Hockey is coming back. That’s welcome holiday news.
Before we launch into the 2020-21, or 2021, or whatever you want to call the upcoming season, how about a look back for some lighter holiday reading?
Specifically, how about a few glimpses from behind the scenes from earlier this century, before the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited reporters’ access?
Over years of chronicling the Pittsburgh Penguins, I have seen and heard some interesting off-ice moments. Here are a few you might find interesting:
It was early in the 2008-09 season, when the Penguins were still housed in the Igloo.
After a practice, I was walking toward the Gate 2 exit. Just ahead was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and a small group of family and/or friends who pretty obviously were visiting from Quebec, also headed out of the arena.
They were talking in French and the mood seemed light.
Suddenly, Fleury went splat on the concrete floor. Hard. It was loud.
I knew immediately that he was goofing around – go figure – and was recreating his famous trip and fall as he tried to step onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena several months earlier as the Penguins exited their locker room before a Stanley Cup final game against Detroit.
Those in Fleury’s group were amused, but also a little startled at just how hard he had flopped onto the unforgiving floor. He stayed down for a couple seconds, perhaps for added comedic effect.
The trouble was, the security guard who manned a small command center just inside Gate 2 and close to Fleury’s stunt was alarmed. She came rushing over, obviously concerned and ready to spring into some sort of action to help.
Fleury, finally getting up, tried to assure her he was fine. He and his group headed off to, most likely, get some lunch.
The security guard, a nice woman whose name I never knew but who was always friendly, was practically shaking. I tried my best to talk her down, explaining the story behind the flop and just how goofy the goalie was.
The bet here is that she never forgot that.
Does the Stanley Cup float?
Being the team captain, Sidney Crosby got two days with the Stanley Cup in his native Nova Scotia after the Penguins won the championship in August 2009.
Day One, his 22nd birthday, was more of a time to publicly share the giant chalice and the title, including a parade through the Halifax suburb of Cole Harbour where he grew up.
Day Two was geared more toward private time with the Cup, shared with family and friends. That included a big party in the evening on the grounds behind his summer lake house in a gated community north of Halifax.
Generous and thoughtful as Crosby is, he invited a few of us reporters who had traveled to describe his time with the Cup to spend a little time at the party site before the main crowd arrived.
The way circumstances unfolded, I was the first reporter there. A few family members and friends were the only other guests there at that point. Several members of the catering staff – all in “uniform,” black pants and white Penguins T-shirts that had been signed by Crosby in black indelible ink – were busy setting up and doing food and bar prep.
Crosby himself was not home. He had gone off in his four-wheeled Gator to visit a few lake neighbors with the Cup. Imagine answering a knock on the door and seeing Crosby and the Stanley Cup just happening by for a few minutes.
I was admiring the view of the lake from Crosby’s multi-level deck when he came walking around the corner from the front carrying the Cup. He sat it down.
The band he had hired for the occasion, popular Canadian group Great Big Sea, had finished a practice set on a stage set up in the yard, and the members, seeing him arrive, scrambled up the deck to shake his hand and ask him to sign some things. Like, literally, they had a box of things for him to autograph. He gladly complied.
Then Crosby disappeared into his house. He returned a few minutes later with a collection of life jackets, all different sizes and colors. He then began fitting them – not for himself but for the Cup.
After strapping on one that he thought suited the silver chalice, he carried it down to his dock. There, he pulled off his shirt and put on his own life jacket – because that’s who Crosby is – and his father, Troy, helped him load the Cup onto a jet ski.
Crosby set out onto the lake with the Cup, an experience tied to his many times out on the lake to fish or for recreation, but this time with a very special guest nestled between his arms as he steered.
He went fairly slowly, with no hot dogging – because, again, that’s who Crosby is. He pulled up somewhat near a boat with a group of partiers who no doubt had been hoping for a glimpse of him and the Cup.
Then he returned to the dock, carefully unloaded the Cup and continued to get ready for his party. The Cup’s life jacket wasn’t tested.
Petr Sykora spent two seasons with the Penguins, winning the 2009 Cup with them. During that time, he rented a house that former Penguins winger and fellow Czech Jaromir Jagr still owned in the Pittsburgh area.
A few of us reporters were talking to Sykora about his accommodations one day, and he joked about having an ant problem (as opposed to an aunt problem like in the funny contemporary TV ad).
I hung around after the other reporters moved on, mostly to talk to Sykora about Jagr, the enigmatic but ultra-talented superstar who, amazingly, at 48 is still playing professionally in the Czech Republic for the Kladno team he owns.
Sykora started to describe just what a megastar Jagr was in the Czech Republic.
The most popular athlete there, I asked?
No, Sykora explained. It was his firm belief that Jagr was the most popular person in that country.
Wow. That was pretty impressive to hear, and remains so.