Pens celebrate 10th anniversary of first cup
The looks on their faces and the warmth of their embraces belied the passage of time, to the extent that 10 years seemingly vanished in the blink of an eye.
The setting was a golf outing/reunion at Valleybrook Country Club on Tuesday, but for the Penguins, it very well could have been the Stanley Cup stage at the Civic Arena or the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., a little more than a decade ago.
Much has changed since then. The Met Center is now a parking lot for the Mall of America, while its former tenant has migrated to Dallas. Defenseman Paul Coffey’s once flowing locks have been cropped, to the extent that Coff’s coif now inspires reminders of Forest Gump.
And the coach who made the unimaginable the undeniable, the man whose eternal optimism and unbreakable spirit crafted what for Pittsburgh always will be remembered as the greatest day ever for hockey, will have been gone 10 years in late November.
Yet, no matter what has happened since then, no matter what’s destined to be 10 years or more down the road, the 1990-91 Penguins always will have May 25, 1991.
Because of the Stanley Cup championship the Pens captured and punctuated that night with their 8-0 victory over the Minnesota North Stars, those players and coaches and personnel men and locker room artisans are destined, as center Ron Francis so eloquently observed on Tuesday, to ‘walk together forever.’
The Pens have had better teams in their star-crossed history. General Manager Craig Patrick is quick to identify the 1992-93 team, one that didn’t win the Cup, as the best of his Penguins tenure. And they’ve had more dominant playoff runs, as the NHL-record 11 consecutive playoff wins the Pens posted to secure 1991-92’s championship repeat will attest.
Still, to those who were there, the 1990-91 championship, the first one, will forever be remembered as the most special.
‘People ask me all the time, ‘How did it feel?’|’ defenseman Peter Taglianetti said. ‘You really can’t explain it. Unless you went through that and you had blood dripping out of your face and sore ribs and you lost something like 10 or 12 pounds during the course of the run …
‘It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been through something like that, but everybody always says your first one is your best one, and it was by far.’
‘I still think the first one was the best,’ winger Kevin Stevens said. ‘When you’ve never won something like that, and then you realize how difficult it is …
‘It was so much fun. You’re hanging out with 25 guys every single day, with the coaches, everybody just trying to come up with ways to win, trying to do one, single thing. It was something I’ll never forget.’
BUILDING FROM THE ASHES
From disaster rose a champion. That’s the way the Penguins ultimately came to interpret the events of March 31, 1990.
Needing only a tie to make the playoffs that night, the Pens instead lost to Buffalo, 3-2, in overtime, when Uwe Krupp beat Tom Barrasso with a long shot that brought sudden death to a season. Patrick, in whose religion it is a mortal sin not to qualify for the playoffs, was ‘pretty depressed.’
But he also was free to scout the world championships and suddenly in possession of the No. 5 overall draft pick.
Patrick’s scouting mission confirmed the Pens’ intention to select a Czech prodigy named Jaromir Jagr.
‘Ivan (Hlinka) was coaching (the Czechs),’ recalled Patrick, who had been named the Pens’ coach and GM on Dec. 5, 1989. ‘The third line was (Bobby) Holik, (Robert) Reichel and Jagr and they hardly played. We complain about Ivan using three lines here (as the current coach of the Penguins), he only used two there. It was hard to watch (Jagr), but you could see …
‘We didn’t know how great he was going to be, but we knew he could play in the NHL. We were just holding our breath until our pick came.’
Once Owen Nolan (Quebec), Petr Nedved (Vancouver), Keith Primeau (Detroit) and Mike Ricci (Philadelphia) went in succession at the outset of the draft, Patrick had his man. But the re-tooling of the Penguins hardly stopped there.
Also that June, Patrick hired Bob Johnson as coach and Scotty Bowman as the director of player development and recruitment. He obtained winger Joe Mullen from Calgary for a second-round draft pick. In October, defenseman Gord Roberts was acquired from St. Louis for future considerations. In December, defensemen Larry Murphy and Taglianetti arrived from Minnesota for defensemen Jim Johnson and Chris Dahlquist; forward Jiri Hrdina was brought aboard from Calgary for defenseman Jim Kyte; and winger Scott Young was added from Hartford in exchange for winger Rob Brown.
The most memorable move of all involved landing Francis, defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and defenseman Grant Jennings in a trade that sent defenseman Zarley Zalapski, center John Cullen and winger Jeff Parker to the Whalers on March 5, 1991.
‘The trades were incredible when you think about it,’ backup goalie Frank Pietrangelo said. ‘Think about it right now. To get Ronnie Francis and Ulfie Samuelsson and Grant Jennings for Zarley and John, who were two very good players, don’t get me wrong. But (Francis and Samuelsson) were guys that were superstars in the league. That put us over the edge.’
Cullen did much for the cause before departing, playing with Stevens and Mark Recchi on what came to be known as ‘The Option Line’ (all three players were in the option years of their contract). Although center Mario Lemieux missed the season’s first 50 games while recovering from back surgery, the ‘Option Line’ helped keep the team afloat and in a position where Patrick’s deals eventually could make a difference.
‘Badger Bob (Johnson) talked to us a lot,’ Recchi said. ‘We knew he counted on us every night, and we prided ourselves on being guys that showed up every night.’
The Pens went 9-3-2 after acquiring Francis, Samuelsson and Jennings, and secured the first division championship in franchise history.
‘When we made the trades, when we got Ronnie and Ulfie and Grant Jennings, the team really turned around,’ Lemieux said. ‘There was a good feeling that we had a chance to go all the way.’
‘We overhauled the whole defense,’ Patrick said. ‘The best thing we had that year was depth on defense.’
‘I think what people forget is that team, I believe, was about 11 points out of first place in the (Patrick) Division and only seven or nine points away from missing the playoffs,’ when the final Hartford trade was made, Francis said. ‘It was sort of a pressure cooker right off the bat, but the guys played extremely well and that built momentum going into the playoffs.
‘And three months later, there we were.’
‘YOU CAN LOSE THREE GAMES’
Johnson’s mantra throughout the playoffs was that in a best-of-seven format, losing as many as three games wasn’t fatal.
Throughout the playoffs, his players seemed destined to take him at his word.
Each series featured potentially devastating circumstances. But in each instance, the Penguins either responded as champions or found the breaks and luck all champions eventually must.
In the first round against New Jersey, Pietrangelo filled in for an injured Barrasso and made ‘The Save’ against Peter Stastny, a miraculous stop that kept the Pens alive in Game 6 and allowed them to complete their comeback from a 3-2 series deficit in Game 7.
In the second round against Washington, the Pens rallied to force overtime in Game 2 when forward Randy Gilhen jumped on the ice during a delayed penalty and scored a late goal. Stevens’ subsequent game-winner in OT prevented the Pens from falling into a two-games-to-none hole.
In the third round against Boston, the Pens lost twice in the Boston Garden, the second time in overtime, and Stevens responded by guaranteeing the Pens would rally to win the series (they took the next four in succession).
And in the Stanley Cup final against Minnesota, Lemieux bent over to tie his skates prior to Game 3 and couldn’t straighten back up. The Stars took Game 3 and a 2-1 series lead in Lemieux’s absence. The Pens took over from there and steamrolled their way to the Cup.
They found themselves without the likes of Coffey, Samuelsson and Taglianetti from time to time along the way, as well as Barrasso and Lemieux, but somehow found something within themselves to continue persevering.
‘Even to that point, I don’t think we knew how good we were,’ Taglianetti said. ‘We just went out and played, but if we got down, we found that little extra.
‘We ended up wining them all and winning the Cup, but I don’ think we played as well as we could have and that’s the scary part.’
‘You have to have talent and you have to have heart and you have to have all the guys on the same page, guys that didn’t play filling in when they’re needed to fill in,’ Stevens said. ‘(Forward) Barry Pederson, (defenseman) Jim Paek, Randy Gilhen, those guys were good in the locker room. They came to practice and didn’t know if they were ever going to play and they never had a bad attitude.
‘That team was special.’
Stevens’ declaration after Game 2 in Boston was his most famous locker room address, but hardly his first.
‘He did stuff like that periodically, he just had a knack for it,’ winger Phil Bourque said. ‘He was such a catalyst for that team on and off the ice. In the room he would stand up and he was just like a drill sergeant, barking out stuff. And everybody would stop what they were doing and pay attention to him.
‘He refused to lose. He just wouldn’t accept it. He knew how good of a team we had and he would stand up and say, ‘Hey guys, we are not going to lose this. We’re going to win.’ When he did that, any little doubt that was in your head was gone right away.’
Players such as center Bryan Trottier and Mullen led by more subtle methods.
‘They kept close ties on a lot of guys,’ Taglianetti said.
And just about everyone came through at some point, either by playing his role to perfection or providing some unlikely heroics at just the right time.
‘We had some role players that were very important,’ Lemieux said. ‘Randy Gilhen, Phil Bourque, (winger) Bob Errey, (winger) Troy Loney, all these guys were very important to our success.
‘It was a great locker room, a real family atmosphere. That’s something you need to go all the way and something we’re trying to get back here. And of course, we had the talent and Tom Barrasso played great.’
‘People always talked about us being a loosey-goosey team, but that was one of the hardest-working teams I’ve ever been on,’ Francis said. ‘We had good chemistry, contributions from everybody, good defense and goaltending. The pieces to the puzzle all came together at the right time.’
DISBELIEF TO DETERMINATION
Johnson was the quintessential optimist. He never tore down, always choosing instead to build up. He didn’t despair. He somehow found the bright side, even when the bright side was difficult to find. He always said, ‘It’s a great day for hockey,’ because to Johnson, it always was.
‘He was like that every day of his life that I know of,’ Patrick said.
The Pens didn’t take to Badger Bob’s unbridled enthusiasm initially. They weren’t used to such an approach and were skeptical of it as a result.
‘Everybody was kind of waiting for him to blow his stack but he never did,’ Taglianetti said.
‘They kept kind of whispering to me all year long, ‘What’s with this guyâ¢ When is he going to drop this stuff?’|’ Patrick said. ‘He was just positive all the time. By the end of the year, everybody started to believe it was for real.’
They believed in themselves and the team as a result.
‘A great guy, a great motivator and a great teacher of the game,’ Stevens said. ‘He really brought the game back into perspective, and I think we all appreciated that.’
Johnson did so by reminding one and all ‘you can lose three games’ and still win a series. He did so by measuring the ice at the Boston Garden with a tape measure, to drive home the point to his players that while the rink was small and intimidating, the offensive and defensive zones were regulation size and they’d be able to function there after all. He did so by making sure everyone saw the Minnesota newspaper’s outline of the projected parade route after the North Stars had grabbed a two-games-to-one lead in the Cup final.
He did so by being himself.
‘That was a credit to Bob Johnson,’ said Paek, one of several players that assumed unlikely roles of prominence in the playoffs because of injuries. ‘I was one of the ‘black aces,’ the ninth defenseman. But I remember every day after practice he’d say, ‘You never know, Jim, you never know. You better be ready.’
‘And sure enough, he was right. He was an unbelievable man.’
As far as most anyone can remember, Johnson stepped out of character just once during his one-year tenure with the Penguins.
As usual, Johnson pushed the right buttons while doing so.
The setting was the Penguins’ locker room between periods two and three in Game 6 against Minnesota. They were up 6-0, on the brink of professional immortality and apparently having a little trouble coming to grips with it all.
‘We were a bunch of guys that laughed and joked, there really were not a lot of serious moments in our locker room,’ Taglianetti said. ‘But when we were up 6-0 after two, we weren’t joking at all. We were actually screaming at each other, ‘get the (expletive) puck in,’ or ‘don’t (expletive) do this …’
‘Then Bob came in. He never swore or anything like that, but he came in and said, ‘Guys, you’re about to make history. There are only a few names on that Cup and you’re going to be a part of it. Don’t (screw) it up.’|’
Johnson was as detail-oriented as he was upbeat, from the notebooks of practice drills he kept stashed everywhere to his insistence upon handling players on an individual basis.
‘When I first got here, he called me into his office and sat me down,’ said Francis, the captain in Hartford before being traded to the Pens. ‘He said, ‘I want to explain to you, we have this kid here who plays center. His name is Mario Lemieux and he’s our No. 1 guy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help.’ I almost started laughing right there.
‘He was very educational in the way he approached the game, a good person, and he did a great job to get us to the pinnacle.’
Johnson died on Nov. 26, 1991 after a three-month battle with brain cancer.
But his name was on the Stanley Cup that visited Valleybrook on Tuesday, and his presence was felt in the hearts of those assembled.
They really will walk together forever after all.