First Period -- I Think the Pens Can
The city of Pittsburgh has got some of its mojo back.
It's been a long 26 years with only the phenomenon of Mario Lemieux to cover up Western Pennsylvania's cold championship toes. The Pittsburgh Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl, their first since 1980, with their win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. When the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl, it was their fourth in six years. Additionally, the Pittsburgh Pirates concluded a "We Are Family" World Series run just three months earlier. Pittsburgh was the City of Champions.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins were about to start a decline following an 85-point season in 1978-79, at that time their second-best outing in the team's 12-year history. The Penguins would not be .500 again until the 1987-88 season, Mario Lemieux's fourth season (the Penguins' point totals in Lemieux's first four, non-playoff Penguins seasons: 53, 76, 72, 81). Pittsburgh reached the playoffs the next season for the first time in the Lemieux era after it amassed 87 points. Mario was 23. Pittsburgh would miss the playoffs again the following season.
The 1980s were a bad time for the Penguins and for the city of Pittsburgh, as Allegheny County's population fell 8 percent. It would fall another 4 percent in the 1990s. Local Pittsburgh and government officials claim the population decline has stopped and slow growth is back.
The Penguins found their footing in the 1990-91 season because of a series of incredibly serendipitous circumstances, which, had they not occurred, the Penguins would clearly have left Pittsburgh sometime in the '90s.
• Lemieux turned 25, and while his lifestyle still consisted of smoking cigarettes, social beer drinking and not knowing what an exercise dumbbell was even if it fell on his large head, he was maturing. Overall, this does not count as an incredibly serendipitous moment, but if Lemieux was born in 1975, he would have been 15, and thus ineligible to play in the NHL. We'll count that as lucky.
• The Nordiques, Canucks, Red Wings and Flyers all determined that Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau and Mike Ricci would be better NHL players than Jaromir Jagr, who went sixth overall in the 1990 NHL draft.
The Islanders, drafting seventh, were obviously so shaken by almost landing Jagr that they announced, with numb lips, they were selecting Scott Scissons with their first pick, woefully mispronouncing the name "Martin Brodeur." Of course, they were the first of 14 consecutive teams to mispronounce the name Martin Brodeur, until New Jersey, known for its predilection for French culture, nailed the name with the 20th overall pick.
• In the spring of 1991, the Hartford Whalers presented the Pittsburgh Penguins with Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson for 34 letters of the alphabet that, if rearranged a certain way, spelled the names John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker. The Whalers would make the playoffs the next season, but never again in Connecticut.
Jagr and Francis gave the Penguins depth, and Lemieux space. In his first two NHL seasons, Jagr had 37 points in 45 playoff games. Francis had 44 points in those 45 playoff games. Lemieux missed seven playoff games during those two seasons, but still amassed an astounding 78 points 38 games. The Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups, but amazingly would not win another.
Those were good times at the Civic Arena. The Penguins were ahead of the curve, drafting Europeans as some dinosaur Canadian GMs still viewed Europeans as soft and were likely frightened to death of pronouncing their names at the draft podium. The year after the Penguins drafted Jagr, they picked Markus Naslund in the first round of the 1991 draft and Martin Straka in 1992.
The Penguins made the playoffs every year during the 1990s. But, just like the demise of the steel industry in Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania that began in the late '70s, Penguins ownership and arena issues reared their ugly heads in the 21st Century despite the team's five division titles from the 1990s. The Penguins' point totals this century: 96, 69, 65, 58. This season? They will get fewer than 58 points, probably in the 50-57 area. They will pick no worse than third in the NHL draft, and odds are they will select first again for the third time in the last four years.
But the question facing the Penguins now is: Will they be in Pittsburgh past next season? The team is for sale and its arena lease expires after next season. The Steelers have lucrative, modern facilities, sell millions of football jerseys, show huge profit margins and start a 23-year-old quarterback with Derek Jeter Midwest qualities. They should, for the most part, be an elite NFL team for the next 10 years. The Pirates are getting better and play in the most beautiful baseball venue built after 1914. They will also host this year's MLB All-Star Game and the ESPN and Fox announcers will go on and on about what a beautiful setting it is for baseball. Maybe the best in baseball.
The Steelers and Pirates had similar venue concerns to what the Penguins are experiencing now. The Steelers agreed to pay about $76 million toward their $262 million stadium, while the Pirates paid about $40 million of the ballpark's $228 million cost. Both parks were financed during the pre-9/11, dot.com crash, giving owners the leverage to get government to pay for their playgrounds. Super Bowl XXXIV had 17 different dot.com companies that paid over $2 million for a 30-second commercial. The following year, there were three.
Times have changed. An owner has to either pony up, like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, or get creative. The Penguins are trying to get creative. Ownership doesn't have Kraft's pockets or the $100 million a year in TV money that NFL teams receive each year. Each NHL team gets about $2 million from OLN, and nothing is guaranteed from NBC. All of those signs point to the Penguins leaving Pittsburgh, unless a local billionaire steps up and makes it happen. It's a shame, because the future is bright in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers have Big Ben, the Pirates have young pitching and Jason Bay, and the Penguins have Crosby, Fleury, Malkin and a stud to be named later in this June's draft. If the Penguins can get a new owner and an arena deal, it should cement their place in Pittsburgh forever. Whatever that means in professional sports terms.
Pittsburgh, and Western Pennsylvania in general, is a great place to raise a family. It has close access to places all over North America, nearly 40 years of NHL history and a team that is a couple of seasons away from being a rising NHL power. With smarts and a little luck, the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins all could be championship teams in the next 10 years.
I'm not sure what any of the above means. I guess just watching all those Terrible Towels in Detroit on Sunday made me wonder why, with all of the similarities between football and hockey, the Penguins can't capture some of those fans' hearts and minds. I think they can. I think there are ways and I have ideas. But I am saving them until I win Powerball this week so I can buy the team.
Second Period -- Man In Uniform
The NHL general managers will meet this week in Las Vegas to eat expensive steaks, drink top-shelf scotch, play blackjack at 3 a.m. and contemplate what they would give up for Eric Weinrich.
I would love to give a waitress a goalie cam to wear in her hair. I bet my kid's head that at some point one evening a 50- or 60-something GM to be named later would scream, "Mmm, I love scotch! Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch. Here it goes down. Down into my belly. Mmm, mmm, mmm."
The GMs will also talk trades, how the rules are holding up and any other minutia worth justifying a few days in Sin City. Apparently, the meetings will possibly include looking at new uniforms for the NHL. We've heard about this since the lockout. Led by their point man Sidney Crosby, Reebok is an aggressive player in the hockey equipment business, and they have come up with radical changes in how the hockey uniform could look and function. It would be another major step in the NHL's reinvention, attempting to increase its U.S. market share in a crowded entertainment industry.
Reebok claims the player would be better protected, and more agile, with lighter, drier equipment. In theory, the play would improve because the players would be quicker and faster. The NHL and its marketing minds are more concerned with the visual impact of a potential change. I had dinner with a high-level member of the NHL front office a couple of years ago, and I remember that person lamenting the fact that the players' bodies were not on proper display.
NBA players wear shorts and tank tops, baseball uniforms show off players' bodies, and NFL players wear spandex; some believe this assists in boosting the female fan base. NHL players are among the best-conditioned athletes in pro sports. Because hockey is a sport of explosive movements, it builds a body with plenty of muscle and little fat. But the NHL uniform makes everyone look the same.
The initial response I have received about this revolutionary uniform change is negative. Many of you are afraid some of the classic NHL logos will be tinkered with and, perhaps, altered drastically. The lockout exemplified that the NHL is not concerned with the hardcore fan, because they know they'll always stay. You are in love, and you are loyal. The NHL is looking to grow its market share. That's what they are programmed to do. That's their job. Making the uniform sleeker, and yes, sexier, is what appeals to the NHL marketing mind. Is it the right thing to do? Any big decision involves risk. It's a matter of trusting your guy and making the difficult decision.
The shootout was a drastic move that drew much skepticism. I was always pro-shootout after seeing the 2003 All-Star Game shootout in Florida firsthand, knowing how well it would televise and how highlight-friendly it would be in the U.S. I thought the legalization of the two-line pass would really stretch the game and bring some exhilaration. I think the goaltender crease behind the net is awkward and should be adjusted.
The new uniform? I haven't seen them, so I'll hold my judgment. But as I've written many times in this space, the future of the NHL should not be left in the hands of Bob Pulford, Harry Sinden, John Muckler and other members of the Charles Montgomery Burns Fan Club. They will always stay with the status quo because that has kept them employed for 100 years.
The NHL has made some significant changes to its game, but I think it senses there is more work to be done. Nothing could be more drastic than changing the wardrobe. It should be explored and encouraged. It can be argued the uniforms are too boxy and bulky and have room for improvement. They should be leaner, meaner and more athletic. The logo tradition should be respected, but not immune to slight change. Paint the helmets, show off the athlete and introduce the league to the 21st century. It's hard to kill a dinosaur, and this battle within the NHL rages on.
Third Period -- Five for Chris Clark
Chris Clark has a special place in my hockey heart because he grew up in the town I now call home: South Windsor, Conn. I coach hockey in the same rink where he once skated. I occasionally buy orange juice in a market where he probably bought orange juice. His mom and dad are both United States Postal Service employees. While Chris has gone from the Stanley Cup finals to the Washington Capitals, he is having a career year and just signed a two-year contract extension last week.
Question from Bucci: What is the difference between Darryl Sutter and Glen Hanlon, and what is the difference between Calgary and Washington, D.C.?
Clark: Darryl Sutter is very intense. Glen Hanlon is more of a player's coach. He'll tell you when you are doing something wrong, but he won't scream at you. Both styles can work, it just so happens Hanlon's is the opposite of Sutter. As far as the cities, the Flames are the biggest, and really, only show in Calgary, while the Redskins are No. 1 here, first and foremost. Plus, with the Wizards, Nationals and all the colleges, we have a small, but passionate following.
(Clark wears Easton equipment from head to toe, except for the ITECH helmet. There is no hospital in South Windsor, so, like many South Windsor youngsters such as Jackson Ray Buccigross, Clark was born in Manchester, Conn. NHL announcers take note. Chris Clark is a South Windsor kid, not a Manchester kid.)
Q:Did you ever hear Darryl Sutter laugh while playing in Calgary?
(Chris has two children: a 3-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son.)
Q: How would you evaluate your play this year?
Clark: I'm on pace for my best year. I don't know if it's the new team or new rules. It could be a combination of the two.
(Chris already has reached his career high for goals in a season. His roommate on the road is Ben Clymer. Ben is an excellent golfer.)
Q: You got to give me an Alexander Ovechkin story.
Clark: First of all, he is great with the media. He grants everyone an interview and is trying really hard with his English. He's improving quickly around us, but sometimes he gets nervous, he is on the spot and the media is in his face. Well, the night he scored his miracle goal in Phoenix, he was, naturally, the center of attention after the game. Someone asked him about the goal and his response was, "I don't know what I'm do, or how I do, I just do." That's become a catch phrase in our locker room. "I don't know what I'm do, or how I do, I just do."
(Chris is closing in on 400 career games in the NHL, a very important number for a certain group of the NHL population. That's the number that gets him full pension benefits. His new two-year extension assures him of hitting that number and beyond.)
Q: Every time I anchor "SportsCenter" and you are in the highlight, I always say, "There's Chris Clark, his dad is my mailman." I haven't seen your dad in a while. Is your dad, and mom for that matter, still a mailman or mailperson, and does the two-cent rise in stamps increase their net worth?
Clark: [They] are still mailmen. I'm not sure if, as mail carriers, they get kickbacks from the two-cent stamp increase, or if their pensions increase, but it's actually probably bad for my dad's bottom line. He'll probably buy a bunch of two-cent stamps, keep them with him and put them on people's envelopes that only have a 37-cent stamp on their letter. He's that kind of mailman.
(And that's why I live in South Windsor. Because of people like Chris Clark's dad.)
The Mother of All Mailbags
Please tell me I'm not the only one that heard about Weight being traded to Carolina and lamented the fact that I'd never get to see St. Louis put together the "Jenny Craig" line (Tkachuk-Weight-Wideman).
Relax, Chuck. The Blues are about to call up a prospect from the minors named Larry Lard. That should alleviate some of your disappointment.
Now, I know there must be a mistake, maybe I had one too many crab cakes at the wedding Saturday, but did you just use the words consistent, durable and clutch to describe Sergei Fedorov? OK, so he's durable until he breaks a nail. He may be consistent in the fact that he always takes three months of the season off to renew any contract. And yes, he is definitely clutch, clutches that paycheck and runs like hell to the Women's U.S. Open to find a date to [the] prom.
St. Kitts, West Indies
Sergei Fedorov is durable. He has played in at least 73 games in 11 of 13 non-lockout seasons. Coming into this season, his last three games played totals were: 81, 80, and 80. Fedorov is consistent. In 10 of those 13 seasons, he has at last 30 goals. He is a two-way player, twice winning Selke Awards. Fedorov is clutch. In 162 playoff games, he has 163 points and is a plus-38. He's had 20 points in the postseason four times. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. He can shoot, skate, pass and sees the ice. A Hall of Fame talent, with Hall of Fame production.
The Philly faithful miss "NHL Tonight"! I read a question about current players and whether they are Hall of Fame-types. What about my favorite player growing up, Rick Tocchet?
Displaced Flyers fan in D.C.
Rich Tocchet scored 440 career goals in 1,144 games. That's a goal in 39 percent of his games played. Not an elite percentage. For example, Cam Neely scored a goal in 54 percent of his games. The Neely-Tocchet comparisons aren't really valid. Neely was much better goal scorer with a Hall of Fame release, while also providing toughness and fighting ability. That's why Neely is a Hall of Famer.
Tocchet belongs in that Dave Taylor, Rod Gilbert, Pat Verbeek group of players. Some will feel they are Hall of Famers and some will not. Tocchet had about a six-year peak. His 440 career goals come from playing in a large number of NHL games as his goal-per-game percentage shows. He had 76 goals in 150 games as a Penguin. A 51 percent goal-per-game average. Take away those three years as a member of one of the greatest teams in NHL history, and Tocchet had 364 goals in 994 games. That's a goal in just 37 percent of his games played away from the Penguins. About a Bill Guerin career. But that was the prime of Tocchet's career, his late 20s, so he gets the benefit of the doubt.
So again, Tocchet is not an elite Neely kind of player, where he produced big numbers and played with toughness. But his numbers were very good and his toughness was very important to his team. It will be difficult for Tocchet because he will be in a fairly large group that will only grow as similar players retire. So, you really can't say yes or no with players like Tocchet until you see who he goes up against every year. But in a vacuum, my inclination for those "close" players like Tocchet is to say yes.
I'd like your analysis of the Sillinger trade and what it might do for the Predators. Sillinger wasn't my personal first choice (Brad Richards would have been nice), but I think he might be a nice fit. He seems to be a good character guy who will fit in well with the Predators culture and locker room.
Kingston Springs, Tenn.
Good call, Jeff. The strength of the Predators is their sameness. They move as one, and Mike Sillinger is a good fit. Good skater, good hands, good on faceoffs. His numbers in St. Louis were a little skewed because 11 of his 22 goals were on the power play. Sillinger isn't a first-unit power-play guy on a good team. He's only played in 33 playoff games, so the playoff experience factor is negligible. He's a depth player. I'm sure the Devils are trying to get a team like Nashville to take Alexander Mogilny's contract.
Dear Senor Buccigross,
With the amazing play of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, do you think that Henrik Lundqvist will get any votes for ROY? I mean, there are plenty of talented forwards, but a limited amount of good goalies. Please, tell me that Lundqvist will garner some votes! He has turned around the Rangers franchise!
The NHL has a huge problem (not really a problem; swallowing bees is problematic) with the Calder Trophy. Ovechkin, Crosby, Phaneuf, Svatos and Lundqvist clearly all belong. The NHL should have all four of them in Toronto at the awards ceremony in June. The lockout has created extenuating circumstances with two rookie classes entering the league. The NHL should have five Rookie of the Year finalists instead of three this year.
Please explain to me why the Rangers retire Messier's jersey in an overblown 90-minute mockery of a tribute and get two weeks of front-page coverage, a seemingly permanent link on ESPN.com and a round-the-clock repeat on XM radio. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes retire the number of an equally great player, Ron Francis, and get a sideline wire story without a photo. Puhleeze. Are the boys in Connecticut still mad that we stole their little team?
Shame on ESPN. What do you think?
Stanley Cups: Messier 6, Francis 2
MVPs: Messier 2, Francis 0
Conn Smythe Trophies: Messier 1, Francis 0
All-Star Games: Messier 14, Francis 4
100-point seasons: Messier 6, Francis 3
30-goal seasons: Messier 11, Francis 3
First-Team All-Star teams: Messier 4, Francis 0
Second-Team All-Star Teams: Messier 1, Francis 0
Slumber Parties with Madonna: Messier 1, Francis 0
Messier played 10 years in New York City. He fought, speared, slashed, guaranteed and delivered. He was good television. Like Curt Schilling, he helped break the curse. He won two MVPs. Ron Francis won three Lady Byngs and a Selke and played in Hartford, Pittsburgh and Raleigh. He played in four All-Star games. Francis was never a first- or second-team All-Star center. He was a very, very good player for a very long time. He is not Messier's equal -- as a player or as a popular culture figure -- thus, the difference in coverage. Ron Francis was Bernie Federko. They played in similar eras. Federko played in exactly 1,000 games in his career and had 1,130 points. Following the lockout year of 1994-95, Ron Francis had played in 1,008 games and had 1,138 points. Eight more games than Federko and eight more points.
Hey, I'll trade you my Joe Sakic autographed jersey and a warm-up puck from Roy's first game in Colorado in exchange for Shjon Podein back on the Avalanche third line. What do you think?
Dayton, Ohio (Only a couple hours from THE Heidelberg College)
Podes left a message on my cell phone last week wishing me a happy birthday (Jan. 27) and said he'll be back from playing in Japan in about a month.
I wonder if Mike Sullivan considered this when pairing up his first line:
BOyes, STurm, bergerON
No wonder why they're playing so well together, eh?
Speaking of the Bruins, where is all the GET TIM THOMAS ON THE OLYMPIC TEAM FURY? He was born in Flint, Mich.
Do you think most still consider hockey one of the big four sports in the States along with baseball, basketball and football? I've noticed quite a few peeps in the media and otherwise saying that they don't think it is anymore. Man, that would be a shame. If it's not, what sport would you say is sitting at No. 4 now?
Well, bull riding out-rated the NHL games on NBC a couple of weekends ago. Network NHL games have been getting about 1.3 million viewers. That should go up a bit after the Olympics, possibly to 2 million. The final round of the PGA Tour's Buick Invitational got about 5 million viewers. NASCAR ratings do even better than that. College basketball and college football ratings also dwarf the NHL in the U.S. The NHL is a niche sport in the States and it always will be. But that's OK. I like niche things. I like niche music, niche restaurants, niche Maxim girls and niche cars. I also like Ray Nitschke.
The NHL is an international sport. If the U.S. and Canada became one country of 330 million, the NHL would out-rate the NBA, MLB, NASCAR, the PGA Tour, college basketball and college football.
Had a pretty bad breakup with my girlfriend last week, what's your best heartbreak song for the hardcore hockey fan?
It doesn't get more heartbreaking than Death Cab For Cutie's "What Sarah Said."
But then, crank Motley Crue's "I Will Survive" from their 1983 album "Shout at the Devil" and realize how much more playoff hockey you can watch.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.