Penguins are going distance to build 'winning atmosphere'
Jarome Iginla could not believe his eyes.
While showing his family the inside of Consol Energy Center for the first time on Thursday afternoon, Iginla walked his kids down a hallway lined by large photographs of Penguins players, ranging from captain Sidney Crosby to fourth-line center Joe Vitale.
“We were just looking at the pictures on the way, and I'm, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we're already up there,' ” Iginla said, referring to the framed photograph of him in a black Penguins home jersey. “I thought that was a pretty neat touch, to already be a part of it.”
Iginla had been in Pittsburgh less than a week.
The Penguins wasted no time trying to make Iginla's surroundings feel like home.
“They got my kids jerseys with my number (12) and name on the back, and stuffed animals — and my kids were so pumped,” Iginla said. “They were wearing those jerseys around everywhere, and they had hats. Now we're full Penguins fans.”
Iginla did not leave his only previous NHL home — Calgary, where he played for 16 seasons, including the last nine as Flames captain — so his children could get new gear and toys.
He agreed to waive a no-movement clause in his contract because he believes the Penguins, specifically because of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the MVP last season, give him a chance to finally win the Stanley Cup.
“Players want to win,” Iginla said. “But those small things go a long way.”
Lemieux, Shero and luck
Penguins CEO David Morehouse could not have drawn up Iginla's Thursday any better.
The mandate of majority co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle is to “build the kind of franchise that people want to come and play for,” Morehouse said.
“We want to treat our players better than anybody else treats their players,” Morehouse said, recalling the two years team officials spent touring dressing rooms of NHL, NBA and MLB teams so that the Penguins could make good on Burkle's request to “build the best dressing room in sports.”
“When players are traded here or sign here, we want them to know right away that they're going to be treated the best,” Morehouse said.
So far, so good — at least so it seems.
Twice over a span of five days this season the Penguins traded for a player who was another team's captain, a player who possessed a contractual clause that allowed him to block any move.
Winger Brenden Morrow waived that clause March 24, agreeing to leave his only NHL home, Dallas, to join the Penguins. Iginla followed March 28.
Morehouse said the lure of the Penguins for those players was obvious.
“It starts with Crosby and Malkin. Guys want to play with our two great players,” Morehouse said. “But it's not just the great players we have, the great facilities we have, the fact that Pittsburgh's a great hockey town. It's all those things combined. And I think mostly it's that our owners are committed to winning.”
That is it, defenseman Mark Eaton said.
“People want to win, and winning begets winning, and people want to be a part of that,” Eaton said. “But word travels, too.”
Eaton rejoined the Penguins early this season — he initially signed a tryout contract and worked through a conditioning stint at AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — after leaving as a free agent in July 2010.
He was the first free agent that general manager Ray Shero signed upon taking over the Penguins in May 2006.
After signing Eaton, Shero instructed a member of his then-smallish hockey operations staff to send flowers and a welcome package to Eaton's wife, a gesture that has become tradition.
“Ray's a first-class GM, and what he's done with this team has been first class,” Eaton said. “And this ownership, with Mario being around, everybody knows about him. You add all of that in with the winning and the world-class players, Crosby and Malkin, and it's just something people want to be part of.”
Shero said that if the Penguins are “a destination, it's because the table has been set by Ron and Mario and those franchise players for guys like Iginla to play with.”
“You have to look back beyond my seven years, back to when Mario and Ron made the commitment to keep the team here after they got the ping-pong ball to fall a certain way,” Shero said, referring to the 2005 NHL Entry Draft lottery that won the Penguins the opportunity to select Crosby first overall.
“The year before that (2004), a player like Malkin was available with the second pick, so you're talking about franchise-changing moments for the Penguins. Mario and Ron took advantage of it. They realized it was an amazing opportunity to build something special.”
Sid, Geno and more
Crosby said there is a reason he never craved the opportunity to test his worth on the free-agent market. A year away from becoming the likely most-coveted free agent in NHL history, Crosby signed a 12-year extension last July.
“There's a lot of pressure that comes with committing to a team for so long,” Crosby said. “But when it comes to the guys here, we have a pretty good idea of what is expected of us, and we know what to expect.
“I think we all like that. I know it's something that I never take for granted and is something I wanted to be a part of for a long time.”
Malkin, like Crosby a former MVP and scoring champion, said he wants to make a similar commitment to the Penguins this summer when he can sign an extension.
Penguins ownership first signed off on spending to the salary cap in 2008, back when the skeletal frame of Consol Energy Center did not yet exist. The Penguins have been a cap team since, and ownership has authorized Shero to spend as needed to keep Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh through the duration of their careers.
Those players are the best advertisements for those interested in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are “about more than just Sid and Geno,” though, said Iginla, who can become a free agent July 5.
Shero will make a push to keep Iginla — a player he has long admired — and though negotiations will not begin until after the Stanley Cup playoffs, an impression clearly has been made.
“Calgary was a good organization, and it's a smaller city, and (the Flames) create that family feel,” Iginla said. “But you get that family feel here, too. And the facilities here are amazing. (Consol Energy Center) has been well thought out.
“Just look at the shooting room. That's great. When you're a player, you grow up shooting in your backyard or basement. Here, there is a room for us to just shoot. And the breakfast area is built so that guys can eat and hang out together. I could keep going on, but there are things that make it conducive to helping you get ready to play.
“I was here less than a week and I could tell why they have this winning tradition with the Penguins. It's a winning atmosphere.”