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Starkey: Pens' first GM, 93, back in game

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Tribune-Review file
Jack Riley is a former Penguins general manager, Friday, December 18th, 2009.

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center: “Good to see you again, Jack.”

See, even after the Penguins brought in all that talent, experience and leadership at the trade deadline, they still were missing one piece: Jack Riley.

The franchise's first general manager, a longtime regular at home games, hadn't been seen all season.

Turns out he'd been feeling weak in recent months, which is understandable. He's 93. And even if he'd wanted to see a game, his usual ride — Penguins professor emeritus Ed Johnston — had been in Florida much of the winter.

That all changed Wednesday when E.J. (a veritable spring chicken at 77) picked up his old friend and took him to the Penguins' game against Montreal.

You don't think these guys are going to miss the playoffs, do you?

What a welcome sight it was to see Riley in the press box.

“A joy to be around,” Penguins GM Ray Shero said. “Knowing he was the first-ever GM of the Penguins makes time spent with him pretty special.”

Riley and E.J. talked hockey on the way to the rink, of course — and even if Riley is closing fast on 94 (June 14), there's nothing wrong with his memory.

“Sharp as a tack,” E.J. said. “He was talking about a player from the '40s, Wally Stanowski, telling me, ‘His contract was $3,000.' ”

All of us should look so good at 93, if we get there. Riley has lived in the South Hills with his daughter, Barbara, since his wife died in 1988. The game Wednesday lifted his spirits.

“I've just been tired all the time, you know?” he said. “Hopefully I'll get out walking now that it's warmer.”

Exercise, Riley claims, is the key to his longevity. He jogged daily from his 30s into his 70s.

“I kept a log,” he said. “I had 6,000 miles. It was like running from here to California and back.”

Having been a minor league player, an NHL GM and the commissioner of the three leagues, Riley has seen a bit of hockey. Probably more than anyone in the building Wednesday.

Biggest change in the game?

“The speed and the fact players are so much bigger,” he said. “It's too crowded. It should be 4 on 4. You wouldn't see all the stupid stuff. I know fans love fighting and that. I don't care for it myself — this stuff saying, ‘Do you want to go?' I don't know who you're scaring. If you're a hockey player, you're probably not scared of too much.

“Anyway, it should be 4 on 4. Everybody laughs it off and says why they shouldn't do it, but I can give 'em a thousand reasons why they should.”

Riley remains amazed at the hockey fever that has gripped the region. He remembers the lean years, like when he formed the first Penguins team in 1967 on a payroll of $315,000.

The first game played to a crowd of 9,307. The most expensive seat went for $5, and, as Riley recalls, players hung their clothes “on a nail.”

In the Penguins' new-age dressing room — which has a photo of Riley in a mural — players' personal spaces could go for $1,500 a month in Manhattan.

After the 6-4 win Wednesday, Shero took Riley into the coaches' room for a chat.

“They really make you feel at home,” Riley said. “Ray is always telling me, ‘Anything you want, just holler, Jack.' ”

Riley plans to attend as many playoff games as possible. He wouldn't mind living past 100, either.

“I know the numbers aren't there,” he said. “At the same time, who knows? I've been pretty lucky so far.”

So have we.

Good to see you again, Jack.

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