Tuesday night was Mike Lange night at PPG Paints Arena. The Pittsburgh Penguins iconic announcer is celebrating 45 years in the broadcast booth, but the quantity pales in comparison to the quality. For those of you who are under 40-years-old, the importance of Lange is tough to describe adequately. He wasn’t always the radio announcer. For a long time, Mike Lange was the Pittsburgh Penguins.
(This story originally appeared on Oct. 9, 2019. Hopefully, we’ll soon hear, “It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh).
Before Penguins fans became accustomed to success, greatness, and a classy organization, the Penguins were a laughing stock. If it could go wrong, not only did it go wrong, but it went spectacularly wrong.
Hockey games were as much about Lange with his gravelly sayings and driving pace, which could have you on the edge of your seat in a 5-1 loss. Back in the 1980s, the Penguins simulcast the radio and TV broadcasts. Lange’s driving cadence meant to be descriptive to the radio listeners added excitement, and educated a generation of fans on TV, too.
At school the next day or around the water cooler at the office (before cell phones, people actually gathered to chat), Lange was as much or more the topic of conversation. When the team scored, it unleashed a handful of colorful phrases.
“Great Balls of Fire.”
“Buy Sam a drink and get his dog one, too.”
You must understand just how pathetic or inept the Pittsburgh Penguins organization was, even after Mario Lemieux arrived. In 1987-88, the Penguins first-year head coach didn’t know the team had to win its final game to make the playoffs and played for a tie in overtime. Lemieux scored one of his many ridiculous goals in the waning moments of overtime, but the Penguins still missed the playoffs.
Those Penguins finished with 81 points and within seven points of the Patrick Division winning New York Islanders. However, they also finished last in the division and missed the playoffs as all of the other Patrick Division teams were sandwiched between them. Before loser points jumbled the standings, being within seven points was a good thing…except for the Penguins.
That coach was also caught on camera blowing his nose into his tie, or so some message boards remember. That coach was quickly gone. A year later, a handful of locker room-appointed Penguins players invaded the offices of Penguins ownership to demand another coaching change.
It was heartbreaking to be a Penguins fan. But Mike Lange made every game special. And fun.
There was perpetual bad luck. If you think Pitt fans can be fatalistic and woe-is-me, Penguins fans earned it by the barrel. The Penguins finally began to surround Mario Lemiuex with more than marginal talent. The Penguins added future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Paul Coffey, who was in his prime. In 1988-89, Lemieux scored 199 points. The sky was the limit.
And then Lemieux missed most of the 1989-90 season with a back injury. Lemieux hobbled onto the ice for the final game of the season to will the Penguins into the playoffs but was unsuccessful when Buffalo Sabres defenseman Uwe Krupp scored an overtime game-winning goal to beat the Penguins. Krupp had 69 goals in his 720 career games, and he unleashed a long-range shot from somewhere behind the next-door Marriot.
That was Penguins luck.
Before the Penguins fortunes finally turned, we wore T-shirts with all of Lange’s expressions. Before Lemieux was a household name in Pittsburgh, ad campaigns featured Lange, not the players. And before we knew anything about the game or the spirit of hockey, we had Lange to teach us.
Penguins fans have been blessed with Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, and Malkin. Five Stanley Cups. But without Lange, a lot fewer of us would have cared to see them. Lemieux deserves much of the credit for finally building a Penguins fan base. But Lange was the person who kept the seat warm and the engine running until Lemieux took off.
Without Lange, would anyone have cared that GM Eddie Johnston refused the Montreal Canadiens entire draft class to draft Lemieux? I will also tell you as a former minor league play-by-play in 2006, half of the ECHL and AHL broadcasters were Lange disciples.
Broadcasters are formulaic bots now, designed to check off boxes and not offend. This generation seems to frown upon a unique personality and colorful descriptions. Thank goodness that wasn’t always the case. Thank goodness we had Lange.
For those not spoiled by Hall of Fame talent and winning, we had Mike Lange. And we are all the better for it.