(First of all, thank you all for the patience as we took a brief hiatus here at the site. Quite a few personal situations sprung up that needed my attention. All is good these days and we are officially re-opened for business! As I mentioned in a facebook post the other day we will soon have a new look… hope that you will all enjoy it! – Metz)
By Brian Metzer
The older you get, the more you realize just how fast time flies. It is uncanny really… when you are a child, the summer seems to last a lifetime. Heck, even individual days of that infinite summer seem to last longer than most weeks. So when I realized that today marks the 20th anniversary of the Penguins first Stanley Cup Championship back in 1991 I couldn’t help but get a little nostalgic. How on earth has it actually been 20-years since the Birds raised that first championship?
I remember the year as if it were yesterday. I was a sophomore at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School and my friends and I were amongst the biggest hockey fans on the planet. Yep, I am going there… not just Pittsburgh, not the United States, but the entire planet (that means you too Canada!) We ate, drank, and slept Penguins and National Hockey League. We played hockey on an almost daily basis, even if it was just one of us in pads in goal and the other shooting.
Many of us had already put in quite a few years of watching the Penguins lose. For me, it has been roughly seven years since my father had gotten me into the game at age 8. I was able to watch as the Penguins slowly worked themselves up from bottom dwellers to nightly competitors. Much of that transition could be attributed to Mario Lemieux, but the team started to graft on some additional pieces – the pieces that would take them from playoff team in 1988-89 to Champion in two short years.
One of the first major pieces was Paul Coffey. The “Doctor” had won Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, something that just about no one on the Penguins roster had done. He helped the team make improvements, but there weren’t there yet.
Then the team acquired another huge piece in the form of one of the greatest United States born goaltenders in the history of the league, Tom Barrasso. Though many folks have learned to dislike him over the years, the Penguins wouldn’t have won back-to-back championships without him.
(I realize that acquiring Kevin Stevens in 1983 from the LA Kings, grooming Mark Recchi as he came through the system and acquiring Joey Mullen was all just as important, but this piece is already getting long enough! Amazing when you consider the moves that go into building a champion!)
The team took further steps forward making the playoffs during the 1988-89 season, swept the Rangers, but fell to their cross state nemesis, the Philadelphia Flyers.
Unfortunately they would go on to miss the playoffs the next season, in part due to losing Mario Lemieux in February of that year to a back injury. Though it was disappointing, the team looked to be on the right track.
Though many of us were a bit concerned that Mario’s injury would carry over and he wouldn’t start the 1990-91 season with his teammates, the eternal optimist in all of us were convinced that they could still be competitive. Especially when we considered the front office moves that Uber General Manager Craig Patrick had made that summer.
Patrick had hired a new head coach, “Badger” Bob Johnson and a new Director of Player Development, Scotty Bowman. Both men would make their mark on the franchise, but it was the Badger that taught the group how to win. He showed them how to believe in themselves on days when there wasn’t much to believe in. Heck… let’s get right to it – he taught them that every day was a “great day for hockey.”
The team didn’t exactly fly out of the gates and found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture as the mid-point of the season approached. Patrick began to tinker with his line-up a bit and acquired Larry Murphy – another player without which I don’t believe the Penguins would have won back-to-back championships. Murphy made an immediate impact and notched 28-points (5G-23A) in 44 games that season. It is also worth noting that he would go on to match that total in just 28-games during the Cup run.
They were getting huge contributions from John Cullen, Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens and their first round draft pick – Jaromir Jagr. Lemieux re-joined the team and the group got themselves back into the hunt, which prompted one of my favorite moments in Penguins history (probably one of yours as well) – the acquisition of Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings.
Patrick’s March 4, 1991 trade is amongst the best in NHL history and goes on record as evidence every time you see the league’s managers go nuts at the trade deadline trying to make their individual clubs into winners. Everyone is trying to turn their John Cullens, their Zarley Zalapskis, and Jeff Parkers into “They Do Ron, Rons” and Ulfies.
The thing that many don’t consider at this stage of the game is that the trade wasn’t necessarily a popular one in the locker room or around town. John Cullen was a team leader and was having his best season as a pro, having notched 94-points in just 65 games that season. Zarley Zalapski was full of potential and looked like a power play QB in the making. Luckily Patrick realized that you have got to give to get… something that isn’t always easy to do.
It didn’t take long before the guys in the room seemed to realize that they had themselves something special and that the chemistry was just right to make a run and make a run they did.
That Spring we all still played hockey in the streets until just before game time, but called it quits just in time to watch each and every game. Personally I watched most of those games with one of my oldest friends, Jay, who I have known since Kindergarten, and my dad.
The three of us would crowd into my room and watch on my 16-inch color television. It wasn’t the greatest set-up, but it was special. Jay and I had been from the moment we were able to comprehend the game and my dad got on board in 1967 when the Penguins opened up shop in Pittsburgh.
The run had so many unforgettable moments, probably to many to list here. However, it is worth noting that we all watched “the save” as it occurred… a moment that proved that you need a full team to win it all, even a back-up goalie.
We saw Mario Lemieux show the hockey world that he was truly the most dangerous player in the league and probably its best when he was playing for all the marbles.
Tom Barrasso turned in amazing performance after amazing performance and on a team without Le Magnifique, probably would have been named playoff MVP.
By the time team got to the finals, it just felt like there was no way that they could lose.
Though it had happened many times over the years that series was the first time that I had ever seen one man will his team to victory. Lemieux just completely and utterly took over. He did things that I had never seen a hockey player do on frozen water. He was the definition of dominant and he did just that… he dominated the North Stars. Jon Casey probably still has nightmares about 66.
The Cup win was gratifying in so many ways. Not only was it the culmination of three or four years of building, but it was almost like a reward for a fan base that had put so much blood and so many tears into the team over the past 25 years.
The great thing about the Penguins 8-0 thrashing of the Stars was that the game was in hand very early and we were able to savor victory throughout. Penguins nation was just waiting for time to expire to begin the celebration and the moment that the Birds finished that one off celebrate we all did.
Jay and I begged my dad to take us out to the airport, but he would have none of it, so we walked down the main drag in Bloomfield (the neighborhood where we grew up) and so one hell of a party on Liberty Ave. Folks were running through the streets, climbing to the roofs of city buses and surfing down main street.
All of it was a moment and a season that I will never forget. The entire year will go down as one of the best of my entire life. Insane to think that it was 20-years ago today…
What were you all doing? Where were you? Set the scene for the time and place where you all watched the Birds raise their first Stanley Cup…