(This month, Puck Daddy asked bloggers for every NHL team to tell us The Essentials for their franchises — everything from the defining player and trade, to the indispensable fan traditions. Here's Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Empty Netters blog, giving us The Essentials for the Pittsburgh Penguins.)
By Seth Rorabaugh
Player: Mario Lemieux
Talk about easy choices.
Instead of rehashing the laundry list of Lemieux's incredible on-ice accomplishments, which most hockey fans are familiar with, let's examine his impact to the franchise.
Prior to drafting Mario Lemieux in 1984, the Penguins were the pinnacle of irrelevancy. In Pittsburgh, they were the third team in the city's hierarchy of pro sports franchises. Throughout most of the Penguins' existence up until 1984, the Pirates and Steelers were winning championships with superstars such as Roberto Clemente and Terry Bradshaw. Meanwhile, the Penguins were barely getting in the playoffs with above average players such as Rick Kehoe. Outside of Pittsburgh, they were another team for dynasties such as the Canadiens and Islanders to pad stats against.
Lemieux arrived in 1984 via the draft and changed everything. The Penguins began selling out games. They became an opponent you circled on the calendar, if for nothing else, to watch the most spectacular individual talent since Bobby Orr. And with the Pirates and Steelers on the decline that decade, Lemieux became the city's sole superstar.
As Lemieux challenged Wayne Gretzky for the title of "best player in the game," the Penguins began to surround him with complimentary talent such as Paul Coffey and Kevin Stevens. After winning the Hart Trophy and Art Ross trophies multiple times, Lemieux would bring the one big trophy which counts the most to Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992.
A successful battle against cancer in 1993 would add to his legend. He would retire in 1997 having grown frustrated with the clutching and grabbing which had crept into the sport.
Off the ice, the franchise was struggling under owner Howard Baldwin. Lemieux saved the Penguins once again by buying them out of bankruptcy.
In 2000, Lemieux gave Penguins fans one more thrill when he emerged from retirement and became the first player/owner in modern NHL history.
After battling with politicians for more than a decade, Lemieux would help ensure the franchise's security in Pittsburgh with the construction of Consol Energy Center.
Today, the Penguins stand as one of the NHL's healthiest and most high-profile franchises due largely to the efforts of Lemieux. With out Lemieux, the Penguins would have become the Carolina Hurricanes or the Colorado Avalanche a long time ago.
Simply put, no one has ever meant more to a professional North American sports franchise than Mario Lemieux - on or off the ice.
After barely missing out on the postseason in 1990, general manager Craig Patrick made some major changes to the franchise. During the offseason, he took a chance by drafting shy kid from Czechoslovakia named Jaromir Jagr. He also added veterans with Stanley Cup rings such as Joey Mullen and Bryan Trottier to a mostly green roster.
The season would start without Lemieux who was recovering from a back injury. Youngsters such as Mark Recchi and John Cullen would lead the team through the regular season. Lemieux's mid-season return and a major trade (see below) would help the team win the first division title in franchise history. After surviving a near upset at the hands of the Devils in the first round, the Penguins would dispatch the Capitals in the second round. A defeat of the defending Wales Conference champion Bruins would send the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup final.
Facing a Cinderella North Stars team, the Penguins' superior talent just took over. Trouncing Minnesota by a combined score of 28-13 in six games, the Penguins won the franchise's first Stanley Cup title and made Pittsburgh a hockey city.
Game: Penguins 2, Red Wings 1, 2009 Stanley Cup Final
There are so many candidates for this. Lemieux's first game in his 2000 comeback. The four overtime playoff game against the Capitals in 1996. The five overtime game against the Flyers in 2000. We'll take the easy way out and go with Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final.
After winning a do-or-die Game 6 in the Mellon Arena, the Penguins returned to Joe Louis Arena for Game 7. The first period was as tense as overtime of a "regular" playoff game. Things opened up a bit in the second period with two goals by Maxime Talbot. After cutting the lead to one goal in the third period, the Red Wings unleashed wave after wave of offensive attack on the Penguins' net only to be turned away by Marc-Andre Fleury and company.
After Fleury denied the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom on a last second shot, the Penguins would get their revenge for losing the 2008 Stanley Cup final to the Red Wings and claimed their third title.
Goal: Mario Lemieux, Penguins vs. Blackhawks, Game 1, 1992 Stanley Cup final
The fact that the Penguins swept the Blackhawks in the 1992 Stanley Cup Final mostly masks how good of a team the Blackhawks were in the 1992 postseason. Prior to Game 1, Chicago had set an NHL record which still stands with 11 consecutive postseason wins. And in Game 1, they had raced out to a 4-1 lead midway through the contest.
The Penguins would chip away at the lead and tied the game, 4-4, with a dazzling goal by Jagr. That would set the stage for Lemieux on a power-play with 13 seconds left:
Rarely do garbage goals look so beautiful.
In a meeting of two of the best faceoff specialists of their time, Ron Francis muscled the puck away from Brent Sutter. Before Sutter could get to it, Larry Murphy chops the puck on net from the right point. Ed Belfour makes the save but kicks out a brutal rebound as if he were a pinball flipper. Lemieux, who was completely ignored by one of the best defensive forwards in the game in Steve Larmer, walks in and buries it. The Penguins celebrate along the right wing boards. The Civic Arena faithful roar in complete pandemonium. The Penguins win the game, 5-4.
Without that goal, the game presumably goes to overtime and the Cup Final potentially takes a much different route.
Trade: Penguins get Ron Francis, Grant Jennings and Ulf Samuelsson from the Whalers for John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski, 1991
The staggering thing about this trade is how unpopular it was at the time not only with the fans but with the Penguins as well.
In addition to being an all-star who had carried the team in Lemieux's absence, Cullen was a very popular member of the locker room. His linemate and best friend, Kevin Stevens, publicly questioned the trade.
Before the trade, the Penguins had plenty of skill, but were lean in terms of toughness. This trade addressed that need. Francis was more of a two-way center who could rack up points or take a faceoff in his own zone with equal effectiveness. Samuelsson was a nasty, physical agitator who could stick any power forward on his wallet. And Jennings was a large defenseman who routinely had triple-digits in terms of penalty minutes. All three players helped the club win the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. Samuelsson and Francis would score the Cup-clinching goals for the Penguins in 1991 and 1992 respectively.
Samulesson would become a cult hero in Pittsburgh and villain outside of it. With a peculiar name and a propensity for laying out big hits which weren't always legal, Samuelsson became one of the most popular players on the team. When Steelers legend Jack Lambert cited Samuelsson as his favorite player, his place in Pittsburgh's sporting landscape was secure.
Francis alone would have made the trade a steal. Eventually becoming the fourth all-time leading scorer in NHL history, Francis was a vital part of the Penguins franchise throughout the 1990s. Francis would hit the 100-point mark twice with the Penguins and served as the club's captain following Lemieux's retirement in 1997. He also became the only player in franchise history to win the Selke Trophy.
In the 20 years since, this trade has become the standard for which all other trade deadline deals are measured against.
Unsung hero: Tom Barrasso
Rarely does a goaltender get too little attention — good or bad — with regards to a team's success or failures, but Barrasso deserves far more credit for the Penguins success in the 1990s than he gets.
Before Barrasso's arrival, the goaltending position for the Penguins was manned by nothing but mediocrity. From Les Binkley to Al Smith to Denis Herron to Jim Rutherford to Gary Inness to Dunc Wilson to Herron again to Greg Millen to Michel Dion to Herron yet again to Roberto Romano and to Gilles Meloche, the Penguins simply never had a franchise goaltender.
Barrasso changed that. After trading for him in 1988, the Penguins reached the postseason for the first time in seven seasons. Two years later, Barrasso and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup for the first time. Very few remember that Barrasso actually made a tough save off a re-direction by Perry Berezan which helped set up another of Lemieux's famous goals in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final against the North Stars.
Barrasso's greatest effort was in the 1992 postseason when he helped the team successfully defend the Cup. Lemieux would win the Conn Smythe Trophy but many, including Lemieux himself, felt Barrasso should have won it.
Sadly, Barrasso contributions are overshadowed in many ways by his personality. Nearly intolerant of the press, Barrasso made few friends outside of the dressing room. In the dressing room, Barrasso was notorious for barking down younger teammates. Today, many of his former teammates want little to do with him.
Instead of being celebrated as one of the most vital parts of the Penguins' greatest successes, Barrasso, largely through his own actions, is mostly remembered for his failures on and off the ice.
Franchise Villain: Jaromir Jagr
For most teams, a villain is someone who simply tormented you as an opponent. For Rangers fan, Martin Brodeur is a villain simply because he's an elite player on the other side of a fierce rivalry. For Red Wings fans, Claude Lemieux is a villain for a dirty hit against Kris Draper.
For Penguins fans, Jaromir Jagr is a villain for completely different reason.
When the Penguins drafted Jagr in 1990, the idea of selecting players from former Soviet bloc nations was still a pretty exotic endeavor. Would he be allowed to come to North America. Could he handle the culture? Could he learn the language. Could he handle the North American game?
Over the course of a decade, Jagr went from a shy kid who would cry on the bench during games to a superstar who almost seemed bored as he dominated games. He grew up and became a man in many ways in front of our eyes here in Pittsburgh. This wasn't just some 30-goal scorer who had a few decent seasons in Pittsburgh. This was someone Penguins fans attached themselves to as a human being. And he also happened to be the player in the NHL in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Things began to unravel in 2000. As he was struggling early during the 2000-01 season, Jagr, who was never hesitant to offer strong quote, said he was "dying alive." Even with Lemieux's return later that campaign, Jagr had requested a trade. In the 2001 offseason, the Penguins granted his request. Jagr had transformed from Pittsburgh darling to public enemy No. 1. Adding to the fury directed at Jagr was the fact that the three players the Penguins received from the Capitals in exchange for Jagr — Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk and Michel Sivek — were complete failures as NHL players.
Over the next half decade, anytime Jagr returned to Pittsburgh, whether it was with the Capitals or Rangers, Jagr was booed anytime he touched the puck. Jagr Penguins jerseys had their name plates edited to a slang term uniquely Pittsburghian.
Experiencing some success in the 2010 Olympics, Jagr expressed an interest in returning to the NHL after three seasons in the KHL. The Penguins began kicking Jagr's tires to see if he would be interested in returning to place of his greatest success. A decade after he left, Jagr could make a triumphant return and finish his career where it began.
It was something out of a movie. The Penguins' greatest player from one era side-by-side with their greatest players of the current era. It could have been a magical reunion.
It ended up being a Shakespearian tragedy.
Jagr's agent, Petr Svoboda, ignored the Penguins' offer as the first day of free agency approached. Frustrated and perplexed, general manager Ray Shero pulled the offer off the table only to see Jagr do the unthinkable. He joined the Flyers.
Of all the teams, he signed with the Penguins one absolute rival. To add insult to injury, he would play a large role in the Flyers' regular season and postseason success against the Penguins in 2011-12.
Suffice it to say, Penguins fans have a complicated love-hate relationship with Jagr, especially the last part.
Fight: Maxime Talbot vs. Daniel Carcillo
The Penguins have certainly had fights with better outcomes and better fighters. But no bout has ever meant more to the Penguins' success.
Early in Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Flyers had a 3-0 lead. With all the momentum going Philadelphia's way, Maxime Talbot decided to so something about it. He picked on an easy, gullible target in Daniel Carcillo.
As the Flyers' resident undisciplined hothead, Carcillo gladly took up Talbot challenge despite having nothing to gain from the fight:
Carcillo dominated the fight but Talbot provided his flat team with a spark. Talbot would shush the blood-thirsty Philadelphia crowd and 14 second later, Ruslan Fedotenko scored the first of five unanswered goals and the Penguins would clinch the series. They would move on that spring and win the third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Coach: "Badger" Bob Johnson
Few figures in Penguins history — player or management — are more beloved than "Badger."
Johnson arrived in Pittsburgh in 1990 and immediately injected enthusiasm into the organization. Offering a positive outlook unlike few other NHL coaches, Johnson immediately connected with his players. Despite playing without Lemieux most of the season, Johnson was able to steer the team to its first division title and eventually its first Stanley Cup title in 1991.
Tragically, a few months after his greatest professional success, Johnson was diagnosed with brain cancer the summer of 1991 and eventually succumbed the disease early in the 1991-92 season.
Johnson's successor was Scotty Bowman. Bowman would steer the team to its second title in 1992 while serving as interim coach the entire season. Despite not coaching a single game during that season, Johnson's name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup for the Penguins' 1992 title as "coach." During the celebration of the team's second title at Three Rivers Stadium, Bowman made a point to proclaim that "the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins will always be Bob Johnson."
To this day, Johnson's impact is felt on the franchise in the form of his keynote phrase which the Penguins use as a marketing slogan: "It's a great day for hockey."
Broadcaster: Mike Lange
Another easy choice.
There are very few names more people associate with the Penguins than Mike Lange.
When the franchise struggled in the pre-Lemieux days, Lange was for many fans, the primary reason to watch or listen to Penguins games. His goal calls were to put it mildly, unique.
The classic Lange goal call is two-fold. The first part is acknowledging the goal. Roughly 75 percent of the time, Lange does this with a straight forward "Heeeeeeeee shoots and scores!"
The second part is the random catch phrase. From classic standards such as "Michael, Michael Motorcycle" to contemporary offerings like "Make me a milkshake Malkin!" Lange offers a little bit of silliness to his goal calls which make them even more memorable.
Lange's calls aren't restricted to goals either. From opening a broadcast ("Itttt'sssss a hockey night in Pittsburgh"), to a strong save ("He should get five to ten for that") to ending a game ("Elvis…. has just…. left… the building"), Lange has brought a unique approach to all aspects of a Penguins broadcast.
Even beyond his unique phrases, Lange still calls a sharp game with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel. Many Penguins fans will turn down the volume of their televisions in order to listen along on the radio.
For the better part of four decades, Mike Lange has been the narrator of Penguins hockey.
Arena Tradition: Impersonating John Barbero
There isn't a Penguins fan alive who hasn't in one of their more private moments, dreamed of hearing public address announcer John Barbero call their name.
"The Pittsburgh goal, his first of the season, scored by No. 19, Seth…. Rooorrraaaabaaauggghhhhhhhh………."
(We assure you that would have most likely been a garbage goal.)
Unlike many announcers today who assault fans with an over-the-top screaming announcement of a goal, Barbero, whose daytime job was as a high-school principal, did his night job with a smooth but enthusiastic delivery. He would stretch out the last syllable of a goal-scorer's name in a fashion which wouldn't blow out your eardrums.
Sidney … Crosbeeeeeeee……
Evgeni … Malkinnnnnn…....
Jaromir … Jagrrrrrrrr…….
He could even do it with someone such as Jon… Simmmmm……
But Barbero never did it better than when it came to Mario…. Lemieuuuxxxxx………. (Check the 1:47 mark)