All fans of the NHL know that the history of the Pittsburgh Penguins can be nicely and evenly divvied up into two separate eras: The Before Era and The After Era. The turning point is a certain Mario Lemieux, and he played the role of a franchise savior on more than one occasion.
Hockey history in Pittsburgh goes way, way back to the US Amateur Hockey Association and the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets. While the team did manage to win their championship in two consecutive seasons, Pittsburgh back then was probably a baseball town, so the team did run into financial problems. The NHL gave Pittsburgh a team called the Pirates back in 1925, which made perfect sense because it was Pittsburgh that turned hockey into a professional sport in the United States way back in the 1890s. The Pirates ran for five years, then turned into the Philadelphia Quakers for another year before folding altogether. To replace them, Pittsburgh then picked up an AHL team called the Hornets, who won the Calder Cup three times.
Naturally, Pittsburgh was a strong candidate for an NHL expansion team in 1967, especially on the involvement of Jack McGregor, a state Senator who lobbied campaign contributors and community leaders to bring back the NHL. McGregor was banking on the idea that an NHL team would be an awesome urban renewal tool for Pittsburgh, whose decline had started by then. The local investors McGregor appealed to included the Heinz Company and Art Rooney, which gave the city a boost because Rooney owned the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, and Heinz now has their name on the Steelers' field. He managed to add a bit more pull from Chicago Black Hawks owner James Norris and James's brother Bruce, who owned the Detroit Red Wings. You think the NHL was likely to say no to Pittsburgh with all that firepower going for it? Yeah, they got their team easily, and since the Pittsburgh Civic Arena was nicknamed The Igloo, they decided to call the team the Penguins. What connection Penguins have to Igloos, I don't know.
General manager: Jack Riley, who had previously general managed the AHL's Rochester Americans and built a team that won the Calder Cup. Of course, since the NHL was the NHL and was still ruling under the thumb of the Original Six, they didn't let Pittsburgh grab anyone who was, ahem, good. They did pick up Ken Schinkel, Keith McCreary, Bryan Watson, and Les Binkley. Yeah, those guys would recreate The Production Line, right? Fuck no, but to the surprise of everyone who doesn't follow the NHL, it was good enough for the Penguins to make the playoffs. In 1970 and 1972. The Penguins could have had an early superstar, and in fact they briefly did - in the 1969 draft they got Michel Briere, who was quickly drawing comparisons to Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke. When he joined the Penguins formally, he was the top rookie in the league, and placed second in Calder Trophy voting, just behind Chicago's Tony Esposito. In the 1970 playoffs, the Penguins swept the Oakland Seals, with Briere scoring an overtime series-clincher. Briere led the Penguins that year in playoff scoring, even though the team lost the second round to the St. Louis Blues. Just days after the end of the playoffs, though, Briere was in a car crash in Quebec, suffering brain trauma which put him into a coma. He never recovered, and a year later, his brain finally surrendered and let it go.
By 1974, the Penguins were fighting it out with the California Golden Seals for last. Riley was fired and replaced. While his replacement did manage to pull the Pens up a notch in the standings, that still meant missing the playoffs. Maybe that would have gone somewhere, but in early 1975, Pittsburgh's creditors started going all shylock on their asses and demanding their debt payments. This forced the team into bankruptcy, the offices were padlocked, and it looked like they might be outta The Steel City. Around that time, there were rumors everywhere about how the Penguins and Golden Seals would be taken to Seattle and Denver respectively. The Seals did eventually wind up moving - they became the Cleveland Barons for two years before merging with the Minnesota North Stars, ending their existence. Pittsburgh was saved through an intervention group that involve former North Stars coach Wren Blair.
On ice, the Penguins' fortunes started to get better in the mid-70s. First they fielded The Century Line, with Syl Apps, Lowell MacDonald, and Jean Pronovost. In the late 70's, they slowly brought in better players like Rick Kehoe, Pierre Larouche, Ron Stackhouse, and Dave Burrows. That gave them offensive power that other teams feared, but despite big efforts from goalie Denis Herron, the Pens couldn't defend against The Mighty Ducks. I don't mean the NHL Mighty Ducks, I mean the little league Mighty Ducks from Disney. Although the offense looked like something that might push the team to a breakout, the Pens screwed up by replacing their general manager with Baz Bastien, a guy who liked to trade draft picks for old vets in their twilights. It worked in the short term, getting them to the playoffs in 1979 and allowing them a first round victory over the Buffalo Sabres before they were swept by the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately, it also damn near crippled them in the early 80s. They made a bunch of first round playoff exists. Sure they were drawing out seven-game series against much better and higher-seeded opponents every time, but a first round loss is a first round loss.
The Penguins bottomed out for two straight years and, with more financial problems, looked again like they would fold. As the 1984 season got close to its conclusion with the Pens just one spot ahead of the last place New Jersey Devils in the standings, Pittsburgh management started making a ton of dumbass moves that looked like they would weaken the team for another short term. As a result, the Penguins posted a whopping THREE six-game losing streaks in the final 21 games of the season to hit rock bottom. In one game, Pittsburgh held a 3-1 lead after the first period only to lose 6-3. It really made fans wonder what the hell was going on, and if coach Lou Angotti was really as bad as he had seemed for awhile. Maybe Angotti was desperate to rescue his job and acting like a fighter on the ropes with nothing to lose, doing everything in his power and trying every unconventional technique he could think of.
Then again, maybe he was tanking on purpose. (Read: That's EXACTLY what he was doing.) The biggest prospect in the draft that year was a big guy named Mario Lemieux, and he was one of the most highly touted prospects the league had ever seen. Angotti later admitted he tanked in order to get Lemieux and save the Penguins, although he never felt comfortable with the idea. Comfortable or not, it worked, even as teams offered substantial trade packages for the draft pick. Angotti held his ground, got Lemieux, and Lemieux immediately got to work in the following season. He scored on his first shot on his first-ever NHL shift. Although the Penguins still spent four more years out of the playoffs, Lemieux earned the respect of NHL fans and players everywhere, including Wayne Gretzky. While a handful of professional athletes have worn this particular nickname ever since the release of a certain video game, it's Lemieux who will always and forever be the original Super Mario.
Although the Penguins kept missing the playoffs for a few years, it wasn't as if they were doormats. In two years, they missed the playoffs by one game on the last day of the season. In 1987, they missed by two games and presumably gnashed their teeth as four teams with equal or worse records than them qualify. In 1989, with swarming talent like Kevin Stevens, Rob Brown, Paul Coffey, and Tom Barrasso there to assist Lemieux, the Penguins were finally in the playoffs again. In the early 90's, the Penguins kept strengthening their roster, bringing in Ulf Samuelssson, Bryan Trottier, and Lemieux's most famous lancer of all, Jaromir Jagr. In 1991, the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup Finals and thrashed a Cinderella Minnesota North Stars team with a losing record. This brought a huge development for the NHL: After the Finals, the Penguins were invited to meet President George Bush at the White House. Its been a longstanding tradition for sports champions to meet the President in the NFL, NBA, and MLB, and the Penguins were the first hockey team to ever be given that honor. It was a major statement for just how much the NHL was growing in the United States. Unfortunately, something sad also happened the following season when the Penguins lost their coach, Bob Johnson, to cancer. Although Scotty Bowman was brought in to replace him and the Pens won the Stanley Cup again, it was a rather somber victory.
Cancer, in the form of Hodgkin's disease, tried to claim Lemieux too. His career was left in jeopardy, but Lemieux took two months of aggressive radiation treatments and was out of the league the whole time. After his last treatment, though, he flew out to Philadelphia to rejoin his team for a game against the Flyers and even managed to score a goal and an assist. Super Mario was back, and before the game, the Philadelphia fans gave Lemieux a standing ovation, a moment to remember because sports fans KNOW how often Philadelphia fans applaud opposing players for anything at all, much less a guy playing for Pittsburgh. With Lemieux, the Penguins continued to be a dominant force in the NHL through the 90's. They didn't return to the Finals, but they did win the Presidents' Trophy in 1993. With new additions like Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev, Pittsburgh kept making deep playoff runs until a first round loss to Philadelphia in 1997 stopped them dead.
Lemieux, concerned about his health, retired after the 1997 season. The Pens weren't quite as good as they used to be without him, but the real battle hit when their free-spending ways of the early 90's came back to bite them in the ass. They owed $90 million at one point, and were forced to file for bankruptcy yet again when Lemieux returned with an odd proposal: Years of deferred salary added up and made him one of the team's largest creditors. He asked if he could recover his money by turning it into equity and buying the Penguins, promising to keep them in Pittsburgh. The court and league both said yes, and so Super Mario had now saved the Penguins twice. And, oh yeah, he sort of unretired in 2000, even leading them on another deep playoff run in 2001. Although he stayed until 2006 this time, it didn't prevent the Penguins from falling back to the same position they were in back when Lemieux saved the team the first time: Rock bottom with dwindling attendance. In the 2004 Entry Draft, the Penguins had their hearts set on a young phenomenon named…. ALEXANDER OVECHKIN! HA! Yeah, you thought I was going to bring a certain OTHER young phenom into it, didn't you? Well, since Pittsburgh didn't bottom out quite as much as they needed to in order to get Ovechkin, Ovechkin went to the Washington Capitals. Second overall, the Penguins found a pick named Evgeni Malkin, so try not to cry for Pittsburgh too hard.
Everyone still bitches (rightfully) about the 2005 season lockout, but ironically, that lockout might have rescued the Pittsburgh Penguins. There were more whispers about a move, this time to Kansas City. This lockout, however, was caused in large part by the horrid financial shape of the Pens and many other teams like them, who kept filing for bankruptcy protection. And after it resolved, the league began organizing a draft lottery in order to protect itself and fans from, well, the kind of shit the Pens had pulled in order to win the draft rights to Mario Lemieux. Pittsburgh won that first draft lottery, and that gave them the rights to ANOTHER certain young phenomenon. Yes, you're free to just make the assumption now that you made last time. I'm talking about Sidney Crosby. The Next One.
Under Crosby and the new salary cap, the Penguins began to build. They found a ton of new talent, and in 2008 they made a wild move no one expected at the trade deadline, the Pens made a trade for Atlanta Thrashers dynamo Marion Hossa. It helped them get close to the top, as Hossa shed his then-reputation as a playoff choker with a playoff performance for the ages. The Penguins went to the Finals, losing a hard-fought six-game series against the Detroit Red Wings. Then they lost Hossa…. To Detroit, where he had wanted to go in order to win the Stanley Cup. So the Penguins - whom I've always since imagined to be a little pissed at Hossa - showed him up by going to the Finals again in 2009, and winning their third Stanley Cup. Against Hossa's new team. (I live that story. Even though Hossa now plays for my favorite team and helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2010, I still love it.) The Penguins have been arguably the best team in the league since.
Michel Briere and Mario Lemieux are the only Penguins who have had their numbers retired. Lemieux, though, was such a great and respected player that the league waived its three-year waiting period after retirement in order to put him in the Hall of Fame immediately. Even though I don't name Hall of Fame players in this series anymore, that should tell you something. Some of their other greats include Luc Robitaille, Tim Horton, Paul Coffey, Andy Bathgate, Bryan Trottier, and Ron Francis. The Penguins also have the distinction of being one of the four NHL teams coached by Herb Brooks, he of the Miracle on Ice. The other three are the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, and New Jersey Devils. He wasn't a very good NHL coach, though; in seven total NHL seasons, he went 219-222-66. He made five playoff appearances, going to the second round three times. But hey, this is the NHL, where going to the playoffs means your team is good enough to win a bantam title, barely.
The big rivals of the Pittsburgh Penguins are the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. The Flyers rivalry is the most natural, and it even has history and development behind it because both teams were created at the same time. They've both won the Stanley Cup multiple times, and both can easily be argued as the most successful team of the 1967 expansion. Both of them reside in Pennsylvania. The Capitals have faced the Penguins eight times in the playoffs, and the Pens hold a 7-1 advantage. The 2011 Winter Classic was between the Pens and Caps, and both teams are fielding players who can be argued as the best in the league - Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and Alexander Ovechkin in Washington.
For a team that won the Stanley Cup three times, the Pittsburgh Penguins aren't exactly swimming in memory. A lot of the team's biggest moments involved financial instability, it seems. The fifth game of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals was a big one, mostly because I believe it to be the greatest hockey game I've ever seen in my life. Also, Pittsburgh's second Stanley Cup was won in a sweep against the Chicago Blackhawks, and that's a series I consider as proof that sweeps don't always project dominance. In the first game, Chicago gave up a considerable lead. The third game ended with a 1-0 score. Three games were decided by one goal, and the fourth was decided by two. The Pens' identity rests largely on Mario Lemieux, who means everything to the team, and Sidney Crosby, who before he ever suited up for a single NHL game, had people who were so fucking stupid as to say he would break every record Wayne Gretzky ever owned. That's why his nickname is The Next One, which isn't heard very often these days while people call him Sid the Kid instead. Crosby isn't going to break very many of The Great One's records, if any, but he's plenty good and worthy of being the face of the league right now. Yes, I said the LEAGUE.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are sure looking awfully stable at the moment. If it was a few more years from now, I would rate them higher, but it's tough to get behind a team if its recurring pattern is to file for bankruptcy then get saved by one of the greatest damn players in NHL history. That's why I have to rate them low. Again, though, an adopting fan shouldn't get discouraged by my rating. The Pens are currently an excellent team and a lot of fun, and there's no better time to hop the bandwagon.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.