Pittsburgh Penguins

The existence of the Pittsburgh Penguins can have firm dividing lines between its eras. Right now, they’re arguably the most popular and followed team in the NHL, but that sort of happens when you’re also playing the part of the league’s pet project. The Penguins have been helped along by Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL; Stanley Cups in 2009 and 2016, and an appearance in the Final in 2008; and having more of their games aired on national TV than anyone else. Those might provide the Pens with a slight boost. But the ways the Pens have existed right around as follows: The bad era where they were nearly moved; the good era where they had one of the league’s marquee players and won the Stanley Cup; the bad era where they nearly moved; and the good era where they had one of the league’s marquee players and won the Stanley Cup.

The success of the Penguins can’t be denied, though. They’ve won the Stanley Cup four times in a history dating back to 1967. While that does make them one of the oldest teams in the NHL, you also have to remember that three of the teams older than them – the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Chicago Blackhawks – each took more decades to win four Stanley Cups than the Pens have existed. (Yes, I’m counting the drought that ended in the 70’s for the Bruins.) No other team from the 1967 expansion has been that successful – hell, the St. Louis Blues still have yet to win their first Cup.

From 1925 to 1930, Pittsburgh was the home of an NHL team called the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their first season had started with a lot of promise – they had the league’s third-best record that year – but they began a slow decent into mediocrity for the next few years which sent them across Pennsylvania to become the Philadelphia Quakers. After they left, Pittsburgh spent the next several decades hosting an AHL team called the Hornets. In 1965, state senator Jack McGregor started lobbying campaign contributors and community leaders to get the NHL back to Pittsburgh. Looking to use the NHL as an urban renewal project, he managed to assemble a team of investors that included HJ Heinz III, Art Rooney, and Richard Mellon Scaife. Although McGregor added a bit more weight by petitioning votes from Chicago Blackhawks owner James D. Norris and Detroit Red Wings owner Bruce Norris, I’m not sensing that Pittsburgh would have been passed over with all the firepower it had going for it. The effort was a success, and Pittsburgh was granted an expansion team in 1966 to go with the five other cities the NHL was adding to its expansion ranks.

To name the team, the owners made that grand mistake of team naming: A fan contest. 26,000 people entered; 700 of them wanted the team to be named the Penguins. The logo the team whipped up featured a hockey-playing penguin situated in front of a golden triangle, which symbolized downtown Pittsburgh, which was nicknamed the Golden Triangle.

Since the teams of the 1967 expansion were created strictly to be a presence which kept the NHL’s stranglehold on professional hockey and therefore be nothing more than doormats, the Pens were hampered with a set of rules which made sure the top talent of the Original Six didn’t start to think the grass would be greener in Pittsburgh. While the first Penguins team featured old veterans Andy Bathgate, Leo Boivin, and Earl Ingarfield, they were mostly a group of minor-leaguers. In fact, some of them spent the previous year playing for the Hornets. And, yeah, that showed in the standings: The Pens ended the year fifth in the Western Division with the third-worst record in the league. It wasn’t until 1969 that things looked like they would be starting to change. In the draft that year, the Pens found a player named Michel Briere. Briere was a steal. At his best, he was drawing comparisons to Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke. Briere was a key cog in the team’s run into the 1970 playoffs, even scoring a goal against the Oakland Seals in the first round which clinched the series. Although the Pens played against the defending Conference Champion St. Louis Blues in the next round and lost in six, Briere led them in playoff scoring. Ten days after the playoffs ended, Briere was in a car crash in Quebec. He was comatose before finally dying the next year.

Briere’s death sort of typified what the Penguins were for the next few years. Constant battles for the division cellar were the order for the team until 1975. When 1975 came, the Pens weren’t just bad – they were bad and bankrupt. Their creditors started asking to have their money back, their offices were padlocked, and it looked like there was soon to be no more Pittsburgh Penguins. It took shopping mall magnate Edward DeBartolo to buy the team and ensure its future in Pittsburgh. It was also around that time the team started finding some respectable firepower on offense, assembling the Century Line of Syl Apps, Lowell MacDonald, and Jean Pronovost. Although 1975 ended with another playoff appearance, that playoff appearance ended on a rather inglorious note: Matched up against the New York Islanders – and it should be noted that the great Isles dynasty was still five years off at this point – the Penguins ran up a 3-0 lead in the series. But the Islanders just didn’t know when to say die. They fought their way right back into the series, eventually winning the seventh game they forced.

As the Penguins hacked away through the 70’s, they found weapon after weapon in players like Rick Kehoe, Pierre Larouche, Rick Schock, Ron Stackhouse, and Dave Burrows. But in spite of defensemen Stackhouse and Burrows there, their defense was never anything beyond the effectiveness of a screen door on a submarine, so the Penguins started becoming one of THOSE teams. You know the ones: The teams which play well enough to tantalize fans with promises of deep playoff runs, but never quite good enough to actually get there. The 1979 Penguins closed out the decade with a playoff series victory over the Buffalo Sabres, but by that time, general manager Aldege Bastien got into that habit where he started trading all the good draft picks for veterans who preferred hanging around to hanging up their skates. If you know sports, you already know that method of team-building tends to almost never go well.

So as it went, the Penguins of the mid-’80’s were back in their usual spot: They had financial problems at the onset, were threatened with folding or relocation, and fighting away for last place with the New Jersey Devils. With pride on the line, the Penguins started making a number of, well, moves. Moves meant to, uh, weaken the team in the short term. In one game, the Penguins took a 3-1 first period lead in a game they eventually lost 6-3. From on onlooker’s viewpoint, it seemed like the Penguins were partaking in the grand tradition of tanking, intentionally losing as many games as they could in exchange for a primo draft pick. The caveat with the Pens was that if they failed, the team would probably be relocated or folded. The big kid from the 1984 draft, Mario Lemieux, had better have been worth it!

Lemieux scored a goal during his first-ever NHL shift. On his first-ever NHL shot. He managed to quickly establish himself as a worthy peer to Wayne Gretzky, but there was a key difference between the two of them back then: Gretzky was winning the Stanley Cup here, there, and everywhere with the Edmonton Oilers. Lemieux never got the Penguins into the playoffs. That’s because Gretzky had a group of followers and hangers-on referred to in sports parlance as a “team,” and this “team” had a lot of players who were very skilled. Lemieux didn’t have very good players surrounding him when he started in the league. But in the late 80’s, the Penguins did start delivering a supporting cast for Lemieux which was worthy of being called a “team.” Notably, one of the players the Pens picked up during that time was defenseman Paul Coffey, who was an important player and superstar on Gretzky’s teams in Edmonton. They also brought in an outstanding goaltender when they traded Doug Bodger and Darrin Shannon to the Buffalo Sabres for Tom Barrasso. Meanwhile, their minor league system was producing players like Kevin Stevens, Rob Brown, and John Cullen. The Pens finally broke through in 1989 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Although the Penguins fell right back out of the playoff picture the next year, they continued to build. With Lemieux as their keystone, they reeled in free agent Bryan Trottier, traded for Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson, and in the 1990 draft, they made perhaps their biggest and best-known move by yanking out Lemieux’s legendary lancer, Jaromir Jagr. With an army like that, there was no more stopping the Penguins. In 1991, the first Stanley Cup came, with the Pens bettering a Cinderella Minnesota North Stars team which any honest hockey fan knows had no business in the Final. The next year, the Pens shed their forgotten loser status forever with their second Stanley Cup victory, this time over the powerful Chris Chelios/Jeremy Roenick/Ed Belfour Chicago Blackhawks.

In 1993, the Penguins got smacked by an off-ice demon they couldn’t do much about: Cancer. Mario Lemieux got sidelined with Hodgkin’s disease that year and ended up sitting out for two months while undergoing treatment. Fortunately, he returned stronger than ever, and managed to put 160 points in his stat line. That was good enough to beat out Adam Oates and Pat LaFontaine for the scoring title that year. The Pens managed to finish with a record of 56-21-7, which was good enough to win what is still Pittsburgh’s only President’s Trophy to date. That third Stanley Cup was starting to look like a given, but it went down the crapper in a second round, seven-game loss to the New York Islanders.

Although those Stanley Cup-winning teams started dissembling, the Penguins were dominant throughout most of the 90’s. They had a knack for finding talented and exciting players like Alexi Kovalev, Martin Straka, and Petr Nedved. They did reach another Conference Final in 1996, but that proved to be an embarrassment for the team: They lost a seven game series to the expansion Florida Panthers, who were in their third year of existence. The next year marked the end of an era: In April, Lemieux announced that he would be retiring at the end of the year, due to health concerns. While the Pens kept going to the playoffs, they kept hitting the golf courses early as well, and they never did return to the Final during the era. Where they did go was territory familiar to them from their pre-Lemieux years. If you’re only a casual fan of hockey, you may not know that a lot of those names I mentioned above were established stars in the NHL. Not just great players, but the cream of the crop. Ron Francis spent many years being the Captain of the perpetually hapless Hartford Whalers. Bryan Trottier was a nine-time All-Star and a component of the Islanders dynasty of the 80’s. Paul Coffey, as noted, became a superstar blue liner with the wrecking ball of a team that was Gretzky’s Oilers and holds many of the position’s major offensive records. If you’re not yet seeing the problem there, let me spell it out: That firepower don’t come cheap. The Penguins’ debts caught up to them again, and they got handed a $90 million bill from their creditors. The team owners had to ask the players to defer their salaries, and even after that happened, other financial pressures also hit and the Pens filed for bankruptcy.

Once again, it was up to Mario Lemieux to save the team. Since the Pens owed him over $30 million in deferred salary, he was their largest creditor, and he proposed getting his money back by turning it into equity. That gave him controlling interest over the team, and he vowed to keep them in Pittsburgh. Then he returned to action as a player, helping lead the Pens to the 2001 Conference Final, where they lost to the New Jersey Devils. That run was an aberration; the Pens were one of the worst teams in the league again the next year. And as in the 80’s, the Pens started making stupid moves which resulted in more bad records. In fact, their moves were SUSPICIOUSLY stupid. How do you explain trading Martin Straka? Or keeping your new highly-touted prospect goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, out of the lineup? And the fact that your GM seems to have coincidentally lost his brain just in time for one of the league’s greatest draft classes? And in 2004, there was a talented draft class led by a certain player named… ALEXANDER OVECHKIN! Well, the Pens were boned in their tanking attempt and Ovechkin went to the Washington Capitals, so Pittsburgh, picking second, had to make do with their consolation prize: A fella named Evgeni Malkin. The next year, the draft was said to have the greatest draft class since Lemieux himself. So the league did something it had never done before and organized a draft lottery. The Pens won the first pick, which allowed them to draft the man everyone reading this assumed they were trying to draft the year before; and the one player most non-hockey fans have heard of: Sidney Crosby. The Next One.

Once again, the Penguins were saved. Crosby was an instant star, even eclipsing Lemieux as the highest-scoring rookie in team history. Although the team still wasn’t any good, they drafted Jordan Staal in 2006. Now the Pens were well on their way back to relevance. In 2008, they made a trade with the Atlanta Thrashers for Marian Hossa, who help bring them over the top and to a date in the Final with the Detroit Red Wings. While Pittsburgh played hard (game five is maybe the most exciting hockey game I’ve ever seen in my life), the Red Wings were the Team of Destiny that year, and the Pens were dispatched in six. The next year, Hossa, aching to win the Cup, signed a one-year contract… With the Red Wings! And the Pens, having extra motivation now, returned to the Final in 2009, where they played against… The Red Wings! Pittsburgh lost the first two games in Detroit, won the next two in Pittsburgh, and the teams split the next two games on their home ices. Game seven was in Detroit, and the way the series went to the home team in each of the first six games wasn’t in Pittsburgh’s favor. But Maxime Talbot scored Pittsburgh’s only two goals of the game, which were the only two goals the Penguins needed. The Penguins weren’t going to be denied. They held Detroit to one goal and brought the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh. And don’t feel too bad for Marian Hossa; he signed with the Blackhawks the next year and played a vital role in a Chicago dynasty which won three Cups.

Since then, the sports media has been constantly whipping up shit to talk about the Penguins. Was Sidney Crosby overrated? The logic there was that he only won one Stanley Cup and only played in two Finals, Let’s be honest: They were trying to create some kind of story because no one wants to cover the Arizona Coyotes or Florida Panthers. And the chatter was always ludicrous, considering how many players get to win the Stanley Cup even once. And after last season it got even more ludicrous when the Penguins won their fourth Stanley Cup and shot it all to hell.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have retired two numbers. The first one was Michel Briere’s 21, which was removed from circulation after his death but not officially retired until 2001. The second is number 66, the overturned 99 that Mario Lemieux wore. When Lemieux came into the NHL, he said he wanted to wear number 99. But you know who also wore number 99? Wayne Gretzky. So respected was Gretzky that even during his prime years, teams weren’t letting players wear his number. So yes, Lemieux came up with number 66 simply by inverting the number 99. And he proved to be comparable to The Great One; at the time Lemieux entered the league, the video game Super Mario Bros. was sweeping across the world, revitalizing and revolutionizing the video game industry. And although several athletes named Mario have been bestowed the famous nickname, it was Lemieux who was the original Super Mario. He was the first one whom that nick was ever applied to, and still the one who deserves it most. Other hockey greats who have suited up as Penguins include Andy Bathgate, Luc Robitaille, Tim Horton, Leo Boivin, and Joe Mullen. And you’ll take note of how much of the talent Pittsburgh had during its prime years was borrowed from other teams: Robitaille will always be a legend with the Los Angeles Kings; Horton – he of the donut store – was primarily the Toronto Maple Leafs’s guy, and his number was also retired by the Sabres; and Bathgate was a famous New York Ranger sniper at his tail end. But that doesn’t mean the Pens have been lacking for their own. Mullen and Larry Murphy both enjoyed some of their most productive years and memorable highlights in Pittsburgh. Syl Apps and Rick Kehoe regularly lit up Pittsburgh’s scoreboard well before Lemieux came along. And Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury will always be Pittsburgh’s guys, no matter what.

Sidney Crosby is currently one of the most hated players in the NHL. Although a large chunk of the enmity toward him comes from his reputation as a bit of a whiner, a lot of that can also be chalked up to how good he is. He has quite a list of accolades for a 28-year-old: He was the first rookie to record both 100 points and log 100 penalty minutes in his rookie season; he’s the youngest player to ever record 200 career points; and I’m just going to cut this list off right now by saying he was the youngest player to do a lot of things. But I think most of the hate for Crosby comes from the fact that the media nicknamed him The Next One before he ever played a single game in the NHL. If you don’t know hockey, that nickname is a tip of the hat to Wayne Gretzky, who is hockey’s greatest player ever and who was nicknamed The Great One. Upon his drafting, he was proclaimed to be the guy who would break all of Gretzky’s records. While Crosby is undoubtedly a future legend, he still hasn’t touched a single record The Great One set. Hell, he still has a ways to go before grabbing some of his own team’s records from Mario Lemieux, and Lemieux was never nicknamed The Next One. (Gretzky himself wrote in his autobiography that Lemieux had the potential to break some of his records. That was back in the early 90’s.)

Two of Pittsburgh’s coaches warrant special mention. The first is Scotty Bowman, for the simple fact of his being Scotty Bowman. Bowman is pretty much universally regarded as the greatest hockey coach of all time and one of the greatest coaches in any sport of all time. He stepped up to replace coach Bob Johnson the year after Johnson guided the Pens to their first Stanley Cup. Johnson might have stayed a bit longer, but he was diagnosed with brain cancer and died in 1991. Bowman was the team’s Director of Player Personnel at the time and walked into the coaching slot. The next season, Bowman won his sixth Stanley Cup as a head coach and one of the nine he would eventually win before retiring for good. He walked away the following year. The second coach is Herb Brooks. Brooks is notable for being the man on the bench during the United States International Team’s Miracle on Ice in 1980. Coaching the Miracle team, though, didn’t mean Brooks was a great NHL coach. He only coached in the NHL for a grand total of seven sporadic years. His longest gig was with the Rangers; he ran from 1981 to 1985 with the Blueshirts, not quite being bad enough to be bad, but not making anyone forget the Islanders were a dynasty during those years, either. The Pens were his last NHL team, and once again, he didn’t do badly, but a 29-24-5 record wasn’t much to be proud of. Really, Brooks was a better college coach.

The Penguins wear black and gold, that’s important to mention because their colors are part of their identity in a way which weaves them into their city more so than other teams. Their original colors were powder blue and navy blue. The powder blue was changed to royal blue later, but in 1980 they made the switch because they wanted to unify the Pens with Pittsburgh’s two other professional sports teams: The NFL’s legendary Steelers and the equally storied Pirates of MLB. Both of those teams wear black and gold. Both have enjoyed phenomenal success: The Steelers have won the Super Bowl six times, which is more than any other team if you’re not counting pre-NFL championships (and still quite respectable even if you are); and the Pirates, despite a loser reputation from the 90’s they needed 20 years to shed, still won five World Series titles. And the switch seems to have worked; the Pens are the babies of Pittsburgh sports, but the city still got to parade the Stanley Cup around the Triangle four times. More to the point, though, is the fact that Pittsburgh’s city flag is also dominantly colored black and gold.

The Penguins are one of the most popular teams in the NHL now. It’s very hard to think that this is a team with such an insane history of bankruptcy. Then again, I already mentioned what the Penguins have going for them: Sidney Crosby, more nationally televised games than any other team in the league, and a pair of championships. So while the media might play up the image of the devoted Penguins fan, it’s actually harder to get a grasp on how good the fanbase is. After all, Pennsylvania isn’t Minnesota, Michigan, or upstate New York – hockey epicenters where the sport has an enormous influence on the culture all the time. I’m not exactly trying to argue that Penguins fans aren’t knowledgable and devoted, but I do get the impression that hockey season in Pittsburgh ends after the Stanley Cup is awarded and that a lot of their fans, given the choice, would prefer to go to a Vince Lombardi Trophy parade.

The hockey media factors into the Penguins these days quite a bit. The NHL lacks the heirarchy of other popular sports, which is how we keep seeing who-the-hell-are-THEY?! Sun Belt teams making deep playoff runs with big prizes on the line. But the league and media keep trying to invent more reasons to focus on the Penguins, and what they frequently try to do is create rivalries. The Penguins have one organic rivalry, and that’s with the Philadelphia Flyers. As far as hockey rivalries go, that’s one of the greats, and games between the Flyers and Penguins are guaranteed bloodshed. But the sports media and the NHL have tried to concoct rivalries between the Pens and the Washington Capitals, which is based on a perpetual one-upmanship contest between Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin; the Pens and Sabres, based on the 2010 Olympics final; and the Pens and the goddamned Columbus Blue Jackets, based on a bad trade the latter made with the Rangers for a player who had a problem with Crosby. The Penguins have also been the featured team in the Winter Classic and Stadium Series more often than any other team, except maybe the Blackhawks.

So the bad news about being a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins is that they’ve been to the brink of atrocity and back several times and that the sports media is giving them a big push. The good news is that they’re approaching a point as a team where they’re not going to need to be pushed. If you’re going to follow the Penguins, just please, Please, PLEASE be a fan who isn’t going to jump ship come another descent into mediocrity. Stick around for when the next Next One pops up.

Pros

Original Super Mario played for them; they’re symmetrical with their city’s other sports teams; visibility makes them easy to follow

Cons

Visibility exists because they get hauled along by the sports media; bandwagon fans are everywhere because they get hauled along by the sports media; NHL fans will hate you and assume you’re a bandwagon fan who is getting hauled along by the sports media

Should you be a fan?

If you want. They’ve been a great team to follow pretty much forever. Hell, their 1991 Stanley Cup-winning team was the first NHL champion to ever receive the invitation to the White House which is usually reserved for championship teams in other sports. But make sure you devote yourself to the Pens if you do – after all, one day Crosby will retire and Lemieux will give them up as the owner. When that day comes, the sports media will stop hauling them along, and the fan’s journey won’t be nearly as pleasant.

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