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What if: 50 years of Penguins hockey could have gone differently ... or not at all

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, 5:18 p.m.
The Penguins' Michel Briere in 1969.
Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins' Michel Briere in 1969.

If fate had taken a slightly different turn at various points in the 50-year history of the Penguins, the franchise's story could have turned out completely different. Jonathan Bombulie looks at four what-if moments from the last 50 years.

... pittsburgh was granted an NBA franchise?

Before Pittsburgh was awarded an NHL expansion team in 1966, it was in the running for an NBA franchise.

Chicago was the favorite to land the new basketball team in 1965, but the NBA's board of governors was skeptical. The city had failed to support a pro team twice before.

Pittsburgh was the contingency plan. If the board vetoed the Chicago ownership group, Pittsburgh would get the team.

Meanwhile, in February 1966, the NHL announced it would expand into six new markets: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis and St. Louis. The runner-up, Baltimore, would get a team if any of the chosen six failed to meet a series of conditions by June 1967. One condition was the team's arena have a capacity of at least 12,500, and Civic Arena held a maximum of 10,723 fans at the time.

As it turned out, the NBA board of directors gave Chicago a third chance, and the plan to expand the seating capacity of Civic Arena was successful.

But what if those pieces hadn't fallen into place? Michael Jordan could have played for the Pittsburgh Bulls and Mario Lemieux for the Baltimore Penguins.

... The devils won the mario sweepstakes?

Now that the statute of limitations is up, no one bothers to deny the Penguins were tanking the 1983-84 season in order to draft Mario Lemieux.

They weren't alone, however. Late in the season, the Penguins and New Jersey Devils were neck and neck in the race for the worst record in the league. On March 6, 1984, the teams were to meet for the seventh and final time that season, in a game Devils coach Tom VcVie called the “Lemieux Bowl.” The teams had split the previous six meetings.

The Penguins lost 6-5 and finished three points behind the Devils in the final standings. The Penguins picked Lemieux. The Devils chose Kirk Muller.

What if New Jersey's Bob Hoffmeyer, who recorded 14 goals in his NHL career, didn't score on a 30-foot slap shot to break a 3-3 tie early in the third period that night, giving the Devils the lead for good?

What if the Penguins had started any goaltender other than Vince Trembley, fresh off a call-up from the Baltimore Skipjacks of the AHL?

What if the Penguins hadn't traded Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Randy Carlyle to Winnipeg three days earlier?

It's hard to imagine how much the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh would have lost that night by winning.

... the balls bounced a little differently?

At the 2005 draft lottery, there were 48 ping-pong balls in a hopper, and only three of them bore the logo of the Penguins. It was a 16-1 long shot when they won the rights to select Sidney Crosby.

The odds could have been even longer.

The way the league set up the lottery, each team started with three ping-pong balls but lost one for each time they made the playoffs in the previous three seasons and each time they had the No. 1 draft pick in the previous four years.

The Penguins picked first in the 2003 draft, choosing Marc-Andre Fleury, but because they got the pick via a trade with Florida rather than a lottery win, the NHL ruled they didn't have to surrender a ball.

In 2004, the Penguins had a 25 percent chance to win the lottery, best in the league. The Capitals, however, with a 14.2 percent chance, won the drawing and used the No. 1 pick to take Alex Ovechkin. The Penguins “settled” for Evgeni Malkin, thus maintaining all their balls for the 2005 lottery.

If the balls had bounced differently, the Penguins could have drafted Ovechkin in 2004, but then, with a 24-1 or 48-1 chance of winning, lost the 2005 lottery and taken Bobby Ryan second overall.

Alex and Bobby doesn't have the same ring to it as Sid and Geno, does it?

... BRIERE'S CAREER DOESN'T GET CUT SHORT?

Michel Briere turned in one of the most dynamic rookie seasons in Penguins history in 1969-70, racking up 44 points at age 20 and wowing observers with his offensive gifts. He led the team in scoring in the playoffs and netted an overtime goal to close out the club's first-ever playoff series win, a first-round victory over the California Golden Seals.

Days after his breakthrough postseason performance ended, Briere was in a car accident. Eleven months later, he died.

To suggest one of the most promising careers in Penguins history was cut down by the accident is not the product of sentimentality. It's verifiable statistically.

Briere's rookie season compares favorably to the team's other scoring stars from the same era. One year earlier, Jean Pronovost recorded 41 points as a rookie. A year later, Syl Apps had 28 points in his first pro season. Later in the decade, Greg Malone turned in a 37-point rookie season.

Pronovost, Apps and Malone are all in the top 15 in scoring in franchise history.

What if Briere hadn't been in that car accident? It's safe to say he would have been one of the team's all-time greats.

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