The Pittsburgh Penguins are widely considered one of the premier franchises in the NHL — a club that has won the Stanley Cup five times, is considered a perennial contender, spends to the salary cap ceiling, boasts stellar TV ratings, sells out all its home games and draws an impressive number of fans on the road, and has had a parade of Hall of Fame and star players. It wasn’t always that way. There were humble beginnings as an expansion franchise more than 50 years ago under the direction of original general manager Jack Riley, who was sharp but realistic and remained in the team “family” into his 90s. Through the years, several key individuals have been responsible for the Penguins’ rise. This is a look at some of those individuals.
First in a series.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the NHL in 1967, Eddie Johnston was an established goaltender with the Boston Bruins. Forget any romanticism over the Original Six clubs or any smirking at the lot of the new clubs entering the league.
When the NHL doubled in size with expansion that year, Johnston had a view popular among players.
“We thought it was great because it helped our salaries go up,” Johnston recalled recently. He also had what he thought was a realistic expectation for the six new teams.
“I thought they would take a few years to build,” Johnston said. “They needed to take five to seven years before they got on the same (level) as the big teams.”
It varied, actually. St. Louis — with Scotty Bowman as its coach and facilitated by a playoff system where it only had to beat other expansion clubs the first three rounds – made it to the Stanley Cup final each of its first three seasons.
The Penguins were another matter. Johnston, widely known as E.J., at that time had no idea he would play key part in their story.
Now 82, spry and with eyes that twinkle when he talks about hockey, Johnston first joined the franchise as coach in 1980. Although his titles changed and his tenure was interrupted by a gig as Hartford Whalers general manager, Johnston nearly seems like a Penguins lifer at this point.
“I’ve coached them twice. I’ve been the GM, assistant GM. Everything but a trainer,” said Johnston, who also was an assistant coach, senior adviser and, now retired, is still an ambassador, sounding board and welcome presence.
He Resisted Mario Madness
He cemented his place as a builder of the franchise June 9, 1984, when, after his first season as Penguins GM, he drafted center Mario Lemieux first overall. Lemieux had a Hall of Fame career that put him in the conversation as one of the top few players of all time, led the formerly sad-sack Penguins to their first two Stanley Cup titles, then brought them out of their second bankruptcy as a co-owner who has overseen three more Cup championships.
Big deal, some might say. Lemieux was pegged as a star way before he could drive. It was a given he would go first in his draft year, regardless of which GM landed that right.
But consider some of the circumstances. The Penguins, who (some might say suspiciously) won just 16 games in 1983-84 to garner that first overall pick, had a history of trading away draft picks.
In addition, Penguins negotiations with Lemieux and his agent, Gus Badali, had not resulted in an agreement on a contract, something that could have added pressure on Johnston to make a trade.
Over the years, Johnston has revealed some of the offers he got for that pick. He recounted some of them recently: Minnesota GM Lou Nanne offered all the North Stars pick that draft; the Flyers dangled three veterans and a pick; Quebec suggested all three Stastny brothers, Peter, Anton, and Marion.
“And Montreal told me, ‘Whatever (the Nordiques) offer you, we’ll do a better job,’” Johnston recalled which sounds a lot like a blank check.
He stood firm. Veteran players that might come over in a deal didn’t have the longevity or the upside of Lemieux. And Johnston was confident Lemieux would be in the same class as all-time great Bobby Orr, who revolutionized the position of defenseman while he and Johnston were teammates with Boston. The two remain close.
Still without a contract agreement, Lemieux refused to go to the stage when Johnston, an anglophile despite being from Montreal, called Lemieux by his number, soixante-six, in French at the draft in the storied Montreal Forum. Refused to put on a Penguins sweater or cap.
You can watch the moment here:
Of course, Lemieux and the Penguins worked things out for the start of the 1984 training camp, and a decades-long relationship began. Johnston is among a large contingent who go back that far and believe any move other than drafting Lemieux would have marked the end of the NHL in Pittsburgh.
“Oh, there would have been no hockey here,” Johnston said. “Hockey would have been gone within a year or two. Unless we started to win and had an impact player in this city, hockey was on its last legs here.”
He was convinced they would have gone the way of the Hartford Whalers, who became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997, only faster.
The Other Side Of The Deal
Johnston left the Penguins to serve as Hartford GM in 1989, but he still played a part in Penguins history while there. March 4, 1991, he swung a huge trade with Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick. The Penguins got center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in return for center John Cullen, defenseman Zarley Zalapski and winger Jeff Parker.
The deal gave the Penguins the pieces they needed around Lemieux, rookie Jaromir Jagr, goaltender Tom Barrasso and others to win the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups that spring.
Johnston has joked over the years he should have his name on the 1990 Cup for that trade, but he also defends the move. First, Hartford owner Richard Gordon had a dispute with Francis and wanted the future Hall of Famer gone.
“We had no choice,” Johnston said of crafting a trade that involved Francis. “We were told to – ‘Either get him out of here, or you’re out of here.’”
Second, Johnston felt he pulled off a pretty good deal despite being hamstrung by the dictated circumstances.
“Those were good guys. They played terrific for us. It was a good deal for both clubs,” he said.
Johnston returned to Pittsburgh as Penguins coach in 1993 and has never left.
These days he goes to games at PPG Paints Arena unless he’s on a golfing trip to Florida. He watches closely from the media level but also enthusiastically talks hockey with various lucky listeners. After the second period, he regularly descends a couple levels and spends time in the owner’s box, analyzing the game and visiting with Lemieux.
Pregame, he has a ritual of exchanging a fist bump – he calls it “knuckles” – with star center Sidney Crosby for good luck. Postgame, he’s often in or around the locker room. The old goalkeeper – that’s what he calls goalies – for years would make a point of telling former franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury “piece of cake!” after wins.
Johnston could have settled anywhere. His hometown, Montreal. Boston. Florida, where he likes to spend some time golfing in the winter.
“No, this home,” he said of Pittsburgh. “It’s been a great home, too.”