted. “Getting stronger. It’s getting harder to get off the puck,” Cooley said. “I want to keep working on my two-way game and get even better defensively. And then my shot. Being able to score from further out. Those are the three things I’m working on to make an even more effective to become a player in the NHL.”
Some of that work could happen at a new summer league in Pittsburgh that Cooley is attending.
Minnesota has the Da Beauty League. Pittsburgh didn’t have a summer league for its NHL players, so the GOAT League started this summer. Cooley has played in a few games. Among the participating NHLers are Vancouver Canucks center JT Miller, Carolina Hurricanes center Vincent Trocheck, and Buffalo Sabers center Zemgus Girgensons.
“I went skating with them for a little bit last summer,” Cooley said. “I talked to them a bit. Not really about the draft or anything.”
Miller is the highest drafted player from the Pittsburgh area, having finished 15th overall to the New York Rangers in 2011.
“Not for long,” Miller told the Penguins website, referring to Cooley. “I heard he’s leaving quite early so I’m happy for him. I’ve heard he’s a damn good player and I’m looking forward to watching him. It’s good to see that all the talent is still coming out of Pittsburgh on a consistent basis.”
Especially now that little penguins are becoming big prospects.
https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/34175600/logan-cooley-hockey-journey-little-penguin-top-2022-nhl-draft-prospect Logan Cooley’s hockey journey – from ‘Little Penguin’ to top 2022 NHL draft prospect