Behind Logan Cooley, the 2022 NHL Draft’s — and Pittsburgh’s — humble star in the making

LANDSHUT, Germany — There’s a YMCA in Bethel Park, Penn., just south of Pittsburgh, and at 6:30 a.m., three or four days a week, all summer long, its ice belongs to the Cooley brothers and a group of their local pals.

There’s Eric, the oldest — a five-year college player at Niagara University and then Ohio State who attended NHL development camps with the Sabres and Maple Leafs. There’s Riley, the middle child, who briefly played junior hockey before following his mom into her work in the stock market. And there’s Logan, the baby and prodigal son of Pittsburgh’s biggest hockey family. 

Somewhere on the ice, among a smattering of Division I college hockey players, there’s also John Mooney, the boys’ uncle on their mom’s side. Mooney’s brother, Tom, is also a former captain at the University of Notre Dame. John was a hockey player in his own right and played in the NCAA, ECHL and CHL before taking up coaching and, now, running these skates. He also has three hockey-playing kids of his own, cousins to the Cooleys. There’s Kaley and Ireland, who both played college hockey at Miami University (Kaley now coaches the area’s top U14 and U16 girls teams), and there’s LJ, who is next in line as one of the area’s rising stars after Logan. LJ is one of the top-ranked 2007-born players in the country and has real aspirations to make the NTDP like Logan did. Logan refers to him as a “heck of a player.” In recent summers, LJ has joined their early morning skates.

One of John’s buddies runs the ice, so the boys have free rein. John will lead them through skill and skating work for an hour and a half before heading off to work, but the boys will linger for another hour of scrimmaging and fooling around after he’s gone. When they’re done at the YMCA, they all load into each other’s cars and drive 20 minutes east to a small gym called Blaze Sports Performance. When their workouts are finished, they’ll all get back into their cars for the short drive home to a quiet dead-end street they call “the compound.”

They call it the compound because the Cooleys live on one side of the street and directly across their yard live the Mooneys. Back in the day, John would build an outdoor rink in his yard and they’d all get together to play.

After the rink and the gym, the cousins all usually grab a bite to eat together before returning home to play street hockey or roller hockey, or shoot pucks. When they’re done with that, one of the older kids will often drive LJ to one of his summer hockey games while the others head out for a round of golf.

By the time John returns from work, they’re back out there, sticks in their hands. Then, they all eat dinner together and get back at it.

“Our whole life we’ve been together there (on the same street),” John said, “and 24/7 it’s just hockey. That’s all we do. And they’re very close. Very close. It’s so awesome when (all the kids) come home after the season and everyone gets together. It’s the best for (LJ) because they’re older and just seeing what they’ve been through and the careers they’ve had so far, that’s half the reason I do it is because of how great it is for my kid to compete against those kids. It couldn’t be better.”

On Day 2 of the U18 World Championship in Germany, a couple of hours before Team USA’s second game of the tournament against Team Czechia, Logan is leaning against the wall outside the USA room, his teammates at the national program kicking a soccer ball around in the distance behind him.

When he’s asked about the compound, he lights up with a smile.

“It’s so much fun,” he says. “We’ll just be out there for hours. We just watch hockey all day long and if we’re not watching it we’re playing it. We all just grew up around the game and have such a passion for it.”

That passion has carried him to the very top of the 2022 NHL Draft class. In a couple of months, he’ll be one of the very first players selected in Montreal.

There will be a crowd from Pittsburgh.

(Rena Laverty / U.S. NTDP)

The first time Logan showed up at Blaze Sports Performance, Nate Blazevich, the gym’s owner and director of strength and conditioning, only knew he was Riley’s little brother.

“Hey, would it be OK if my 14-year-old brother comes and works out with me?” Riley had asked Blazevich.

“Sure, that’s fine,” Blazevich answered, not thinking much of it.

After one visit turned into repeat workouts, Blazevich’s early impressions were just that Logan was “your typical 14-year-old kid.”

It wasn’t until much later he learned that that 14-year-old kid was one of the top young hockey players in the country and already verbally committed to the University of Notre Dame (Logan has since switched his commitment from Notre Dame to the University of Minnesota).

Today, years later, when Blazevich talks about the Cooleys, and about Logan, that’s the first memory that comes to his mind. Nobody told him. Nobody made a fuss about it. He had to find out on his own.

He’ll never get over that.

“I think the coolest thing about him is that he’s humble about it. He doesn’t brag or boast. And his whole family is like that,” Blazevich said. “They carry themselves very well and they work hard and push the other kids in the gym to be better in the facility as well, too. They make sure everyone else gets better, they bring the energy, and they’re just good people to be around.”

(Courtesy Nate Blazevich)

Blazevich isn’t alone in that takeaway, either.

As Logan has climbed the ranks, progressing from local star to national team-leading scorer (his 1.44 points per game led USA Hockey’s under-18 team this season) and NHL Central Scouting’s No. 2-ranked North American skater for the 2022 NHL Draft, he has left the same impression everywhere he’s gone.

When under-18 team assistant coach Nick Fohr is asked about Cooley, the first thing he brings up is the same thing Blazevich speaks of.

“Logan is a super humble kid,” Fohr says. “He’s very quiet. He has started to come out of his skin a little bit. He’s a great kid. He’s pretty intellectual. And it took him some time for him to believe that he’s as good as everybody thinks he is. And that just plays to that humbleness that he has. That really bleeds into everything that he does.”

He’s just as good an athlete and hockey player as he is a kid, too. Logan will never tell you as much.

He describes himself as a smart, two-way centre who wants to play both sides of the puck before telling you he has a lot of work to do to continue to round out his defensive game and get stronger in the gym if he’s going to have the same success he’s had against older college players — and eventually, NHL players. After a morning meeting at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth in late November, he mused about how he needs to improve his one-timer.

“Once you get up a level, it gets more difficult to get to the inside so I’m going to need to be able to create outside chances,” he said.

But everyone else will say what he won’t: he’s special.

John says the beauty of Logan’s game is that his best tools are the ones he can’t teach him anything about in their skills sessions at the YMCA: his hockey IQ and his compete level.

“(Hockey IQ and competitiveness) are things you either have or you don’t and I think those are his two best traits. The No. 1 thing in hockey — because of how many kids are so similar — is your compete level, and Logan, Eric and Riley all have that in spades. What makes the morning skates so good is that they’ll kill each other if they have to,” John said, laughing. “We only take about 8-10 kids and that’s what makes it so good is that when those 8-10 kids are out there, they’re so, so competitive. They’ll kill each other on the ice and then we’ll go and have breakfast.”

Between ages 14 and 17 (Logan will turn 18 on May 4, three days after the U18 worlds conclude), Logan wowed Blazevich with how quickly he made progress in the gym.

“He was kind of a skinny, lanky 14-year-old kid. He had good athleticism and he was kind of coming into himself but throughout the years, his strength has increased big time,” Blazevich said. “He can split squat 225 pounds and I’ve seen him deadlift about 500 pounds and I think he weighs like 170 or 175 pounds (Logan says he weighs closer to 180 pounds these days but his listed weight is 174). So he’s definitely strong. And he’s really quick. When we do dryland stuff on the turf, he gets in and out of his breaks quicker than anyone. He has come into himself really well from that little, tiny 14-year-old to where he’s at now. Eric’s six years older than Logan but strength-wise, they’re pretty similar.”

At the national program, he made equally fast progress on the ice. Though Logan wasn’t the biggest name in his age group coming in, by the time his under-17 season was done, he was the player who’d played the most often above his birth year with the under-18 team, posting 32 points in 28 games with the U17s and 14 points in 19 games with the U18s. He even played a prominent role at the 2021 U18 World Championship as an underager (making this year’s tournament his second).

“I had pretty high expectations for him coming in and he has far exceeded those,” Fohr said. “For me, the biggest thing he does is he makes everyone on the ice with him better. And that’s hard to do as a player. To be a player where when you step on the rink, everyone else that’s on your line with you, you make them better, that’s a huge compliment. Not a lot of players do that. That’s quite an attribute and that’s the biggest thing I’ve seen through the two years with him.”

This year, the progress continued, making him the only player from this year’s under-18 team to make Team USA for the world juniors, where he slotted in as the team’s second-line centre and picked up an assist in the first game of the under-20 tournament before it was shut down due to the pandemic.

By the time he was in Edmonton for the short-lived tournament, staff with the world junior team said including Cooley as a rare draft-eligible was a no-brainer. Nate Leaman, the team’s head coach, referred to him as dynamic and said he got better with every skate in their summer showcase. John Vanbiesbrouck, the team’s general manager, said that despite his age, they expected big things out of him in the tournament.

“He’s a great playmaker and I have a saying that you have to be consistent before you’re creative and Logan has created some predictability to his game that we’re ready to unleash to the world,” Vanbiesbrouck said.

To those who really know Logan, none of that progress — nor the high praise for the person or the player — comes as any surprise.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s unreal. I just see him getting better. He just keeps getting better and it’s all through hard work,” John said. “He deserves everything he’s got. I’m always travelling with my son around and whenever we can go back and watch his games, we do. I love watching him play and he’s a role model for my son and I couldn’t ask for a better role model.”

(Rena Laverty / U.S. NTDP)

According to Elite Prospects, only 15 players born in Pittsburgh have ever made it as far as the NHL.

Among them, only two (R.J. Umberger and Swedish-American Henrik Samuelsson, the son of former Penguin Ulf) were drafted in the first round. Brandon Saad is the city’s all-time leading scorer (over 400 NHL points and counting) and will soon pass Umberger’s 779 games played mark.

Logan might surpass them all.

On draft day, he’ll certainly become the highest-picked player ever born and developed in Pittsburgh. But he’s just the beginning of a talked-about wave of kids playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Hockey program in the area’s post-Sidney Crosby minor hockey explosion.

When he’s asked about the history he might make this summer, he doesn’t pretend he hasn’t thought about it.

“The draft is in the back of (my) mind always. I can’t lie,” he said.

And when he talks about where he comes from, he beams with pride. There is one hitch though, and he laughs when he confesses it.

“I was actually a big Capitals fan. I was a big fan of (Alex Ovechkin),” he said. “Now I’ve got into Edmonton because I like watching (Connor) McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl.”

Still, despite his NHL allegiances, there will be an entire hockey community in Pittsburgh cheering him on when he gets drafted — and beyond.

John says Logan’s career and the exposure for Pittsburgh’s burgeoning minor hockey scene that it — and he — will provide, will be “huge for the area.”

“Logan and the family are just good people, he’s approachable, and he’s just a good, quiet kid. So it’ll mean the world if he comes out of it and everybody will be talking about it up at the rink where he played, the UPMC (Lemieux Sports Complex), all those years,” John said. “There’s so many Pittsburgh kids coming out of there and hopefully he can lead the way for the next generation.”

Blazevich knows he’ll be following along every step of the way.

“His success is definitely warranted and it’s great to see him having it, especially as a local kid,” Blazevich said. “He’s very serious. He has an excellent work ethic. He works really hard, he doesn’t complain, he’s always looking for more, and he brings a good attitude and energy. Like he’s never in a bad mood or going through the motions. He’s always looking to get better and he makes (coming to the gym) enjoyable. He’s a thrill to work with.”

This week, his mom, Cathy, and dad, Eric (who works for a dump truck company), have followed him to Germany to watch him on the world stage as the NTDP chapter of his career comes to a close. An even bigger group from the compound, including his grandmother, will follow him into the next chapter in Montreal.

“It’s a pretty cool experience for me and my family,” he says back in that hallway at Landshut’s Fanatec Arena.

When he’s asked about his first game of the tournament — a two-point night that included a goal and an assist alongside five shots in a decisive 8-3 win over Canada, which he then followed up with another one-goal, one-assist game in USA’s 6-2 win over Czechia later that day — that humble nature everyone talks about comes to the forefront.

He was disappointed in it.

“That’s the way we wanted to set the tone for the tournament but I thought I was OK. I didn’t love my game too, too much,” he says. “Hopefully I can turn things around and play my game a little more.”

When he’s asked what it would mean to become the next NHL player from Pittsburgh, his tone changes.

“It means everything,” Logan says. “I had a chance to skate a few times with (local NHLers) J.T. Miller and Vincent Trochek last summer. And just being able to talk to those guys and see their journey, it’s pretty cool. I want to do it too.”

With reporting in Plymouth, Mich., and Edmonton.

(Top photo: Rena Laverty / U.S. NTDP)


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