The Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase sometimes needs therapy. The Penguins fanbase can love and hate the same player, seemingly joining an internal battle which began without warning and can flare at a moment’s notice.
Message boards, talk radio and Twitter become a battle zone not over a Donald Trump tweet, but of fan-on-fan jousting.
The Penguins have the most passionate fanbase in the NHL, according to Forbes. And the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. There is not, nor has there been much indifference in the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase for the last 30 years.
Could you imagine the 1980s Edmonton Oilers fanbase splitting between Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier? Though in fairness, there was some quiet division over Paul Coffey.
The Penguins fanbase was formed initially around one number, “66”, and grew to include others to siphon devout football fanatics before hockey was the commodity. Part of that player-driven loyalty still exists and has created a few interesting intra-fanbase entanglements.
As we compiled the list, we realized a heavy recency bias, but we couldn’t find other names to insert. What does it say about the current state of affairs that four of the five most polarizing Penguins have been in the latest era?
Top 5 Most Polarizing Pittsburgh Penguins
5. Ryan Whitney
Lost in the memories of the 2009 Stanley Cup and following playoff failures, was Ryan Whitney. Much was expected of the Penguins 2002 first-round draft pick. The quick-witted Whitney, who now hosts the most popular hockey podcast (Spittin’ Chiclets) and has spawned an alcohol line (Pink Whitney), drove some fans to use language not suitable for radio and even a few more fans to drink.
Whitney popped 133 points in his first three seasons, including the Penguins 2008 loss in the Stanley Cup Final. However, fans wanted a repeat of his 59-point sophomore season, and young defenseman Kris Letang was beginning to make waves.
The loyalists who rode out the storm with Generation Next, before the arrival of Sidney Crosby, had been waiting for Whitney. His production as the Penguins second defenseman, behind Sergei Gonchar, was respectable. After just three-plus seasons in the league, talkshow debates and message boards raged over Whitney.
Top-flight defenseman or a bum?
Whitney was the canary in the coal mine for the next generation of Penguins fans. He was a player many loved, but many also laid the tracks to railroad him out of town.
Near the 2009 NHL Trade Deadline, GM Ray Shero dealt Whitney to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz and a prospect. For both sides, the rest is history.
4. Jaromir Jagr
What do you do with a player who was the second all-time leading scorer in franchise history, an integral part of two Stanley Cups, and carried the franchise through the darkest hours of bankruptcy?
You boo. You boo every time he touches the puck.
Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jaromir Jagr didn’t divide the Penguins fan base while he wore the crest of the flightless bird. No. Like Barry Bonds before him, Jagr split the Penguins fanbase after his 2001 trade. The Penguins dealt Jagr to the Washington Capitals for prospects and essential operating capital. Still, Penguins fans were divided between appreciation and feeling like a jilted lover watching their betrothed bolt down the stairs for the Postmates delivery driver without an N95 facemask.
In 11 Penguins seasons, Jagr scored 1079 points, including 439 goals. Yet fans expressed their hurt and anger for years whenever Jagr touched the puck. And EVERY time he touched the puck.
Things may finally be forgiven as a push to restore Jagr to the Penguins Ring of Honor or retire his jersey gains traction. Make no mistake, though, he fractured the fanbase for years after his trade.
Even in 2011, boos remained.
3. Evgeni Malkin
A pair of additional Stanley Cups seems to have quieted the ongoing war between parts of the Penguins fanbase. Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin? You can’t like both. Like Pillowtown vs. Blanketsburg, it was a never-ending verbal pillow fight that pitted brother against brother, seatmate against seatmate.
When Malkin would have a hot-streak, calls flooded my radio show, that maybe Crosby should go. And when Crosby was on a hot-streak, of course, Malkin was a problem who took too many penalties.
Easily, the two highest-selling jerseys in Penguinsland, fans couldn’t get along nearly as well as the two superstars. It was Team Jacob vs. Team Edward for years.
As part of the conflict, Crosby fans had to hate Malkin and exaggerate his every misdeed. While Crosby was most often spared the love dichotomy, Malkin bore the full brunt.
After two more Stanley Cups, and veteran status, Malkin and Crosby are finally seen as the pillars of the Penguins. Before that evolution, Malkin was a careless turnover, bad penalty machine according to many fans…usually wearing a Sidney Crosby sweater.
2 Kris Letang
“He should play defense!”
“He makes too many mistakes. They should trade him!”
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang attracts criticism like flypaper catches flies. Norris Trophy consideration? Stanley Cups? Captain the All-Star team? That’s nice, but did you see that turnover in the second period on Tuesday??
Letang has ardent, unmovable detractors. They sit silently, ready to pounce. Sometimes, gleefully.
And, Letang has one of the most sizable personal fanbases in Penguins history. Some like his hair, but most understand he’s one of the best defensemen in the NHL and brings dynamics to the Penguins, which otherwise are not readily available.
In 808 games, Letang has 537 points (127g, 410a) and is the Pittsburgh Penguins all-time leader points leader among defensemen. Yet simply watch social media if Letang is involved in a goal against or a turnover.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury
As the Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, Fleury had fans chanting his name while simultaneously other fans cursed his presence. Fleury’s playoff meltdowns in 2012 and 2013 didn’t help. Nor did the stop-start beginning of his career, in which the 18-year-old Fleury was thrust into the NHL because the desperate Penguins were trying to salvage a lost season.
Fleury spent parts of two seasons in the AHL before he was finally ready for the bright lights of the NHL.
The split affections far outstripped the usual angst assigned to starting goalies, quarterbacks, or pitchers. Perhaps it was the ever-ready smile or laughter. Fans really loved Fleury, or…they really didn’t. And there was no in-between and no changing teams.
After Fleury backstopped the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup, the team sputtered in the playoffs. Fleury bore the brunt of those failures, with Crosby.
Unlike Jagr, after Fleury left via the 2017 Expansion Draft selection, his reputation skyrocketed. Fleury’s extraordinary 2017 playoff run in which he stole a couple of games from the Capitals in Round Two helped tremendously.
A few weeks later, he was off to Vegas.
But sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. For many fans, critics and admirers alike, Fleury has a much higher reputation now than when he anchored the Penguins net.
He was blamed for everything short of empty-net goals and global warming, but recently tears flowed from fans and the player as a video tribute played. That about sums it up.
Stick tap to long-time subscriber Tom for the fun story idea, though Tom wanted Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy also on the list.