I’ve seen a lot of crazy hockey stories. I’ve covered a few of them, too. I will not tell you about my minor league stories when a mortified woman noticed what a few of us were doing to the team bus in Dayton, OH. Nor will I discuss the classic sitcom rouse in which I was invited to join a hot tub party then distracted the coach, as a player snuck an ex-girlfriend out of the hotel after curfew. Fortunately, I have covered a few more Pittsburgh Penguins crazy moments actually on the ice.
Seriously, 15 years later, I still laugh out loud about the hot tub, the coach, and the race down the stairwell. The coach had to see the 6-foot woman with Peggy Bundy hair and six-inch high heels try to tiptoe towards the stairs, right?
I’ve had to write up ridiculous goals by Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin. I’ve been in the locker room for Stanley Cup presentations and playoff heartbreak. But there exists a more obscure category, which transcends a spin-o-rama from Malkin or an eye-popping goal by Crosby. I’ve also seen some ridiculous, crazy, absolutely logic-defying moments in the nearly 20 years that I’ve had a press badge around my neck.
1. Lemieux Throws Down
The video doesn’t convey the craziness or emotion which spilled over to the ice in February 2003. Officials again denied Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux a new arena. Politicians played games. They plead empty coffers. And Lemieux was staring down the barrel of terminal uncompetitiveness or moving the franchise he was trying to save.
The future of the Penguins, which was already in doubt, was dealt a thundering right hand. Lemieux had been pushing or working for a new arena for what seemed like forever.
Things were reaching critical mass. In the following days, politicians confirmed the grim news. County Executive Jim Roddey was firm.
“We don’t have the money,” Roddey told the media. “If there are public dollars involved, they’re going to have to come from the state.”
Governor Ed Rendell kicked the issue back to the local folks, including future County Exec Dan Onorato, when Rendell said state dollars for a new arena were possible IF the region decided it was a priority. Onorato punted.
“We have to wonder if this is an industry that is here for the long term,” Onorato said.
Imagine wondering if the Penguins or hockey were here for the long term? On Feb. 6, 2003, the world was on Lemieux’s last nerve. The small crowd at the Civic Arena for a mid-week skate against the Florida Panthers went nuts, too. Never before has a Pittsburgh crowd so resembled a bloodthirsty Philadelphia hockey crowd, but when Lemieux went after Florida d-man Brad Ference the first time, the stage was set.
A long 17 years later, it still sticks with me. Ference whacked Lemieux, and it was on.
The crowd was cagey. There was a buzz. Lemieux so often provided a show with gorgeous goals and jaw-dropping plays, but this night was going to be different.
Lemieux charged the shocked Ference, who couldn’t skate backward fast enough as the hulking 6-foot-4 legend bore down on him without a puck in the zip code.
The first tussle was more about the Penguins supporting cast, including defenseman Ian Moran who took over that fight. Current Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin tried to intercede into the second fight. But no one could pull Mario out of the pile. He wanted a piece of someone.
And the crowd which barely covered half of the Civic Arena blew the roof off the place.
You know the history. The Penguins won the 2005 NHL Draft lottery to pick Sidney Crosby. Mario eventually got a new arena to keep the team in Pittsburgh, even if the first casino owner couldn’t foot the bill for a free lunch, and three more Stanley Cups followed.
But there will always be the night Mario snapped.
2. Aleksey Morozov Tortured Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur
1995 Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick Aleksey Morozov had skills, though he far too infrequently put them to use. Morozov was a frequent linemate of Lemieux in Mario’s final seasons, but Morozov’s numbers were pedestrian. The Russian RW had only 219 career points in 451 games.
But if Morozov played against the New Jersey Devils every night, he would have been in the Hall of Fame.
Over his seven-year NHL career, Morozov had no more than seven goals and 17 points against any team in the NHL, except the New Jersey Devils. Despite New Jersey being Stanley Cup worthy, and despite New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur laying real claim to the title of best ever, Morozov tortured New Jersey.
Morozov scored 25 points, (12g, 13a) in 30 games. And, he was scoreless in his final five games against New Jersey.
On Nov. 13, 2001, Morozov had himself a night. The slight Russian winger popped in four points, including two goals in the Penguins 5-1 win over New Jersey. Brodeur stopped 13 of 17 shots before he was pulled for an empty net.
3. Toby Peterson Hat Trick
My very first day on the job. October 15, 2001. Hours after the bosses at what is now IHeart media sent me to cover the press conference, they assigned me to cover the next game, too.
The Pittsburgh Penguins fired Czech-speaking coach Ivan Hlinka and replaced him with company man Rick Kehoe. Finances were tight, and the Penguins needed a coach.
The Penguins were winding down from their competitive days. They could no longer afford to ice a team worthy of the Stanley Cup, but they were still trying to make the playoffs. The Jaromir Jagr trade wound was still fresh, but GM Craig Patrick was plucking as many Czech players as he could because they were an untapped resource of talent.
Peterson would become a career minor leaguer, but as a rookie, the fast skater held some promise. With new coach Kehoe behind the bench, Peterson went off. Lemieux set up Peterson for an easy hat trick. The Civic Arena crowd was beside itself in disbelief. Peterson probably was, too. The rookie was playing beside Lemieux and filling the net, at least for one night.
In the locker room after the game, the players bailed quickly. They left poor Toby all by himself to handle the 40 or so media folks there to cover Kehoe’s first game. As the media throng swarmed Peterson, I — on my first night — was on the outside of the mob.
So, I stood on someone’s locker and went over the top. With one hand on the microphone for 3WS (the flagship radio station), and one hand on one hook of the locker stall, I stretched over everyone’s head. Things were fine until I dropped the heavy mic wrapped in a sharp plastic square with the 3WS logo right on Mark Madden’s head.
Sorry, Mark. That was me.
4. No Shots for 37 Minutes?!
Game 1 of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final was a trip. The Pittsburgh Penguins were gutting through an extraordinary playoff run. They were breathing heavily, and the war with the Washington Capitals in Round Two took its toll. The Penguins survived a double-OT Game 7 against Ottawa, too. If all things were equal, Nashville had the jump on the Penguins.
For 37 long, long minutes, the Penguins didn’t fire a shot near the Nashville goal. It seemed the Penguins were afraid of the Nashville blue line; it was like a moat with piranhas, alligators, and disease.
Our headline that night was “Pekka Shrinks, Pens Stink but Win Anyway.”
If not for a Swiss cheese performance by Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, the Penguins would have been beaten. Rinne yielded four goals on 11 shots, including three quick goals in the first period. Nashville stormed back and tied the game, 3-3, until late in the third period. The Penguins finally, finally…FINALLY, put another shot on goal.
Jake Guentzel slipped another one past Rinne for the game-winning goal. The professional and reserved press box let out a mix of gasps, laughs, and exclamations of utter amazement. The series was the Penguins to lose after that.
4. Whatever Comes Next
I have no idea what comes next. I don’t know if the NHL or Pittsburgh Penguins will allow us to cover the NHL hub games. Nor do I know if those games will actually happen, but I’ll bet half of my last dollar they will.
The only asterisk on this Stanley Cup will be one of celebration. We’ll have done it. We all will have beat this awful little virus and triumphed together. Well, mostly together anyway.
This 24-team NHL tournament is going to be wild. There will be upsets and lackluster performances blamed on a four-month layoff. There will be heroes, whining, cheering, griping, and exaltation. I can’t wait. Truly.