One of the drawbacks of too many birthdays and too many years at the hockey rink is perspective. I’ve covered hundreds of players, dozens of Pittsburgh Penguins, shared bus rides and been witness to the greatest ever to play. I love the game more than sweaters or individuals, though I’ve encountered a few players who have always had my admiration for various reasons.
And some have been outright characters.
Believe it or not, I have never (and will never) owned a jersey with someone else’s name on the back. Despite growing up in Pittsburgh, the only Penguins sweater I’ve ever owned was the currently reversed retro. I owned the original black with gold letters.
First, I’ll give some honorable mentions, which probably tell you as much about me as the players. It would be far too odd to say Sidney Crosby is a hero, as he is both 11 years my junior and a subject I cover. However, his numerous charity projects earn praise, as do his relentless work ethic and love of the game.
If there’s another Steve Yzerman in the NHL, capable of great things on the ice and capable of spotting talent to build an organization, it’s probably Crosby.
But, it is Crosby’s relentless work ethic that I admire the most.
Phil Bourque also gets an honorable mention. I had the chance to work with him early in my career and early in his broadcast career and watch him as a younger fan. I appreciate his ability to enjoy life and live in the moment. Those are two qualities that I too often don’t have, and from his famous Corvette to partying all summer, he’s made the ride more enjoyable for a lot of people.
In the comments or via email, PHN also invites you to share your hockey heroes and why. Email me here.
Now, without further ado:
During the pandemic pause, I placed Lemieux ahead of Crosby on the Pittsburgh Penguins all-time list. A reader earnestly asked, “was Lemieux THAT good?”
The answer is a resounding, “YES.”
Think Neo in the Matrix. Lemieux had an ability to control the game, unlike any player before or since. The game literally slowed down when he was on the ice. Lemieux controlled time. At 6-foot-4, or maybe 6-foot-5, he was much bigger than everyone else. His fluid Quebec skating style seemed effortless, even as he left defenseman behind.
He was the guy who introduced an entire region to hockey. I was just a second-grader when Lemieux was a rookie. The great Edmonton Oilers were just coming into being as the New York Islanders dynasty was about to end. But those were rumors or news stories in the paper, which I didn’t read.
I recall my friend Tony, who argued that his name was pronounced “Lem-youx” because it’s got an X at the end! This was a heated exchange with several combatants on each side. More than 35 years later, I’ve heard a few others adopt that pronunciation, too.
We all practiced Lemieux’s breakaway moves in street hockey, the quick forehand deke, and backhand to the five-hole, or the top-shelf forehand. The next day, we collectively yelled into the abyss as national TV networks praised Gretzky and not Lemieux (see, we didn’t grow up with Twitter, Facebook, or (*gasp) the internet).
At the games, an entire fanbase lept to their feet when Lemieux touched the puck. As a 4-foot kid, I HATED that bit of fandom because I had to peer around and through a sea of humanity, but the excitement was too much to contain even for the adults still wearing Steelers jackets.
Lemieux invited a generation of Iron City drinking, Franco’s Italian Army loving, diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fans to love a team that was finesse instead of brute force, to learn a Canadian game even as the Steelers prepared for Ken Anderson and the Bengals, or Brian Sipe and the Browns on Sunday.
After a few years of Lemieux, the game was no longer foreign. We routinely, but figuratively, blew the roof off the Civic Arena. Five goals in five ways on New Year’s Eve. Five goals in a playoff game against the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Constant torture of goalies such as Pete Peters, John Vanbiesbrouck, and Mike Liut.
Later in his career, I got to cover Mario. I recall my hand nervously extending a microphone the first time I approached him. Was he 6-foot-4 or 7-foot-4? At that moment, it seemed the latter.
We wore those t-shirt jersey giveaways with Lemieux’s name on the back as if they were authentic. To us, they were. And you had to get that backhand move just right.
There have been a handful of guys I’ve bumped into during this crazy career who were willing to do whatever it took to earn a living as a hockey player.
The first was a quick quote and a quick to smile grinder named Dan LaCouture. You may remember him as a Pittsburgh Penguins forward from 2001-2003. He was stocky but could skate. He was not gifted with great skills, and throughout his career, he was forever on the verge of being sent down, and occasionally was.
It was when I was a cub reporter in 2001-02 that I met LaCouture. I identified with a player who wasn’t a star but gave everything he had. That was me, too.
Against the Toronto Maple Leafs on a dreary November night in 2001, Tie Domi was a pest. To that point, LaCouture had seven previous fights in his two-plus year career (not that many by the day’s standards). That night it was LaCouture who stood to fight Domi, who was one of the all-time great enforcers.
LaCouture held his own and spent a few minutes with this reporter detailing the fight, what was said leading up to it, and how he survived. He chuckled as he recounted the events, undoubtedly knowing he just went face-to-face with someone who could have seriously hurt him. Heck, LaCouture may have even won that fight.
He began to fight the heavyweights like Domi and Jody Shelley, but LaCouture suffered concussions. He tried to play through them. At last check, he was part of the lawsuits against the NHL because he suffers from CTE.
There were a couple of guys in the minors who I admired. They knew their life path was not going to travel through the NHL, but for love of the game, they soldiered onward. As the play-by-play announcer for the Johnstown Chiefs too long ago, I met a few of them.
I wish I had been able to get closer to them, but I felt I should not. That was a mistake, and if this pandemic rages much longer, I’ll start to write about those days, too.
Defenseman Ian Manzano was nearly 30. After playing 26 games in the AHL during his first professional season, he became an ECHL player for a handful of seasons. In his final ECHL season, our paths crossed. He was steady and reliable on the ice. He didn’t make mistakes.
He was learned, intelligent, and low key off the ice, which earned him the name “Professor” on my calls. I appreciated him more than he knew. Like most in the ECHL, he didn’t make a great living, but he can say he did what he loved and did it for as long as possible.
We should all be so lucky.
Coach Frank Anzalone became the Director of Scouting for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Director of NCAA Scouting for the Calgary Flames, won a National Championship with Lake Superior State and helped more lives than he knew.
Anzalone was the coach of the Johnstown Chiefs during my brief stint as the announcer. I had a difficult time adjusting to hockey culture on the inside. Looking back, the folks on the inside were putting me through my rookie initiation, but it felt like torture. It was Anzalone who first called me “friend.”
He knew I needed that.
Anzalone was tough on his players, but as they learned, it was because he loved them. He pushed a few ECHL players to greater heights. Several NHL players will forever be loyal to him from their time at Lake State. His intense demeanor was intimidating, but players who passed through Coach A were often better for it. He gave life advice, career advice and was as admirable a human as I’ve ever met.
Good on you, Coach A.
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There you go! Those are my hockey heroes. How about you?