Written in the stars: 50 years of Penguins hockey marked by some of game's greatest players
The Pittsburgh Penguins, celebrating their 50th anniversary this season, never would have gotten off the ground without a healthy dose of star power.
The idea for the team took root when Jack McGregor, then a state senator, and Peter Block, his friend going back to their days in law school at Pitt, were in a car commuting to Harrisburg in 1965.
Block heard the NHL was considering expansion, and if Pittsburgh really was a big-league sports town, he thought, it should get in on the action. McGregor agreed. The $2 million entry fee, however, was a sticking point.
McGregor had an idea. What if he asked the families who donated to his successful run for office a few years earlier to invest in the new hockey team? He put the plan into action and raised the entry fee with relative ease.
And the names of the families that made the initial investments?
Heinz. Mellon. Hillman. Scaife. Rooney. Standish. Dodds.
The biggest names in Pittsburgh high society at the time.
It's a fitting origin story for a team that always has been built on its star power. Over the past five decades, some of the greatest players in the history of hockey have worn the Penguins crest.
Mario Lemieux. Jaromir Jagr. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin.
Between them, they have won 15 Art Ross trophies, given annually to the NHL's leading scorer.
No other team has won more than nine — not the dominant Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s and 60s, not Gordie Howe's Detroit Red Wings, not even Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers.
“Looking back now, looking at the different Penguins teams, you think skill,” said Rob Brown, a popular winger in the 1980s and 90s who once scored 49 goals in a season. “They've drafted some incredibly skilled players, a Mario and a Jaromir and a Crosby and a Malkin. It's pretty amazing. Every time they've won, it's been because they've out-skilled the other team.”
The Penguins were built around star power from the franchise's earliest days. The first goal in franchise history in 1967 came off the stick of Andy Bathgate, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Before the franchise celebrated its 15th anniversary, standouts such as Jean Pronovost, Pierre Larouche and Rick Kehoe had turned in 50-goal seasons.
The real star turn for the franchise, of course, came June 9, 1984, when general manager Eddie Johnston leaned into a microphone at the Forum in Montreal and announced that with the first pick of the draft, the Penguins had selected “number soixante-six, Mario Lemieux.”
“There were star players before that, some really good players, but that was when the franchise really changed,” said Jim Rutherford, a Penguins goalie from 1971-74 who became the team's general manager in 2014.
Lemieux put up points at a more prodigious pace than anyone Pittsburgh had seen, and he did so with a style and grace that often left fans in awe. But perhaps more importantly, he set a tone for what the Penguins would be about for the next four decades.
The Philadelphia Flyers are about toughness. The New Jersey Devils are about defense. The Pittsburgh Penguins are about scoring goals.
“That's how it has always been. That's what the fans are used to,” said winger Ryan Malone, the first player born and raised in Pittsburgh to play for the Penguins. “Goals are what they want to see. And they've seen a lot of pretty ones, too.”
Turning pretty hockey into winning hockey turned out to be a prickly process, however, and the Penguins missed the playoffs in five of Lemieux's first six seasons.
They didn't get over the championship hurdle until they added a complementary cast of stars.
In a nine-month span starting in June 1990, general manager Craig Patrick drafted Jaromir Jagr, signed Bryan Trottier and traded for Ron Francis, Joe Mullen and Larry Murphy. Jagr, 44, is a mortal lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame if he ever retires. The other four already are there.
They combined to bring the Stanley Cup to the City of Champions for the first time in 1991 then did it again the following season.
“Every series was so much more fun because the questions (from younger players) to Paul Coffey and myself and Joey and everybody were kind of fun,” Trottier recalled. “Like, ‘Oh, you guys won championships. What was it like?' They were so eager. The media, the fans, they were so eager, too. I think that's what made us so popular and made it so much fun.”
Almost two decades later, the process more or less repeated itself.
This time, the No. 1 pick was No. 87, Crosby, who landed in the lap of the Penguins in the 2005 draft lottery.
Crosby almost immediately established himself as the greatest player of his generation, pairing his world-class skill not necessarily with grace like Lemieux, but with power and drive and fierce competitiveness.
His partner in crime became Malkin, a game-breaking Russian whose long stride and highlight-reel capabilities sometimes brought Lemieux to mind.
But like their Penguins predecessors from a generation prior, Crosby and Malkin's Penguins had to get over the championship hump after their first three seasons ended short of a title.
Enter a new mix of complementary stars — a trade for Bill Guerin and the signing of Sergei Gonchar for the 2009 team, and trades for Phil Kessel, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino for the 2016 squad — and the Penguins ran their championship total to four in 25 years, tied with Detroit for the most in the league since 1990.
“When I broke in with Craig Patrick and Badger Bob (Johnson), we were fast, we were quick and we could score. Four lines, same way as we are now,” said Mark Recchi, a champion winger in 1991 and the team's current player development coach. “Same highly skilled centermen. We had Mario, who is above everybody ever, but we have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin. We had Francis. We had Trottier on that third line, playing similarly to Bonino. There are a lot of similarities.”
Some of the similarities between the team's championship eras are far less glorious, however.
Both, for instance, were threatened by financial concerns.
In 1975, because of mounting debts, the team was placed in receivership. IRS agents showed up at Civic Arena ready to padlock the building's doors.
Keeping the stars from the 1990s championships proved expensive for owner Howard Baldwin, and the team filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
With Civic Arena showing its age, the team was on the verge of relocation in 2007, with Kansas City, Mo., as the rumored destination, unless a new facility was built.
In a fit of good fortune for the franchise, all of the dark financial clouds eventually led to brighter days.
Bankruptcy led to Lemieux converting the money he was owed in deferred salary into equity and taking over control of the franchise. The 2007 drama led to the construction of the building now known as PPG Paints Arena.
“It would be hard to imagine Pittsburgh letting the Penguins go,” Malone said. “Maybe sometimes you have to give them a kick in the butt, say you might be leaving, to get some stuff done.”
Fortune hasn't always smiled on the Penguins, of course. The franchise has been downright star-crossed at times.
The death of rookie sensation Michel Briere in a 1970 auto accident was a blow in the franchise's early days. His No. 21 remains the only number joining Lemieux's 66 in the retirement rafters.
On Jan. 12, 1993, Lemieux sent shockwaves through the hockey world when he announced he had Hodgkin lymphoma. He has spent considerable time and money fighting for a cure for blood cancers in the years since.
In addition, back troubles caused Lemieux to miss almost five full seasons in the prime of his career, including a three-year retirement from 1997-2000 that set up one of the greatest moments in franchise history, his legendary comeback game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 27, 2000.
“Even when we were winning championships, he was getting help putting his skates on and all those wonderful things,” Trottier said. “I think there's just a legacy of overcoming obstacles and challenges. He's a unique individual.”
The second championship era had its share of bad news as well.
A bout with concussions threatened Crosby's career at a time when he was playing brilliantly, and he missed the majority of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
Among his teammates, Kris Letang suffered a stroke and Olli Maatta had a cancerous tumor removed from his thyroid in 2014, and Pascal Dupuis had to end his career prematurely because of a blood-clotting disorder in 2015.
Add it all up, and it's perfectly reasonable to wonder if the team would have captured the Stanley Cup more than four times had it not been for the unprecedented spate of injuries and illnesses.
“You always look back and wonder,” Recchi said. “With Mario and Sid, they're the ultimate impact players. You're not going to win a championship losing those guys. Who knows what that number might be right now? Still, for the franchise to have four in 25 years, there aren't many teams that have done that.”
It's entirely possible that the Penguins will add to their championship total in the near future.
Oh, there are potential pitfalls. Lemieux announced in 2015 that he and co-owner Ron Burkle were exploring the idea of selling the team, and while they're not believed to be peddling the club aggressively, the for-sale sign remains. Also, the team's current stars are in the neighborhood of their 30th birthdays, and no championship window remains open forever.
But they have a chance, as good a chance as any, and that's because they've stayed true to the roots of a franchise originally financed by the city's biggest movers and shakers.
It's a franchise built on stars and skill and scoring, just as it always has been.
“Bob (Johnson) said if we win 8-7, it's the same as a 2-1 win,” Trottier said. “We just had to make sure we were playing as a five-man unit on the ice. Systems help. There's a necessary unity that's involved to do something as fun as Stanley Cup championships, and you saw that again this year.
“This young Penguin team, it was really fun to see them come together, four lines, pouring it on, offense first. The best defense is a good offense. Play 60 minutes in the other team's zone and they're going to have a tough time scoring on you.”