September 24, 2011

The hockey world and the world in general has been struck by multiple tragedies this past summer, the most recent being the horrific plane crash in Russia, almost literally wiping out the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team.  One player, who is in critical condition in Moscow, survived.  *Writer’s note…this player sadly succumbed to his injuries, leaving no roster player of this team alive

But Russia wasn’t the only tragedy this summer.  NHLers Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak all passed away this past offseason.  Reasons why vary; the fact remains, all we have left of these players (who were sons, fathers, wives, and boyfriends) are memories.  It will be a summer very few hockey fans will forget.

Nor should we.  Part of what makes hockey such a great sport is the undeniable bond that forms between teammates, fans, and cities.  The outpouring of emotion in Yaroslavl is the evidence of this.  The nature of the memorials for the three fallen enforcers this past summer is proof that hockey players and fans have a unique bond.  One only has to look at the massive amount of tweeting from Twitter-using NHLers to see and appreciate the fan/player bond.  Even though the player may never ever meet the hundreds of thousands of Twitter readers, it is refreshing to see honest and appreciative responses from players to their fans.

It is this bond that saw Public Enemy #1 in Philadelphia, Mario Lemieux, receive a standing ovation from the Penguin-hating Flyers fans when he returned from cancer in 1993.  It is this love for the game that saw Saku Koivu receive applause from almost every arena he returned to after his battle with cancer.  There are hundreds of examples.  Hockey fans are in love with the sport, and it is that love that allows us to show our emotions in times of great tragedy within the hockey world.

It must be said that these are tragedies that transcend hockey.  People have lost their lives, and in that respect, let us keep in perspective that with every player lost, there is real grief and tears being shed, right now as I type this, in the households and circles of each and every person who has lost their life.  It is good for us to be shocked.  It shows we haven’t been desensitized to death, and recognize that these athletes are human beings.  They had been gifted with extraordinary athletic prowess, but they are still human.

It is my hope the NHL, the KHL, and every major junior league these athletes played in pay tribute to these fallen players.  These players have given us memories to last a lifetime.  Every player has a story.  They leave behind a legacy.  Whether a player has one fan or thousands, theirs is a story that must never ever be forgotten.  The memory of their accomplishments will live on through the fans who have been fortunate enough to see them play.

Regardless of the outcome, regardless of who is found to be at fault…we must never lose sight of what is important.  Enjoy the game…enjoy being a player, a fan, or a coach.  Life is short.  It’s fleeting.  Every moment we cherish, let us not forget.  Let us never ever forget these players, and the memories they gave us.  The best way for these young men to be remembered is through us, the fans.  Hockey is supposed to transcend continental boundaries, ethnicity, and background…it unites us.  Hockey brings us together, all over the world, as extended family…and now, we must cope with a tragic summer in which several of those extended family members have been taken away.

There will never be any sense of death.  There will never be an “aha” moment in which we have it all figured out.  Enjoy the memories of these several hockey players…and cherish the time we have with our families and loved ones…for we never know when it might be taken away.


20 Years Later: Shawn McEachern

June 24, 2011

In both 1991 and 1992, the Pittsburgh Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cups.  While this is the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Cup run, the 1992 Cup run had its share of heroes as well.  Shawn McEachern was one of those heroes that forever imprinted his name in Pittsburgh playoff lore.

Shawn McEachern broke into the league in 1991-92.  He was quickly noticed for his blazing speed and versatility at forward, able to play wing and center.  He scored his first playoff goal against the New York Rangers, helping eliminate the President’s Trophy winning Rangers in six games.  He went on to play for Ottawa, Boston, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.  He was drafted 110th overall in the 1987 NHL entry draft.

McEachern established a reputation of playing hard-nosed hockey, and developed into a topnotch leader, eventually wearing the captain’s ‘C’ in a Thrashers uniform.  He collected 579 points in 911 NHL games.  McEachern’s value came in more than goals and assists.

I had the privilege of catching up with Shawn McEachern in my quest to obtain interviews of former Penguins players from the 1991 and 92 Cup winning years.  It was a blast catching up with yet another Penguin hero, and taking a trip down memory lane of the 1992 Stanley Cup champions!  My sincere thanks to Mr. McEachern for his time and memories!

And now, at left wing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, #15…Shawn McEachern!

Justin– Despite playing only 15 games in the 1991-92 regular season, you became a regular in the playoffs, playing in 19 games.  What role were you given as a rookie winger on the 1992 team?

Shawn–It really depended on the series.  Against the Rangers I played some center when Mario and Mullen got hurt and then when Mario came back I moved to the wing.  I tried to use my speed as much as possible.  Against the Rangers Scotty wanted me to chase down Leetch, that was lots of fun.

Justin–When you first entered the league, you started your career playing with future Hall of Famers like Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, and Joe Mullen.  What did that do for your career personally, learning from a lineup like that?

Shawn–It was pretty intimidating at first, this was a high powered team.  We had guys that could score through out the line up.  I think it gave me confidence that I could score in the league.  Playing with such great players I got lots of chances.

Justin–You scored your first NHL goal in the second round against the heavily favored New York Rangers (a backhand, I believe).  It gave the Pens a 3-1 lead in Game 6.  What did that mean to you, scoring your first goal in the playoffs?

Shawn–It was a huge relief.  I had so many good chances before that in the regular season and the playoffs.  I wanted to prove I belonged, getting one against a team like the Rangers and helping to put them away was a blast.

Justin–Being a rookie, watching the seconds tick away in Game 4, with Chicago buzzing in your end, what was going through your mind?

Shawn–I was just excited.  I don’t think at the time I realized how big it was.  That was the last time I played in the finals, as a young guy you think you’ll get back there, especially with the team we had in Pitt.

Justin–Your name is among the many engraved on the Stanley Cup.  Knowing that, and owning a Cup ring…what memory stands out the most during the 1992 playoffs (besides the Cup win itself)?

Shawn–I have so many good memories from that year.  The plane ride home from Chicago to Pitt was amazing, my family was there and they got to experience it.  Playing in the playoffs after watching it on TV the year before was surreal.  Scoring my first NHL goal was up there for sure.  Holding the Stanley Cup in Chicago Stadium, standing on the bench for the national anthem in Chicago is an experience in it self.  Playing in Boston and winning in four was a thrill.

Justin–In 1992-93, the Penguins were the obvious favorites to win the Stanley Cup.  However, you ran into a determined Islanders team that eliminated Pittsburgh in seven games.  What happened in that series?

Shawn–They had our number all year long.  They were the only team that gave us trouble.  Kasperitis played Mario and Jagr very tough.  They had a good defensive team with some scoring.  I think we really would have beaten them if Kevin Stevens hadn’t had that terrible injury.  That was devastating to the team.

Justin–What was Scotty Bowman like as a coach?  How did he help your career on a personal level?

Shawn–Scotty was tough.  I joined Pitt after the Olympics and lived in the same hotel as him for 3 months.  He wouldn’t even say hello on the elevator if I saw him.  But after we won the cup he was friendly as can be, talking to my Dad just a regular guy.  Then camp started next season and he wouldn’t say hello again.  Scotty played his best players, as a young guy you got one chance.  If you didn’t perform you sat down.  That’s what pro hockey is about, results.  It took me awhile to figure that out.  You better be ready to play.

Justin–After two seasons in Pittsburgh, you were traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and then back again.  Describe what goes through a player’s mind when they are traded.

Shawn–It’s tough.  Especially the first time.  I enjoyed playing for Pitt and felt good about how I had played.  I was traded back 6 months later so it came full circle.  It’s just part of the business but it’s tough on you confidence.  You wonder why they don’t want you, what you could have done differently.  I think it made me a better player in the long run.

Justin–As a former Atlanta player, what are your thoughts on the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg?  Could the NHL have worked in Georgia?

Shawn–I loved playing in Atlanta.  It was a great place.  I think it could have worked with the right owners and if they could have put a winning team on the ice.  They made some bad decisions and lost some very good young players that they could have built around.  When I was down there they had Kovi and Heatley.  I think the Heatley accident and the loss of Dan Schnieder had a huge impact on that organization.

Justin–How are you filling your time in your retirement?  How is The Rivers school treating you?

Shawn–I’ve been coaching the past 5 years.  Four years in college and the past year at Rivers, a small independent school outside of Boston.  I work in admissions and the athletics dept.  It’s been a lot of fun.  I enjoy coaching and being around the kids. My kids are in to their sports as well so we are on the road quite a bit.  It’s been fun.

20 Years Later: Frank Pietrangelo

June 22, 2011

Penguins goaltender Frank Pietrangelo covers a rebound in Game 5 of the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals.

During the Stanley Cup playoffs, one moment or player can be said to have changed the course of history.  In 1991, the Pittsburgh Penguins were down three games to two to the New Jersey Devils, and leading 2-1 in Game 6.  Penguins starter Tom Barrasso had suffered an injury, and backup goalie Frank Pietrangelo was pressed into service in this elimination game.  With his team nursing a 2-1 lead, Pietrangelo made a glove save that preserved the one goal lead, snagging a Peter Stastny shot from point blank range, with a gaping 4 x 6 goal the target.  In Penguins legend, that stop became known simply as “The Save.”

Pittsburgh went on to win that game, and also won Game 7, eliminating the Devils and propelling them further into the playoffs, in which they eliminated the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, and Minnesota North Stars en route to their first Stanley Cup championship.

What happens if Pietrangelo doesn’t make that save?  The Penguins had struggled all series against the Devils, and had Stastny tied that game up, the odds were that New Jersey would have gone on to win the series, and Pittsburgh would not even have been a memory in that year’s playoffs.  For many Penguin fans, Pietrangelo saved the entire Cup run with his Game 6 heroics.

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Mr. Pietrangelo, and had the chance to ask him about his role on that team, and his memories about 1991.  For those who remember, Pietrangelo was acquired by the Hartford Whalers for the 1992 playoffs, and almost singlehandedly eliminated the Montreal Canadiens, losing in double overtime of Game 7.  Frank Pietrangelo remains a legend in Pittsburgh Penguin history.  His contributions to the 1991 championship are immeasurable.

Many thanks to Mr. Frank Pietrangelo for his time and contribution!

And now, introducing in goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins, #40, Frank Pietrangelo!

Justin–When Tom Barrasso got injured and couldn’t start Game 6 against New Jersey, how much notice were you given that you would be the starter for a possible elimination game?  What went through your mind?

Frank–Tom was hurt in game 5, and we knew that he would not be able to play the rest of the series, so I knew right away that I would be playing game 6. As for what went through my mind- I was excited to get an opportunity to play on the “big stage”.

Justin–Walk us through “The Save.”  Did you have a bead on it the whole way, or was it purely as reactionary as it appeared?

Frank–The save was a reaction. When the original shot from the point came in on me, it was bouncing so I couldn’t get a good grip on it. The rebound went out to the slot and I just reacted the way I would normally to a rebound- just tried to get something in front of the puck to make the save.

Justin–Describe the atmosphere in the Pittsburgh locker room during the 1991 playoffs.  Was there one specific player who kept things light, or was that a team effort as well?

Frank–The dressing room was great during the 1991 playoffs. We were like a family, everyone cared about each other and everyone helped each other out. We were youthful and energetic and learning everyday as the playoffs went on. It was a great atmosphere. I don’t think anyone in particular really kept things “light” so to speak, but the addition of Joe Mullen and Bryan Trottier, and the presence of Paul Coffey (3 veteran guys who had won the Stanley Cup in the past) really helped the younger players.

Justin–What kind of leaders were in the room?  Was there one specific player who was the team leader, or did the responsibility fall on several players?

Frank–I think the above answer kind of hits on this question a bit. Throw in Mario of course and then Ron Francis- there was a ton of leadership on this team. Look at how many Hall of Fame players were on this team. Not to mention veterans like Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelson, etc, etc.

Justin–Was there one specific moment during the playoffs that really united the locker room?

Frank–I think there were many great moments that brought us together, but we were a “team” long before the playoffs started. I think when you look at teams that have success, the important bonding process must happen before the success shows on the ice. This team was very close, and to be honest with you still is today. So in my opinion winning is the final piece of what transpires during the season and over time.

Justin–Sitting on the bench, watching the final moments of Game 6 in Minnesota tick away, what was going through your mind?

Frank–Well it was 8-0 after the 2nd period, so we knew between periods that we were going to win the Stanley Cup…lol. But we were just trying to keep our emotions in check until the final buzzer. It was a great feeling, one that is indescribable to be honest with you, and one that gets magnified as time goes on.

Justin–Who do you credit for pulling the team together after two losses in Boston in the Conference Finals?

Frank–After our 2 losses in Boston, Kevin Stevens came right out to the media and said we were going to win the series. I think he went as far as to say we wouldn’t lose another game in the series. Regardless, this was a bold statement from Kevin, and one that we all felt but he was ballsy enough to speak. We had a lot of Boston born players on our team, so this was an important series for a lot of our guys.

Justin–You were a teammate of a teenage Jaromir Jagr in 1991.  What was it like watching him grow into his skills in the playoffs, and did you imagine he would become the player he did?

Frank–Jaromir was a great player and a hard worker. I think every one of us knew he would be the player he turned out to be. He had a great work ethic, a tremendous love for the game, and most importantly he had talent oozing out of him. By having Mario in the same dressing room with him, and on the ice daily with him, Jaromir got to learn from the best, so it was no fluke that he would be the player he became.

Justin–What kind of emotions did you feel when you were called into action in Game 5 of the Finals?  Every Canadian hockey player dreams of playing in the Finals; what went through your mind?

Frank–I hadn’t played for a while prior to game 5- my last appearance was in game 2 of the 2nd round (Washington), so it was not easy to go in and play after being inactive for so long. But having said this, once again I got an opportunity to play in a situation that I had dreamed of my whole life- a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Having said this, Tom was injured during the first period of the game, so there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare- just get in there and go get ’em type of thing. But that was my role, and I cherished the opportunity to play and help the team win.

Justin–What keeps you busy these days?  How are you enjoying Hill Academy?

Frank–This past year I was the General Manager and Coach of The Hill Academy Prep Hockey Team. It was a great experience and a number of our players received NCAA scholarships and/or opportunities to play in the OHL for next season. I have been at The Hill Academy for the past 3 years, but I will move in another direction for next season. I have coached minor hockey since I retired in 2000, and next season I will join the JR coaching ranks. I enjoy coaching and giving back to the game that has given me so much.

A Few Thoughts on Mark Recchi

June 17, 2011

Mark Recchi celebrates his third Stanley Cup win.

Mark Recchi.

What a hockey player.  What a classy guy.  He was small, only 5’8″, but he will always be remembered as one of the best “little guys” in the history of the NHL.  A winner of three Stanley Cups with three different teams.  He brought an offensive spark to Pittsburgh in 1991.  He brought Cup experience to Carolina in 2006.  And he brought leadership and poise to Boston in 2011.  His is a 22 year career, one that should result in a Hall of Fame induction on the first ballet.

As a Penguins fan, I was introduced to Mark’s pure scoring ability in 1990-91.  With Mario Lemieux on the injury list for most of that season, the burden of carrying Pittsburgh’s offense fell upon veterans like John Cullen and Paul Coffey.  Cullen, of course, was traded in that famous trade with Hartford.  You know the one; the one that brought Ron Francis to Pittsburgh.  But the two high-flying Penguins were joined by a second-year winger that exploded for 113 points, helping the Penguins to the Patrick Division title for the first time in their history.  No one would dare say Penguins couldn’t fly with Recchi sniping all season long.

Mr. Recchi, what do you do for an encore to that incredible regular season?

His answer came emphatically in the 1991 postseason, as he went on a scoring tear again, notching 34 points in 24 games…only ten less than Mario Lemieux.  His contributions were instrumental in bringing the 1991 Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh.  He and Mario made magic together in the playoffs…as evidenced in a verbatim play-by-play in the Finals…

“Recchi has tipped it to Lemieux…back to Recchi…he scores!!!”

Penguins fans will look at Mark Recchi with fond memories.  The shock and sadness of the sudden trade of Recchi to Philadelphia in 1992 wasn’t soon forgotten.  That trade…that also saw Paul Coffey head to Los Angeles to be reunited with Wayne Gretzky…at the time felt like the gutting of a Cup champion.  Of course, the pieces the Penguins got in return…Rick Tocchet, Ken Wregget, Kjell Samuelsson, and Jeff Chychrun…did propel them to the 1992 Stanley Cup championship, so some of the sting was eased.  But Recchi will always have a special spot in the hearts of Penguins fans.

In addition to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Recchi played for Montreal, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and finally, Boston.  A fan favorite wherever he went, Recchi was a sparkplug, a pinball of energy that accepted the role given to him in any system.  He wasn’t afraid to be controversial in attempts to deflect blame from teammates.  A consummate team player, Mark Recchi has been rewarded three times with a Stanley Cup ring.  Now he has retired, leaving us Mark Recchi fans with lots of memories…and a sadness that another one of the greats will not grace NHL ice again.  For those of us who were privileged to have watched Recchi play, we tip our hats to an amazing player who had an amazing career.

His contributions to each team he played for will never be forgotten.

Thank you, Mark Recchi, from this lifelong Penguins fan.

20 Years Later: Jim Paek

June 15, 2011

Jim Paek hoists the Stanley Cup, the first Korean to do so.

Have I mentioned it was the 20th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first Stanley Cup championship yet?

In this, this 20th celebration of Penguin excellence, it has been my goal to compile as many interviews with members of that 1991 team as possible.  To longtime Pens fans, the names like Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey, Tom Barrasso, Larry Murphy, Kevin Stevens, and Jaromir Jagr (not to mention many others) have become synonymous with Pittsburgh Penguin Stanley Cup glory.  But what of the other heroes of that 1991 Cup win?

Names like Jim Paek, Bob Errey, Troy Loney, Paul Stanton, Grant Jennings, and Scott Young are but a few of the players on that 1991 team that were just as crucial to that 1991 Cup run as the other players mentioned above.  It is my extreme pleasure to present the first interview with a 1991 Cup champion:  On defense, wearing #2…Jim Paek.

A bit of information on Mr. Paek.  Jim Paek was born in Seoul, South Korea, but moved to Canada when he was three years old.  Jim played for several teams in his NHL career.  The Penguins, Ottawa Senators, and Los Angeles Kings all saw Jim patrol their bluelines during his NHL heyday.  But it was with Pittsburgh that Jim saw his most memorable years, winning the Stanley Cup twice, being the first Korean to have his name engraved on hockey’s Holy Grail.

Today, Jim is an assistant coach with the AHL’s Grand Rapid Griffins, where he helps develop the next generation of NHL players.  Jim has been gracious and extremely forthcoming, and it has been a great experience dealing with Jim, and the walk down memory lane has been a great one for both he and I.

So without any hesitation, I present my conversation with Jim Paek!

Justin–When you first entered the Pens’ dressing room in 1991, did you imagine the type of run you would go on in the playoffs?  What were your first thoughts in sharing a room with stars like Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey?

Jim:  You always think you can win especially with the type of character and skill the Penguins had that year. Sharing the room with Mario and Paul I was in awe. Then you look around the room and you see more great players and guys. You learn a lot watching those guys.

Justin– At the time, you were the first Korean born player to play in the NHL, and that year, became the first Korean to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.  What does that mean to you?

Jim:  It sure was an honor being the first Korean to have won the Stanley Cup. I always see myself as a Korean. The Korean community sure did receive me well. I am thankful for them recognizing me as a Korean and a hockey player.

Justin–What were the final moments of Game 6 like for you in Minnesota, watching the clock tick down to zero?

Jim:  I was a nervous wreck. You never take anything for granted. As the clocked ticked down so many emotions run through you. All the blood sweat and tears, your childhood dream about to come true, your parents and family for all there support. It sure was an emotional time.

Justin–What was Badger Bob Johnson like to play for? 

Jim:  Badger was the most positive coach, person I knew. He gave me the chance to play and kept throwing me into the fire. He showed confidence in me. I just regret not knowing him longer. The things he taught me will last forever in me and I will pass it on to others.

Justin–Describe being in Pittsburgh during the 1991 Cup run.  Many people make the mistake of thinking only Canadian cities are hockey mad.  How would you rate Pittsburgh against some Canadian cities?

Jim:  Pittsburgh was fantastic. The support we got from the city was incredible. Our colors and logo were everywhere. What is amazing is that they still remember and thank you for the cup. How awesome is that!

Justin–Many people will remember you for your scoring the 7th goal in that 8-0 win in Game 6.  Walk us through the goal.

Jim:  Scoring your first goal in the Stanley Cup finals, assisted by Mario. I dont think you can write that any better.

Justin–Was there one moment during the 1991 playoffs that stands out the most for you (besides the Cup win itself)?

Jim:  What stands out during the playoffs for me was how close the guys were. Everyone played their part and accepted their role. It was a special bunch of guys led by a special man Badger Bob.

Justin–Describe playing with the likes of Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.  As a rookie, how much did you learn from them?

Jim:  I learned so much from watching those guys and they would help me in anyway they could.

Justin–How are you enjoying your time in Grand Rapids?

Jim:  Grand Rapids is a great place to raise a family and the organization here is top notch. It is great developing these young players and helping them play in the NHL. You feel you have apart of their success.

Justin–Describe the difference in your role and your emotions between the 1991 and 1992 Cup wins.

Jim:  The emotions were high in both years. To be able to win back to back championships just like the commercial, speechless. There are no words to describe it. My role in both those years were to work hard and do whatever to help the team win.

My thanks to Mr. Jim Paek for his time and insights to a great time in Pittsburgh Penguins history!

20th Anniversary Celebration!

June 11, 2011

Was it really twenty years ago?

Did it really happen?  Did the Pittsburgh Penguins win the 1991 Stanley Cup championship twenty long years ago?  Did the Minnesota North Stars really upset the first and second overall teams, then the defending Cup champions, in the three rounds leading up to the finals?  Did Pittsburgh really surprise the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, and Boston Bruins en route to their first Finals appearance?

The answer of course, is yes.  Time has a habit of wearing away at our memories, but some stand out for life.  And while the memories of a hockey championship may seem like a trivial thing compared to some memories we could hold, they remain no less precious.

For Penguin fans who had suffered through years of last place finishes, the 1991 Cup run was a magical run.  It was full of memories, from “the save” by Frank Pietrangelo against the Devils, to Tom Barrasso giving the Capitals fits in the final three games of Round 2, the 1991 Cup erased years of bad memories in two spectacular months, ending on a unforgettable May 25 evening when the Penguins dumped the North Stars 8-0 in the decisive Game 6.

I was 13 years old.  Never before had hockey taken on such a surreal experience for me and a few other (rare) Pens fans in Grade 8.  As my friend Chris Arnburg and I watched, the Penguins elevated their play and we could finally celebrate (much to the chagrin of our friends) as Penguins fans.  In some ways, the 1991 Cup run brought us to a height where we were the envy of all our hockey fan friends.  Here in Nova Scotia, most hockey fans are Montreal, Boston, or Toronto fans.  There are very few Pittsburgh fans in Nova Scotia (now there are lots of Sidney Crosby fans, but very few true Pittsburgh Penguin fans).  During the 80s, the Edmonton Oilers rose to new heights of popularity, due to five Cups in seven years, so there were lots of Oilers fans at this time as well.  But there were very few Penguin fans.

May 25, 1991, was a Saturday, clear and warm.  I knew that morning that the Penguins were riding momentum and I waited all day for Game 6 to start.  I also knew Minnesota was a stubborn team, and that a possible Game 7 could be played Monday night in Pittsburgh.  Game 6 would be played in the Met Center in Minnesota, where the North Stars were almost unbeatable.  I don’t know what the feeling was among the Penguins players, but I knew I was nervous.  And as luck would have it, the heat brought on a migraine, so I spent most of the afternoon sleeping off the dreaded headache.  It cleared up in time for Game 6.  With homemade milkshake in hand, I settled into my hockey chair (yes, I had a hockey chair), not knowing what to expect, but knowing it should be a close game.

Boy, was I wrong!

At the end of the 1st, Pittsburgh led 3-0 on goals by Ulf Samuelsson, Mario Lemieux, and Joey Mullen.  After 40 minutes, the Penguins led 6-0, with goals by Bob Errey, Ron Francis, and Mullen’s second.  The third ended, 8-0, with goals by Jim Paek and Larry Murphy finishing the scoring.  Tom Barrasso finished with 39 saves, and Lemieux finished with the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, notching an incredible 44 points in the playoffs.  With each goal, my eyes grew wider, and when the final buzzer sounded, I jumped off my chair, able to celebrate something most Penguins fans dreamed would never happen, as only a year ago they missed the playoffs completely, and Lemieux starting the season with a career threatening back injury.  It had been a long but rewarding two months, as watching the Penguins deep into May was a whole new experience.

The Penguins doubled the pleasure in 1992, with their second straight Cup win.  But it was the magic of 1991 that primed us fans for the 1992 Cup win.  It was a playoffs that exist in our memories as Pens fans, and always will.

Sports memories may not rate the same to everyone.  But in 1991, Pens fans from all over were able to watch the best hockey played that year.  Lemieux’s absolutely amazing goal in Game 2 of the Finals united the hockey world in finally recognizing Lemieux’s ability and leadership.  He would not be denied.

Neither would we as fans.  Happy 20th anniversary!

Why Phoenix Should Stay

June 10, 2011

PhoenixIt’s no secret the Phoenix Coyotes are the laughing stock of the National Hockey League.  From the free ticket giveaways to the city of Glendale actually putting up $25 million to fund the already guaranteed losses for next season, the Coyotes haven’t exactly been the model of success since they relocated from Winnipeg in 1996.

Most pundits and experts have claimed it’s only a matter of time until the Phoenix Coyotes pull up roots and move to destinations unknown.  Originally, it was widely speculated that the Phoenix franchise would return to its roots, moving north to once again become the Winnipeg Jets.  The sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to True North has scuttled that belief, and while few could blame the NHL for moving the team to Winnipeg when the opportunity first arose, it didn’t happen.  From that blackberry dude to the Chicago sports mogul, potential owners came and potential owners went.  None stuck.  When an owner showed up that wanted to keep the team in Phoenix, the Goldwater Institute got involved (and rightfully so) and blocked the sale.

It’s not a good time to be a Coyotes fan.

Now, let’s put aside all Gary Bettman bias for a moment.  Blame whoever you want to the Coyotes’ troubles in your own minds, the fact remains that Phoenix could still be a lucrative market for the NHL.  Let’s be honest; a poor product on the ice, coupled with lack of good ownership off the ice, have teamed to make a franchise that no one wants, no one sees staying, and no one wants to support.

With the pending relocation of the Atlanta team, one would now make the argument that the time is now to move the Phoenix club north of the border.  The three day sale of 13,000 season tickets in Winnipeg shows that we Canucks in Canada love our hockey, and will pay top dollar for it.  Quebec City seems to be next in line for a franchise, but arena troubles have slowed that process.

The Phoenix Coyotes should stay in Phoenix.

I’m not a comedian, but I can hear the laughs now.  A Canadian wants to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in a failing market?  I can see the comic element on the surface, but let’s be serious.  A thriving team in Phoenix could grow our game like never before.  Cities like Los Angeles and San Jose have embraced their NHL teams, and have been rewarded with some measure of success.  Nashville is starting to embrace the Predators.  Carolina was hopping during the Hurricanes’ two marches to the Finals in 2002 and 2006.  Even Florida was insane with hockey when the Panthers reached the Finals in 1996.  Hockey in the south can thrive and survive, but one common denominator needs to be met:

Sustained on-ice success remains a crucial element to support hockey in the southern USA.

Duh…I know I sound like Captain Obvious when I say that, but it is true.  All sports fans love a winner.  To build a winner, an NHL general manager needs success at both the free agent pool and the entry draft table.  The Phoenix team has enjoyed two seasons of regular season success followed up by two first round losses to the Detroit Red Wings.  The NHL needs to appoint someone…anyone…to handle the hockey affairs of this team and allow them to build a winner using conventional hockey methods.  Trades, free agency, and the draft all need to be handled by someone independent of the NHL (mind you, the NHL will always have some say, they own the freakin’ team right now), much like Mario Lemieux allowed someone else to handle the workings of the Penguins when he was an owner/player.  Someone needs to take the bull by the horns and build a winner even in the midst of this uncertain time…the recipe for success isn’t hard to figure out.  Any paying customer wants to know that their money will go to a winning cause…in this case, the Phoenix fans will come if the team shows some measure of dedication to building a winner while the team goes through its ownership woes.

The team needs to make its mark in Arizona.  Our great game needs to be grown.  Year after year of mediocre product followed by three or more years of ownership woes has eroded the interest of the average hockey fan in Phoenix.  No one wants to watch a team whose ownership shows almost zero interest in reaching out to the ones who matter most–the average fan.  No fan wants to watch a team whose future is so uncertain, they’re not sure from one season to the next if they will even stay in their city.  What the NHL needs to do is make a statement that includes a deadline.  For example, the NHL should guarantee five years of NHL hockey in Phoenix, with no threat of relocation, and work on building a winner.  If after five years, even with a winning team and marketing designed specifically for the fans of all ages, then steps should be made to relocate.  But a deadline needs to be set and the fans need to be made aware of what exactly will happen with fan support, and without.

Phoenix can survive.  It will take some time and effort, not to mention money, but if the NHL is serious about keeping the team in Arizona, it is a small price to pay.