Many individuals have had a significant impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins over the years, but only one person in the franchise’s 45-year history has been a player, head coach and broadcaster with the organization.
Eddie Olczyk undertook three separate roles with the Penguins – as a player from 1997-98, as a broadcaster alongside Mike Lange with ROOT SPORTS from ’00-03 and as Pittsburgh’s head coach from ’03-05.
And Olczyk’s time here has had an immeasurable influence on his overall career in hockey, one that’s been a storied one and one that has earned him a spot in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted alongside Devils general manager Lou Lamiorello and retired NHLer Mike Modano in a ceremony that will take place Monday night in Dallas.
“It’s something very humbling and I’m very honored,” Olczyk said. “I’ve been waiting and hoping for a long time that the call would come. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t question whether it would come at all; then finally I got a call in the middle of July. The rest is history. … It’s a great class and I’m really thrilled.”
The Chicago native’s relationship with current Penguins owner Mario Lemieux began back in 1984, when Olczyk was drafted third overall by his hometown Blackhawks – two spots behind Lemieux.
Olczyk, who would represent the United States on an international level nine times in his playing career, went on to build a successful NHL career with the Blackhawks, Maple Leafs, Jets, Rangers (with whom he won the Stanley Cup in ’94) and Kings before getting traded to Pittsburgh in March, 1997.
At that point in his career, Olczyk’s job was to be a role player that could adapt to whatever the coaches asked of him and to slot in wherever needed. He was already a veteran guy who had been in the league for years, but the chance to play alongside talents like Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Joey Mullen during that time was a learning opportunity he couldn’t ignore.
“We all know how great of players those guys were,” Olczyk said. “But I think the one thing is the people (they are). I think that’s the one thing I take from my experience of being around greatness like I was for that period of time there in the ‘Burgh. When you get a chance to be around great people, you learn a lot. I had known Mario for a long, long time because we were drafted the same year back in ’84. I just think any time you’re around high-quality people, it makes you learn and you try to apply it both and off the ice.”
After returning to Chicago to close out his playing career, Olczyk retired from the NHL in 2000. Shortly after, a Penguins executive reached out to Olczyk asking if he’d be interested in filling a vacancy in the TV broadcast booth alongside Hall of Famer Lange.
Having a mentor like Lange, with his unique broadcasting style and personal character, really affirmed for Olczyk that making the transition to broadcasting was the right move for him.
“That was my start into my second life, so to speak, in hockey,” Olczyk said, who got the nickname “Edzo” from partner Lange. “I’m very, very appreciative and thankful that they gave me the opportunity. When you work with Mikey for three years like I did – we had a boatload of fun and I learned so much from him. I couldn’t have been more proud to have been his partner for three years, because as everybody knows he’s the voice of hockey in the ‘Burgh. There was a pressure there and an awe there of becoming his partner, but it was so relaxing and so much fun.”
After three years with ROOT SPORTS, it became time for Olczyk to transition to yet another role with the Penguins, his most challenging one yet – NHL head coach.
The opportunity came about after discussions with general manager Craig Patrick and player-owner Lemieux. Originally, Olczyk – who was wanting to get deeper into the game and experience the coaching aspect of it – thought he would start in the American Hockey League with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and develop his abilities with that team.
But after having dialogue with Patrick and Lemieux, it was decided that Olcyzk would take over the parent club as part of a five-year rebuilding process, where they were going to start from scratch and overhaul the team through the draft.
“I knew what the philosophy was going to be,” he said. “Money was tight and we were going to prepare for the future. After a couple of interviews and after talking with Craig and Mario, it was well, here’s what we’re going to do. We’d like you to be our guy for the time being and move forward. We’re going to have a young team. We’re not going to spend a lot of money. We’re looking for a five-year plan.”
And the team did exactly what they wanted to do through the draft. During Olczyk’s tenure in Pittsburgh, the team selected future franchise players in goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003, forward Evgeni Malkin in 2004 and young phenom Sidney Crosby in 2005, who would all go on to play instrumental roles in the team’s 2009 Stanley Cup championship.
Being part of a rebuild isn’t easy for the coaches, management and staff involved. It takes a lot of sacrifice, commitment and patience for a payoff that won’t come for a few years down the road. But looking back, Olczyk feels dealing with those adversities made him a stronger person and professional.
“It made me appreciate the game much more,” he said. “I think I became a much better broadcaster because of it. I learned so much from the people that I had around me on a daily basis. It was a challenge and it was disappointing for me the way it ended, but I will say this: that was part of the five-year plan that we had where we were going to start from scratch and we were going to draft.
“And that’s what we did. They revamped and are reaping the benefits not only on the ice but off the ice as well with the new building and everything. It was a great experience and something that I’m very proud of the effort and everything that went into it.”
Olczyk again returned to Chicago after his coaching job in Pittsburgh ended, where he presently serves as the game analyst for Blackhawks television broadcasts on CSN. He’s also the lead game analyst for NHL on NBC and NHL on NBC Sports Network.
Reflecting back on his unique status as the only person to play, coach and broadcast for the Penguins organization, Olczyk couldn’t be more grateful for how his time in this city impacted his rich hockey career. And Pittsburgh couldn’t be more appreciative of everything that he did during his years here.
“When you spend almost eight years of your life – your hockey life – in one place, you become entrenched in the community,” Olczyk said. “You become a part of the landscape. I played in a lot of great places, but I always take great pride in saying that I wore a few hats in Pittsburgh.
“There’s no doubt it was very instrumental in having a great hand in where I’ve
been and where I’m going. I tip my hat to the city of Pittsburgh and everybody there for helping me along the way, and they’ll certainly be in my thoughts on Monday.”