Little Things From Inside the Penguins Locker Room
C’est la vie. The Pittsburgh Penguins 2022-23 NHL season is over. It feels far too soon for many because springtime is when hockey is supposed to matter most. Perhaps this is a lesson to everyone that those wintery Tuesday nights in Winnipeg and December days in LA also matter.
After a season of coverage from the road and at home, I can say that I’ve seen just about everything. From fishtailing across the highway in my rental car on the way to Winnipeg during a snowstorm to a brutally dingy name brand hotel in Seattle with a sign, “no refunds after 15 minutes.”
I’ve seen a few things from the hockey team, too.
I’ve seen the visible collapse out west, to practicing on an old but picturesque public rink without available locker rooms at the harbor in New York City.
I’ve seen Kris Letang take that little pause before opening the vault and saying things other players wouldn’t.
I’ve seen Evgeni Malkin hang his head and say, “We know everyone hates us,” and I’ve been snapped at by Malkin for asking if the power play needed to shoot more.
The little things, big personalities, and quirky traits make the locker room unique every season.
**Because of Jason Zucker’s steady string of injuries over the past three years, we have never before been treated to the Zucker and Bryan Rust road show. Those two reconnected from their USNDT days, and for most of the season, their banter between locker stalls was a Dean Martin roast of each other, anyone who sat between them, or anyone who dared get too close.
The comedy troupe wasn’t so jolly in the season’s final weeks as things grew tense on the ice. As much as others expressed hope or looking forward, that corner of the room was always honest. Bluntly honest. To their eternal credit, as the losing mounted, they faced the heat in somber and sometimes angry tones while other players quickly bounced out of the room. The jokes were gone, and if you read the Penguins Room features after every game, you usually saw one of those two and the intensity in their eyes.
They were living and dying on the team’s result.
**P.O Joseph was a pleasure to speak with this season. That guy finds the good part of every situation. We only video-recorded a few chats because Joseph insists on standing, even for just one reporter. It was a ritual. He’d stand, I’d tell him it was just me, he could sit, and he would stand anyway. He’s tall and usually still had his skates on, so unless you wanted to count nose hairs, an audio recording was best.
Next season, I’d like to see a little bit more snarl. A little hate can help. He belongs in the NHL, but I’m not sure he always knows that. He might be the new recipient of the Zach Aston-Reese award, a friendly player, but sometimes you get the feeling the only thing holding them back is themselves.
And for gosh sake, sit down, man. I’m not that important, even to myself.
**Dmitry Kulikov, we barely knew thee. He talked to the media on his first four days in town, then was injured for almost six weeks. I had a little “in” with Kulikov due to an inside joke with a mutual colleague/friend. When he was a rookie, he had a flashy sportscar that neither you nor I could afford. After his first little media scrum at his locker stall, I said, “Hey, George says hi. He told me about your Ferrari.”
He deadpan looked at me. “I never had a Ferrari.”
He waited. He paused.
Waited another moment.
“It was a Lamborghini,” he finally said, smiling.
He got me pretty good. Sadly, now he has a responsible vehicle for the family, including his two children.
**The Penguins’ locker room somewhat reflected their play on the ice this season. There weren’t many big personalities in the room. There are a lot of good guys in the room, like Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson. They’re quiet guys who are smart hockey players. If you ask, they’ll tell you a little about the Xs and Os.
Pettersson helped on a few “Chalkboard” segments in the PHN+ report card.
Mark Friedman was also in that corner of the room when he was on the NHL roster. I’ve long considered him the most honest guy in the place. He takes his career to heart and so badly wants to be an NHL regular. When he’s not playing, he wears that disappointment. When he’s playing, he’s chirping Kris Letang two stalls over or calling out to others with a smile.
He would be fun to cover for an entire season. He doesn’t hold back, and I think readers would enjoy the conversations.
**Casey DeSmith would light up when I had a goaltending question. He might be a goalie coach someday or give TED talks. The few times I asked him about a technique or a situation, I could count on a smiling two-minute answer.
He’s a good dude.
Tristan Jarry will talk in training camp and after the season, but in the season, he’s the master of the two-word answer. It must be a starting goalie thing. Except for Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins starting goalies I’ve covered on and off for 20 years, didn’t like to speak.
Jarry had a tough year that we’re not done unraveling.
**Jeff Carter provided a handful of viral soundbytes this year. From when I got a couple of minutes after the tough November loss to the Calgary Flames to his two-goal game in Colorado last month when he responded to PHN’s question about some vindication, “I couldn’t care less what you guys write.”
It was a challenging year for BJC. He went from Bud-Lite memes as a fan favorite and Welch’s grape gummies snack hero in 2021 to the bottom of a social media pile-on this season.
Players hear it. They know. The 38-year-old Carter was rarely available after practice. His hockey pants, already hanging in his locker stall, were a fixture.
Hey, no blame from this corner, but it was a shame because he was one of the big personalities in the Penguins’ room.
**You know Sidney Crosby well enough to know he takes his standing in the game seriously. He’s the consummate captain and leader.
It happened less this year, but it’s fun to see him and Jake Guentzel in the back of the room when the media isn’t surrounding them. They’re usually laughing about something and enjoying a conversation — probably about hockey or hockey people.