10-9 Joe Sager talks with Eddie Johnston about the team's 40th birthday
Luck, coincidence, fate?
Whatever you call it, it seemed only fitting that the Penguins played Montreal on Wednesday. It was just one day shy of the 40th anniversary of the Penguins’ first NHL game at the arena.
And, that first contest was also against the Canadiens – on Oct. 11, 1967.
A total of 9,307 fans filled the arena and watched Montreal post a 2-1 win over the Penguins. Montreal’s Jean Beliveau had the game-winning goal (his 400th-career tally) in the second period. Andy Bathgate scored the first goal in Penguins history at 7:06 of the third period.
Since then, Mellon Arena has been the site of many memorable games, players and achievements.
|Eddie Johnston |
“It sure has. The two Stanley Cups here stick out right away,” said Eddie Johnston, the Penguins’ Senior Advisor/Hockey Operations. “Probably the initial thing that jump started us was when we were able to draft Mario Lemieux at No. 1 [in 1984]. I think he basically changed the franchise for us because we were maybe getting between 8,000-10,000 fans. Once Mario came, the franchise responded. We went to sellouts and we became a much better team and went on to win a couple Stanley Cups after that.
“There’s a terrific fan base here in Pittsburgh. That came just before the Penguins with the Hornets, who played at the Duquesne Gardens and, later on, at the arena. They always had good attendance. The fan base was there, but once we started to win, the people started coming back into the building – that’s what they wanted to see.”
Hockey fans wanted to see great players in Pittsburgh, too, and they certainly have had their share over the years.
“You’re talking about some great players who have played here. This franchise has been blessed since we got Mario,” Johnston said. “We had him and, after that, we had Jagr. Then, Mario came back and now we have Sid and Malkin. We’ve been blessed. Some franchises go through a lifetime and never get a superstar. We’ve had them for more than 20 years now. Since Mario came here, we’ve had the No. 1 player in the league every year – that’s unheard of.”
Johnston has spent 24 years in the Penguins’ organization and has known the arena for its entire NHL existence. He was in his fifth NHL season with the Boston Bruins when the arena opened. When he retired, he was the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks for one season before he was named the Penguins’ head coach. He came to Pittsburgh in the 1980-81 season and was behind the bench for three seasons before he became the team’s general manager from 1983-88.
He served as the Hartford Whalers’ general manager from 1989-92, but returned to coach the Penguins from 1993-97. He served nine years as assistant general manager with the team and moved into his current role in 2006.
So, the arena has given Johnston plenty of good memories.
“It sure has. Coming here as a coach, we made the playoffs that year. We had a fellow like Randy Carlyle, who won the Norris Trophy and is now coaching the Anaheim Ducks; we had Rick Kehoe, who scored 50 goals; we had Greg Malone, who went on to be the head of our pro scouting department for years. So, I have had a lot of great memories with a lot of great people.
“This has been an unbelievable place. They’ve had a lot of great shows here, too. All the major sports in this city have won at least one championship, so it’s been great.”