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Kingerski: Penguins Fans, Do You Want Your Player or a Championship?

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Pittsburgh fans are unique. This small town has a lot of people, neighborhoods and ethnic influences but is at heart a small Appalachian town. Personal relationships and loyalties are important here as personified by the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty which allowed players to hang around a year too long instead of a year too little. Pittsburgh has a connection to its favorite athletes and Pittsburgh Penguins fans have long been even more loyal.

But now the question must be asked: Do you want your favorite player, or do you want a chance at more championships?

The Pittsburgh Penguins were once a “non-traditional” market. Hockey didn’t do so well in Pittsburgh and the organization declared bankruptcy twice (1975, 1998) and has been sold six times including the bankruptcy rescues.

Like non-traditional markets today, a long time ago the Penguins resorted to marketing things other than hockey to stay afloat. Players became the thing. First, there was Mario Lemieux but not much else and the Penguins were sold to their audience that way. As the Penguins eventually added talent via the deft hands and dealing of GM Craig Patrick, the fanbase expanded to include players like Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey and more.

But hockey wasn’t ever the main focus. It was the players. And it was winning which kept the ticket buyers and viewers happy.

Fan attachment to Jaromir Jagr couldn’t keep fans in the building and the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1998.

And 30 years after the arrival of Lemieux, Penguins fans were treated to another crop of player/celebrities including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, and even Jordan Staal was included in that crew.

Fans picked their boys and the Penguins paid off like a hot slot machine. By Crosby’s third year, the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup Final. In the fourth year, they won it.

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But a funny thing happened. In the success, factions formed. Penguins fans became Crosby fans, Malkin fans, Fleury fans, Fleury bashers, and they fought with each other. Being Penguins fans often seemed secondary.

Phil Kessel has been added to the list with a fervent fan base like no other. The game has never been front and center, nor the team. It has been about the name on the back of the jersey.

Maybe it is time hockey should be the featured attraction?

The Penguins are asking themselves the same question which I pose to you. Do you want your favorite players or do you want a greater chance at winning for a longer period of time? Lemieux who was both the first object of modern Penguins fandom and one of the creators of the player-driven culture is reportedly not keen on dealing star players.

The Penguins culture is about star power and star players. Someday, sometime, hockey should take front and center, yes?

Like Coffey, Recchi, Stevens, Jagr, Staal, and Fleury, eventually even Crosby and Malkin will be gone. The odds of getting another crop of stars are small. The odds of getting another transformative player who is the face of the game is even smaller.

The Penguins and fans unexpectedly find themselves at a crossroads. If not this season, then soon. They will be forced to offer hockey to the masses without the aid of a Hall of Fame crew. There are always free agents with big names available which the Penguins could chase to keep up the name value, but that doesn’t seem to be a strategy for building a team. Ask the former New York Strangers.

As the paying public, you have every right to demand big ticket items and names on the back of the jersey which you will pay to see. Or you can demand a good hockey team. If not now, then soon enough that choice will be one or the other.

So, which do you want?

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Ricardo58

    May 2, 2019 at 10:00 am

    Well said. I cheer for the player in the jersey. I greatly respect the game of 87. If by chance 87 would be in a different jersey, it is still go Pens! Same for the Olympics. I root for the guys in the USA jerseys. To each their own.

  2. BIG B

    May 2, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    Everybody in every fan base cheers for the players and the team and Pitt is no different.Dan when is the next podcast?

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 2, 2019 at 3:23 pm

      I was busy this week with some business meetings and such. Will return with video AND a podcast, hopefully, next week.

  3. Kim Dunning

    May 2, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    Interesting I’d like a good hockey team but if you think that comes with Sullivan and Rutherford at the helm you are sorely mistaken.

    • RobertU

      May 2, 2019 at 9:21 pm

      Sorry, but if you think Sullivan is not an elite coach, then you are out of touch with reality and your comments do not have value.

    • Rich Filardi

      May 3, 2019 at 8:03 am

      I somewhat agree – allot of this falls on the GM – why is he not under the microscope – a big part of this teams failures is on him making bad personnel moves, yet folks say he won us two cups – well so did the guys that are mentioned in these trade rumors. Now you are gonna trust him to make a big trade – it’s not something i would do if it were my business – you can see this going downhill from a mile away, yet the media narrative is to jump on a few guys. I do agree moves are needed – but i do not trust this guy to do it.

    • Bob

      May 5, 2019 at 12:58 pm

      I think it’s time to remove Sullivan as coach and keep the core together. This team really did not play well down the stretch, if it wasn’t for Matt Murray they would of never got in the playoffs. You could just tell something wasn’t right. Sullivan maybe an elite coach, but I think his message has worn out

  4. Edgar

    May 2, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    I have to admit, Dan, I’m not exactly sure what case you’re trying to make these past few days. I think you need to have an article and come out and say it. Which players have hurt the team by “not buying in”. Which players need to be extracted. With Malkin, any deal makes us less talented from the start. Are you saying we need to re-tool for a year or two? Or some players just don’t possess the proper attitude going forward? It’s hard to discuss with so much innuendo. I’m not even saying I disagree with you, but there’s a lot to digest the past few weeks.

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 2, 2019 at 3:29 pm

      I’m glad you don’t know what case I’m trying to make. Because I haven’t advocated anything yet–though I’ve been laying the cornerstones for the Penguins and the players’ decision-making process. Before anyone declares X, Y or Z, those processes must be laid out as best they can be. (I do feel as the only local writer who has covered other NHL teams and worked in the game, that I have a broader experience and depth to provide a different analysis for the current situation. I hope they’ve made you think or see the bigger picture).

  5. Edgar

    May 2, 2019 at 4:38 pm

    Ha! yes, I’ve noticed you hadn’t made a case yet!! And, honestly, It HAD to be on purpose, (or else you would have made one, right??)
    I appreciate this because where I am is that I’m a huge Pens fan. Been one since ’73. Long, long time. But, I don’t watch as close as I used to. And I don’t watch other teams much anymore. So, I need info like this. And, yes, I am enjoying you laying it out this way. Thanks. (Obviously, I’m intrigued!)

  6. Il'ja

    May 2, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    Funny thing about native Russian-speakers is that they use a lot of reflexive/passive constructions in their speech. When #71 (whose English is challenged) says the other day “nobody respects us” he was (and had he said it in Russian it would have been crystal clear) “we aren’t to be respected”. He was including himself as somebody whose lost faith in the name on the front of the sweater. In some ways, #71 is your perfect Pens fan – dedicated to “player x”. However, I’m not saying Geno must go, also, oddly, because he’s Russian. He’s genetically constructed to be a big believer in BIG personalities. He loves being thought of as “elite”, and he’s not ready to give up his power, he wants the prestige to be restored. GMJR & Sully have to think like Russians if they hope to find a way to boost the level of play without mortgaging the farm. If they can’t accommodate #71, he won’t be hard to find trade partners for. Too egg-headed? That’s what I get for living in Russia/Ukraine for 27 years. Geno has a lot of pride. Find a way to talk to that and then get him a 200-foot LW who can shoot the damn puck.

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 2, 2019 at 10:14 pm

      Wonderful reply. Thank you! I took the respect quote to mean “Nobody fears us” because it was in the context of the Islanders coming at them, but your translation gives me even more pause about the statement.

      • Il'ja

        May 3, 2019 at 4:33 am

        Thanks. Re-reading it, I could have been clearer re #71’s motives. In his VERY Russian way of looking at it, he understands that Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins is much more prestigious than Evgeni Malkin, San Jose Sharks or Evegni Malkin, Edmonton Oilers, and he likely will decide he wants it to stay that way. He’s a Russian, he’s drunk on prestige. Vladimir Putin, President of Latvia just doesn’t have the punch of Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, does it? Geno is what he is; he has honest possession of that Russian ‘monumentalist gene’ “I’m building a monument to myself” (obscure literary reference) – it’s part of their national faith. Gonchar gets this. Gonchar has to be brought into any discussions with Geno. Anything #66 or #87 might say would be listened to, but if it’s repeated, in Russian, by #55, and then reinforced by his mom, Geno will believe it.

        • JICS

          May 4, 2019 at 1:10 am

          Il’ja, I agree with you, but that is pitiful. We have a big problem if we keep Malkin!

          • Il'ja

            May 4, 2019 at 8:31 am

            Hey, JICS, I feel your pain. And it might be pitiful but still, I think it’s way too early to say ‘let’s trade #71 and get a good haul’. I think that because a)Geno is still one of the best hockey players on the planet and b)he’s a grown-up, fully capable of altering his game to fit the team’s needs if approached the right way. The Pens FO, if they’re smart – and I think they are – will make just that case to him. And they’ll point to “the Hated 8”, Ovi, as Exhibit A. The rivalry between #71 is #8 is intense, involving families, hometowns, their place in Russian hockey. GMJR needs to send in Gonchar with a message: Ovi changed his game and the Caps got better (ok, lots of reasons for that, but Ovi’s role was central). Dan has been pretty patient here in pointing out that the Pens have options with #71, and I assume that the reason he hasn’t jumped on the “trade the bum!” bandwagon is because he thinks #71 is a reasonable adult and that’s just not how you treat people – even people making $9M a year to play hockey. Losing Geno, if he won’t cooperate, wouldn’t be tragic. But not even confronting him, and thus, showing him that our FO doesn’t respect him enough to confront him, well, that WOULD be tragic. It would indicate organizational problems that I don’t even want to think about. Don’t doubt Geno’s desire to be “the best Russian” ever to play in the NHL, with the most Cups. Trust that Geno understands being on Sid’s team greatly boosts that probability. Patience is key here.

      • Edgar

        May 3, 2019 at 3:02 pm

        I kind of felt this way when Mario started. They asked him pointed questions about how good he was, and it was hard for him to answer with nuance. So, he sounded a bit more cocky than he would have liked, I’m sure.

  7. RobertU

    May 2, 2019 at 9:33 pm

    This is the main issue with the Pens’ fanbase and why I usually refer to them as “fans” in my comments. Many are not fans of the team, but fans of a cult of personality of one or two players. That’s an error. Players come and go. The team is the key. To those who say the Pens would be less “talented” I say: who had more “talent,” the Pens or the Isles? Who had more talent, the Caps or the Canes? Who had more talent, Tampa or CBJ? What superstars are left in the playoffs this year? Where is Crosby, McDavid, Kane, Matthews, Johnny Hockey, and so on? How did Vegas make the Final last year with a cast of people no one wanted?

    This isn’t the 80s and Championships are won by heart, determination, will, and playing to the team concept, as a team. That’s what the 2016 and 2017 Pens did. We need players who still do that. I’ll go ahead and say it because it’s now well-documented by multiple outlets: Malkin and Kessel are the ones who don’t seem willing to do this and need to go. Maybe Letang too. Skill doesn’t win championships in the 21st century. And Championships are what it’s all about.

  8. BIG B

    May 2, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    What i don’t understand is this church of Kessel. Sure he has talent but every time he is asked about being traded he basicly says he does not care and this should be a slap to the chops of his supporters.These Kesseltics give him their heart and soul and he gives no love in return.

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 2, 2019 at 10:12 pm

      Man, you’re just cracking open that can of worms!

  9. Rich Filardi

    May 3, 2019 at 8:06 am

    Dan – so by trading 71 – this guarantees the Penguins with a Championship? They are not close to the elite in the conference, a good team but allot of holes that one trade cannot fix – you def check out the market for him, but you better be right -cause this will crush this team if its wrong – you willing to take that chance?

  10. Dustin Scott

    May 3, 2019 at 9:09 am

    I don’t know why you want to frame it as the two things being mutually exclusive. The Pens can keep these mystery players (we all know who you are alluding to so just come out and say it) AND win another championship. I would argue that the only way they win another championship is to keep all of Letang, Malkin, Kessel

    • Dan Kingerski

      May 3, 2019 at 10:10 am

      It’s possible. Of course, that team was just swept in Round One, too.

      • Dustin Scott

        May 3, 2019 at 12:40 pm

        They were swept in the playoffs before and that didn’t stop them from winning B2B a few years ago. You have to ride out this core until its painfully obvious its over. Then you tank and start over. Look what happened to Chicago when they traded Panarin for Saad. They haven’t been back to the playoffs since. You just are not going to replace that kind of production. The team just needs changes around the edges of the roster and come back next year with a determined attitude. Tampa just got swept too, should they get rid of Stamkos?

      • Edgar

        May 4, 2019 at 1:18 pm

        That’s the issue. How do you get better in the short term? Which is why-well one reason of many-I’m so annoyed at Rutherford. He boxed himself in a corner and now he’s screwed.

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