'Ultimate dream': Tomahawks team with Penguins to hold memorable practice at Lemieux Complex

Mar. 3—The Johnstown Tomahawks practice on Tuesday was not the usual session in preparation for a weekend of games in the North American Hockey League.

Instead, the Tomahawks traveled nearly two hours to the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township to watch the National Hockey League Pittsburgh Penguins practice.

Then, Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Sullivan addressed the Johnstown players in the locker room before the Tomahawks held a one-hour practice led by Penguins assistant coach Mike Vellucci, whose son Ryan plays for the squad.

"It was awesome," said Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia, who played four years of Junior hockey under coach Mike Vellucci with the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League, from 2002-06.

That connection played a role in scheduling the non-traditional Tomahawks practice.

"It's something we talked about when the season started, maybe do something like that," Letizia said. "We could go down and watch their practice and then run our practice. Talk to them. We always kept talking about the possibility of doing it.

"Two weeks ago, we compared schedules," he said. "We targeted this date as one that would work for them and work for us. We got to watch their practice. Coach Sullivan came in and talked to the boys for a bit in between their practice and our practice. Coach Vellucci ran our practice."

The Tomahawks watched Penguins such as Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin skated at the NHL team's practice. After the ice was resurfaced, the Johnstown players had their time on the same ice.

"First class," said Tomahawks forward Jonny Ulicny. "For us as a team, that's the ultimate dream for everybody at the end of the day. So, it was a good eye-opener to see what it takes day-in and day-out to get to that level.

"To see some of the best players in the world, especially Crosby, handle his craft. Mike Sullivan is one of the best in the game. He talked about Sidney Crosby. He said he's not Sidney Crosby because he's Sidney Crosby. He does everything right off the ice and on the ice.

"Off the ice, proper rest, proper nutrition. That's what makes him Sidney Crosby when he's on the ice. He made a good point."

Letizia said Sullivan's message resonated with a group of players and coaches who are in the stretch run fighting for East Division playoff seeding. The second-place Tomahawks are 8-2-1 in their past 11 games and are 14-4-2 since Dec. 18, earning 30 of a possible 40 points.

Johnstown has 13 more regular-season contests.

"Mike Sullivan gave a great talk to the boys. Perfect timing," Letizia said.

"Just talking about how invested you have to be in your own personal game, but also how invested you have to be in your teammates and the cause of winning. It's daily commitment to be the best you can be on the ice and off the ice.

"There is a reason why Sidney Crosby is Sidney Crosby. Not just because he's a generational talent. All the things he does away from the ice."

Having an NHL assistant coach leading a NAHL practice also was special.

"Any day you get to learn from NHL coaches is a great day in itself," Ulicny said.

"Practicing under his wing made you realize everything that got him there and he's there for a reason as well. He's teaching all the right habits."

The Penguins' Vellucci posted on his Twitter account about working with the young players, including his own son.

"I had a great time running @JohnstownHawks practice today in Pittsburgh. Great to catch up with a old player of mine Head Coach Mike Letizia. and of course my son @ryanvellucci. Good luck the rest of the year and I know you are destined for great things!"

Participating in a practice with Coach Vellucci brought back memories for his former player, Letizia.

"You think back to when I was our guys' age, playing junior hockey, having that experience and playing for Mike (Vellucci)," Letizia said. "Twenty years later, coaching together on the same ice. I've had a lot of great moments being a coach and that certainly was one of the best moments."

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.