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100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Rick Buker
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2011 Rick Buker
All rights reserved.
The future of the Pittsburgh Penguins was forever changed on a cold, dreary night in Montreal in March of 1984. As Pens general manager Eddie Johnston looked on, a big kid wearing No. 66 dominated the opposing team like an on-ice version of Gulliver toying with the Lilliputians.
"Oh my god," Johnston muttered in astonishment.
Penguins owner Edward DeBartolo Sr. had a similar reaction after watching Mario Lemieux play. When the team's top selection in the 1984 Entry Draft put on a show during his first practice session, DeBartolo turned to Johnston and said, "Thank god you didn't trade that pick."
Perhaps no player in the history of the sport displayed more promise — or carried a heavier burden — than Lemieux. When he joined the Penguins as a fresh-faced 19-year-old rookie, he was expected to be a savior for a moribund franchise that barely had a pulse.
"Without Lemieux, they pack up the team and move to another city," said Rangers GM Glen Sather.
Standing 6'4" and weighing 210 pounds, Mario initially drew comparisons to a legendary center of similar dimensions and pedigree — Montreal's stately Jean Beliveau. Both were of French Canadian descent and each skated with a regal bearing. However, the player he was most often compared to was Edmonton's superb scoring ace Wayne Gretzky.
"I tried to gauge my career against his," Lemieux said. "It helped me to elevate my game to a level he'd reached. It was great for both of us."
Mario would soon share the same rarified air as his rival. After showing steady improvement over his first three seasons, Lemieux exploded for 70 goals and 168 points in 1987–88 to emerge as hockey's most dominant player.
The following season Super Mario truly came of age. He enjoyed a magnificent season, racking up 85 goals, 114 assists, and 199 points. Opponents and teammates alike were awed by his brilliance.
"I grew up watching Bobby Orr," Pens winger Kevin Stevens said. "And Wayne Gretzky was phenomenal. But Mario is on another level."
"He just holds the puck out there on his forehand and dares to you to commit yourself," said Boston's All-Star defenseman Ray Bourque. "If you do, he slips it past you, and if you don't, he controls the blue line and has time to make the play."
With no legal means to defend against Lemieux's extraordinary talents, opponents took to fouling him and the old-guard NHL referees allowed it. The abuse he absorbed soon took its toll. On February 14, 1990, searing back pain forced Mario to remove himself from a game against the Rangers. Examinations revealed a herniated disc, an injury that would haunt him for the rest of his career.
"I saw him score in 46 straight games," marveled announcer Mike Lange. "I saw him get on the plane and he couldn't even sit down. He couldn't put his own things in the bins above the seats. But he kept at it and kept the scoring streak alive."
Displaying enormous resilience and character, Mario overcame his back problems to lead the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. Yet it was the adversity he would face the following season that elevated him to the status of a champion for the ages.
In 1992–93 Lemieux bolted from the starting gate like a thoroughbred racehorse. Piling up 101 points in his first 38 games, the big center was on pace to threaten Gretzky's single-season record of 215 points.
Once again, Mario had reached the very pinnacle of his sport. But once more, fate stepped in to deliver a crushing blow. On January 13, 1993, Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.
Following surgery to remove an infected lymph node, the Penguins' captain underwent a series of radiation treatments. Displaying recuperative powers bordering on the superhuman, he returned to the lineup on March 2 and promptly went on a tear. Mario tallied 51 points over a 16-game stretch to lock up his fourth Art Ross Trophy, which is awarded each year to the league's leading point scorer, and his second Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
"If he would have been healthy, he would have broken a lot of records," teammate Jaromir Jagr said. "Maybe not all of them, but I'm pretty sure a lot of them. He was the best player I've ever seen. He was the most gifted at everything — size, strength, skill, how smart he was. There is no other player like him."
Mario would make two more dramatic comebacks and win two more scoring titles before hanging up his skates for good in 2006. On April 2, 2008, he was chosen as the "Best Athlete in Pittsburgh Sports History" at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Dapper Dan awards banquet over luminaries such as Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner.
"Pittsburgh has had some great sports heroes," Craig Patrick said, "but none of them top Mario Lemieux."CHAPTER 2
During the summer of 2003 a reporter for the Arizona Republic asked Coyotes owner Wayne Gretzky if he thought any player might one day break his scoring records.
"Yes, Sidney Crosby," answered the Great One without hesitation. "He's the best player I've seen since Mario [Lemieux]."
Already a celebrity in his native Canada, Crosby had been touted as the Next One since his bantam days. Following a huge 168-point season during his second year of junior hockey, there was little doubt the 17-year-old center would be the first overall pick in the 2005 Entry Draft. On July 22, 2005, the lottery balls were dropped, and the one adorned with a skating penguin logo entered the tube.
"Everybody says they know where they were when they heard President Kennedy was shot," former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "Now [in hockey] we all remember where we were when Pittsburgh won the lottery."
It soon became apparent that Crosby was, indeed, worthy of the hype. Blessed with powerful legs and incredible balance, the 5'11", 200-pounder was a superb playmaker and puck handler. Displaying remarkable passion, he never took a shift off.
"He plays the game right for an elite player," former linemate Colby Armstrong said. "He can blow a game open, but he also makes other players better. He's an up-and-down player with an incredible head on his shoulders."
Crosby finished his rookie campaign with 102 points, breaking Lemieux's club record for first-year players. In 2006–07 Sid truly was a sight to behold. Displaying uncommon focus and maturity, the 19-year-old wonder rolled up a league-leading 120 points. He became the youngest scoring champion in NHL history, and the youngest ever to garner the league's three major awards — the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy, and the Lester B. Pearson (Ted Lindsay) Award, given to the NHL Players' Association's most outstanding player.
The Penguins' brass took note. On May 31, 2007, they officially appointed Crosby as team captain, making him the youngest player to serve as captain in league history.
Taking his new role to heart, Crosby shook off a high-ankle sprain to lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup Finals matchup with Detroit in 2008. Although the Pens succumbed to the powerful Red Wings in six games, Sid tied Henrik Zetterberg — winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs — for the postseason scoring lead with 27 points.
Following a strong 103-point season in 2008–09, Crosby once again rose to the occasion in the playoffs. He scored eight huge goals to key a come-from-behind triumph over Washington in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. During a hotly contested Finals rematch with the Red Wings, Sid helped shut down Detroit's big guns and became the youngest captain in NHL history to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Crosby worked tirelessly over the summer of 2009 to improve his game. In an effort to gain more velocity on his shot he switched to a new composite stick. The result was a career-high 51 goals and a share of the Maurice Richard Trophy. He emerged as a demon on face-offs as well, winning 56 percent of his draws.
"This is the measure of Crosby," wrote Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated. "He takes a flaw and burnishes it until it gleams."
In 2010–11 Crosby reaffirmed his status as the world's best player. Bolting from the starting blocks at a scorching pace, he tallied 32 goals and 66 points in just 41 games. Along the way he rolled up a 25-game point scoring streak, the longest in the NHL in nearly two decades.
However, Sid's dream season came to a thudding halt during the Winter Classic. Late in the second period he was struck down from the blind side in a brutal collision with Washington's David Steckel as he turned to follow the play. Remarkably, he dressed for a game with Tampa Bay four days later, but absorbed a second big hit from towering Victor Hedman. Afterward, the Penguins' captain was diagnosed with a concussion.
Crosby didn't resume skating until mid-March. After making it through some light-duty workouts, he increased the intensity of his training sessions in hopes of returning for the playoffs. However, following a practice session on April 20, Sid aborted his comeback.
"I started to get some symptoms," he confessed. "I started to ramp things up a bit as far as working out and skating, and I got a little bit of symptoms. I had to take a step back."
"He looked fantastic skating, which was great news," Penguins GM Ray Shero said. "But this is an injury where when you do have something, whether it's fogginess at times or whatever, you have to step back a little bit. But the great news is, he's got all kinds of time on his side right now."CHAPTER 3
The Pittsburgh Penguins came into existence on a spring day in 1965 thanks to a pair of former law school classmates. While driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania senator Jack McGregor and attorney Peter Block engaged in a lively conversation about the National Hockey League's plan to expand to 12 teams.
An avid hockey fan, Block told McGregor he believed Pittsburgh was ready for an NHL team. After all, the city had a long and enduring love affair with the sport dating back to the turn of the century. Hall of Famers Lionel "Big Train" Conacher and Roy "Shrimp" Worters had plied their trade for the Pirates, an early NHL entry. Pittsburgh fans had faithfully supported the minor league Hornets for nearly 30 years. It was time to step up in class.
A strategy was soon hatched to secure an entry for the Steel City. McGregor would approach city and civic leaders arguing that big-league hockey was a tool for urban renewal. Meanwhile, Block would gather information about the NHL's bidding process.
Block soon learned the NHL's expansion plan was based on geography. The league planned to add two teams from the West Coast, two from the Midwest, and two from the East. With Philadelphia already earmarked as one of the eastern clubs, McGregor and Block faced a stiff challenge.
"Our closest competition was Buffalo," McGregor recalled. "The Buffalo group went all out to pick off the sixth franchise. Two half brothers, Bruce Norris, owner of the Detroit Red Wings, and Jim Norris, owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, began leaning toward Buffalo."
Fortunately, McGregor had an ace in the hole. He enlisted the help of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr., who had connections to the Norris brothers through the horse racing business.
"I'll never forget Art calling each from his New York City hotel room, in my presence," McGregor recalled. "He said to each: 'You owe this to me. You cannot put Buffalo ahead of Pittsburgh. It would be personally embarrassing to me if you did.'"
On February 8, 1966, the NHL awarded a franchise to McGregor's 21-man syndicate, which included Rooney and some of the most prominent names in Pittsburgh business society. The other franchises were awarded to Los Angeles, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco–Oakland.
As fate would have it, the Penguins were the last of the new teams to receive a nickname. With suggestions pouring in, McGregor decided to sponsor a "Name the Team" contest. The fan who submitted the winning entry would receive a 25-inch color TV and two season tickets. After accepting 26,400 entries McGregor announced on February 10, 1967, the team would be called the Penguins, a name favored by his wife, Carol.
The nickname made sense in a way. After all, the team would play its home games in the Igloo, as the Civic Arena was known. But many felt the club had laid a Penguins-sized egg.
"Most fans wanted to keep the Hornets name," general manager Jack Riley admitted. "I certainly wasn't in favor of the name Penguins at the time, but it caught on."
Bob Gessner, a local freelance artist charged with designing the team's logo, certainly was no fan.
"The Penguins? No, really, what will the team be called?" Gessner asked during a meeting with the club's executives. "You can't call a hockey team 'the Penguins.' That's ridiculous."
Coach Red Sullivan hated the name, too, along with the proposed black-and-white uniform colors.
"The day after we play a bad game," he protested, "the sportswriters will say, 'They skated like a bunch of nuns.'"
After changing the color scheme to a more palatable Columbia blue, navy blue, and white, Senator McGregor signed a check for $2 million on June 6, 1967, and the Penguins became official members of the National Hockey League.CHAPTER 4
On the morning of May 25, 1991, the Penguins found themselves on the cusp of realizing their boyhood dreams. After 24 years of unmitigated futility the Stanley Cup — the most prized trophy in all of hockey — was within their grasp.
Standing in the way was a fellow team from the expansion class of 1967, the Minnesota North Stars. Although not nearly as talented as the Penguins, Minnesota had proven to be a tough and worthy adversary. After grabbing a 2–1 series lead, however, the North Stars unwittingly supplied the Pens with an extra boost of motivation. The team revealed plans to visit the White House after they had secured the Cup.
"Did you see that?" asked Pittsburgh coach Bob Johnson. "Did you see what they put in the paper?"
The down-but-not-out Penguins certainly noticed. Led by their all-world captain Mario Lemieux, they blitzed the overconfident North Stars in Games 4 and 5 to take command of the series.
"This team has faced a lot of adversity this year," Johnson said. "Our star players have been injured. We were down to Boston 2–0. We were down to New Jersey 3–2, without [goalie Tom] Barrasso. But this team knows how to respond."
With the series and the Cup slipping through their fingers, the aggressive North Stars decided to test Barrasso, who'd been knocked out of the latter stages of Game 5 with a groin injury. Immediately after the opening face-off, Neal Broten plowed into the Pens' netminder. However, the veteran forward drew an interference penalty, which opened the door for Pittsburgh's potent power play.
At the two-minute mark, the unlikely duo of Bryan Trottier and Peter Taglianetti set up an even more unlikely recipient — Ulf Samuelsson — for a power-play goal. The score remained 1–0 until Lemieux chased down a loose puck and beat Jon Casey on a shorthanded breakaway at 12:19.
"That was a very big goal at the time," Mario recalled. "It was a four-on-three. We were shorthanded. [Larry] Murphy made a great play. He saw me going up ice and threw the puck against the boards and I picked it up at center ice."
Less than a minute later, veteran Joe Mullen scooped up a cross-ice pass from Kevin Stevens and rifled the puck past Casey.
Realizing the Penguins had Casey's number, North Stars coach Bob Gainey pulled his starter in favor of Brian Hayward to begin the second period. The move worked for a time. Hayward held the Pens off the scoreboard for 13 minutes. Despite the 3–0 deficit, Minnesota had begun to find its rhythm.
It was the calm before the storm. At 13:15 Pens mucker Bob Errey deflected a Jaromir Jagr pass behind Hayward. Moments later, Ron Francis scurried up the ice to score the back-breaker. The North Stars' discipline quickly dissolved, as Dave Gagner drew a roughing penalty. Mullen made them pay, notching his second goal of the night.
Excerpted from 100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Rick Buker. Copyright © 2011 Rick Buker. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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