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An Oral History of the 1991 Stanley Cup Title (Part 1)

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

The following is an oral history of the Penguins' 1990-91 championship season as told through the views of forwards Bob Errey and Phil Bourque. This is part one of a four-part series that will focus primarily on the 1991 Stanley Cup Final against the Minnesota North Stars, which will be re-airing the next two weeks on AT&T SportsNet.

To view all 1991 Stanley Cup Final rewind coverage, click here

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The Penguins' first move of the 1990 offseason was hiring "Badger" Bob Johnson as head coach on June 16.

Errey: I had never met Bob Johnson. I just heard about how humble he was, what a good communicator he was, how he was able to get best out of every player on the team. I was excited, but I had never met Bob before. Just heard great things about him.

My initial take was how he wanted to know more about you as a person. It wasn't just hockey-based. It was, 'Hi, Bob. What did you do in the off-season?' He'd ask about your family, trips you may have taken, cars you had bought, movies you had seen with your wife or family. He was one of those guys. He wanted to know about your family, your dogs, your cats, those kinds of things. He was able to build a good relationship that way. It was more than just hockey talk.

Bourque: There was excitement and a little confusion. He was known, but not that well-known. We knew he coached a couple years in the league with Calgary then went back to USA Hockey. He was known more as a college coach, and those guys didn't have a ton of credibility. There weren't many guys that went from college to the NHL and had any success or longevity. The first time I met him I thought, 'This is a real energetic, positive guy.' He made you want to embrace hockey the way he did. You could tell he was very direct. He had a certain tone to his voice that was professional and to the point, but you could sense the passion he had for hockey right away.

Badger quickly showed the fun side of his personality. During the team's training camp that year, which was held in Vail, Colorado, he went to the scorer's table and picked up a microphone.

Bourque: It was our first practice. We were running something simple like a horseshoe drill. He grabbed the microphone and started doing Mikey Lange play-by-play. 'All right, here we go, welcome everybody, we're gonna run the horseshoe drill. Let me give you a little background on some of these players.' And he just kept going. 'Here's the Big Guy, 66. Lemieux. You know about him. This is Kevin Stevens, big power forward.' We're running the drill during this. So, we're standing in line and looking around. We were talking to guys and saying, 'Is this guy out of his mind? What is going on here? This is the National Hockey League. We're running practice. We ended up loving it, but at first it was definitely an adjustment.

Bourque had his own introduction to the fans from Badger.

Bourque: 'This here is Bourque. He can skate like the wind. He doesn't have very good hands, but he can skate.' It was something like that (laughs).

Shortly after Johnson's hiring, the Penguins acquired Joe Mullen and signed Bryan Trottier in free agency. The team also selected an 18-year-old Czech star named Jaromir Jagr in the NHL's annual draft with the fifth-overall pick.

Bourque: 'Trots' was a perfect fit. It was like holy smokes, how did we get this guy? It was a perfect storm for him to leave the Islanders where he was their centerpiece. They had Pat Lafontaine, so maybe they felt he was expendable. He had a contract problem there. But for him to take a backseat to Mario when he was the guy - you think about the top centers, it was (Marcel) Dionne, (Wayne) Gretzky and Trottier, the three best center icemen in the 70s. For him to humble himself and understand what could potentially happen was an absolute perfect fit on the ice and off the ice. We knew how good Joey Mullen was. A 50-goal scorer with Calgary. 

Errey: Trots was a winner everywhere he went. Getting Jagr, we had no idea what we had there. A young kid with a lot of raw talent. When he came in you could see his puck protection skills were incredible. He couldn't shoot the puck very well and Rick Kehoe was working with him religiously. He always had a strange shooting technique. His hands were set up differently position-wise than a normal player. He had the big toe curve that helped him control the puck when he was stickhandling. It also threw the goalies off with the release point. Maybe they got stuck staring at his hair (laughs). He definitely brought a different dimension to the hockey team, for sure.

Bourque: Jags was big, strong and raw. He wasn't really ready for the NHL early on. He was trying things that worked in the Czech, a lot of individual stuff, trying to beat three guys and cut to the middle of the neutral zone. Defensemen that didn't step up in the Czech League were stepping up and cleaning his clock. He was getting hit really hard by hanging onto the puck too much. Combined with speaking zero English, you could tell he was homesick, you could tell his confidence was starting to go down. You still knew how good he was going to be, you just didn't know how long it was going to take.

But the other part was his work ethic. That's the one thing from Day 1 that he established. As veterans we busted his cookies a little bit. 'Come on kid, get off the ice. We have to go.' He always wanted to stay and go in the gym. He figured it out pretty quick. But he had some really tough growing pains the first couple of months. 

The Penguins played the majority of the year without Lemieux, who would only appear in 26 games in the regular season. But Lemieux's return coupled with the late acquisitions of Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from Hartford for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker put the pieces in place.

Bourque: We knew we were getting an incredible player (Francis) that could be complimentary (piece) to Mario. It could be the ultimate 1-2 punch. We had wingers that could score. The toughest part to swallow was (losing) Cullen, who was having an unbelievable year partially because of the responsibility he was given with Mario being dinged up. On top of all that he was absolutely loved by everybody in that dressing room. That's why I always credit John Cullen with that first Stanley Cup. If there was one guy that left us that you wish could have been in that locker room in Minnesota, it was John Cullen. If he didn't play the way he played at that time then we probably don't have enough to get a guy like Francis out of Hartford. And he kept us afloat while Mario was dinged up so that when we got Ronnie and Mario back everything started to fall into place.

Errey: As the season went along you knew you have the makings of a good team. There were so many darn leaders on that team. It was incredible. Everybody knew their role and their spot on the team, what needed to be done to be successful. It's not just the obvious guys (that were leaders), like the Francises and Trottiers. You had Paul Coffey or Ulf Samuelsson, guys like Troy Loney, guys that had been around. They were tried and tested. There was a lot of character on the team.

Bourque: That '91 team was the best locker room I had ever been in. You had big mouth Ulfie, you had Artie, Rex and Trots, Troy Loney. You had so many guys that said the right things at the right time. It wasn't always the same voice holding each other accountable or putting us in the right frame of mind by saying the right thing. We never needed an assistant coach or a head coach to say what needed to be said. We were the first ones to say it.

If there was a microphone in the locker room, you'd think we hated each other. But that wasn't the case at all. We loved each other so much. We knew that when guys were brutally honest with each other it wasn't in a hurtful or hateful way, it was because we wanted to win so much. It was the culture of the locker room, a bunch of alpha males.

Errey: We had a lot of loudmouths. We talked the talk at that point and we had never walked the walk. It was time to put up or shut up. We never really had a motto, but maybe that was it.

The Penguins opened the playoffs against the New Jersey Devils. Pittsburgh trailed in the series, 3-2, with Game 6 being played in New Jersey. The Penguins were killing a power play when backup goaltender Frank Pietrangelo, called into action, made 'The Save' by reaching back with his glove to steal a goal from the stick of Peter Stastny. That save helped the Penguins force a Game 7, which they won on home ice 4-0.

Bourque: Peter Taglianetti down low in front of the net had a couple guys he had to take care of when Hillier pressured the halfwall. My job was, if the puck came toward the goal, to rotate down from my forward position into the slot to support 'Tags.' I was snoozing a little bit and couldn't get to Stastny when the puck bounced out to him. All I saw - I was right behind the puck at the time - was a complete, wide-open 4x6. As soon as 'Frankie' threw out the glove hand to rob Stastny I went up to him and said, 'Thanks for saving my bleeping rear.' I was too slow to get to him. I knew that was my responsibility. I wasn't there for that. I forever thank him. If I close my eyes right now I can see complete white net and the puck on the stick of Stastny and thinking, 'This is in.' Then out of nowhere Frankie throwing back his left hand and making the save.

Video: Pietrangelo robs Devils' Stastny

The Penguins also vanquished the Washington Capitals in five games before meeting the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Final. Things started off poorly with a pair of losses on home ice. But after that second loss, Boston native Kevin Stevens spoke up.

Stevens told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Press: "We're confident we can beat this team. And we will beat this team. We'll beat this team. I'll say it right now, we'll beat them."

Bourque: I had just come out of the shower and 'Artie' was holding court with the reporters. I just happened to walk by. I heard him say that. I remember walking over to Troy Loney. I go, 'Hey, did you hear what Artie just said?' He said no. 'He said he guaranteed we were going to win the series.' Troy looked at me and said, 'Perfect. Just what we needed.' And I said, 'Agreed, let's go.' It was what we needed at the time.

Kevin is a lot smarter than people give him credit for. Kevin is a Boston guy. He knew a lot of those Bruins, skated with them in the off-season. He knew that they knew his personality. That was going to make its way into their locker room. And he knew that. The guys that knew him were thinking, 'This guy means it, and he can actually back it up.'

Errey: You're almost waiting for someone to say something. Quietness makes you feel like the end is near. He announced that the end was not near. I was on the bus when he came on and yelled it out matter-of-factly. He was always loud. But that was more distinct, and more clear-cut. It was almost like facts, to be honest with you. That was it. He said it, we believed it and we just went and did it.

Stevens backed up his words on the ice by torching his hometown Bruins with six goals, 10 points in the series as the Penguins won four straight games to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

Bourque: I'm sure you've heard the saying many times: talk the talk, walk the walk. Look at what Kevin did on the ice after saying that, he took over the series. Mario would be the only other guy that could do that, but it would be too out of character. To say something like that and then go out and do what he did. But that's not Mario's character. But it was Kevin's character.

Errey: Artie barks and pipes off. It just felt like that team was able to turn the switch on. They say you can never turn the switch on. There was something about that team. When you turn the switch on you have to be able to take it to that other level. That team was able to do that when their back was against the wall. I've never seen another team be able to do it like that team was able to do it. When their backs were against the wall, they were never going down.

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