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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Are you ready for some hockey?

The Pittsburgh Penguins hit the ice Wednesday in the most-anticipated training camp in recent memory. Following a 310-day work stoppage that wiped out the 2003-04 season, the NHL and the Penguins are back and better than ever.

“Everywhere we go, it’s very exciting. People can’t wait for the season to start,” said Penguins captain Mario Lemieux. “It’s a very exciting time for Pittsburgh and the fans.”

The mere fact that hockey is back is enough to fire up Penguins fans. Add in an unprecedented star-studded free-agent bounty that brought Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Ryan VandenBussche, Steve Poapst, Andre Roy and Lyle Odelein to Pittsburgh as well as a trade for goalie Jocelyn Thibault and the selection of super prospect Sidney Crosby in the NHL Entry Draft, and Pittsburgh is the place to be in the hockey world again.

“It’s very exciting for the organization to be able to bring in all these great players and put a great team on the ice so we have a chance to compete,” Lemieux said. “It’s great for the city and our fans.”

After enduring three seasons in which the team sunk to the bottom of the standings and missed the playoffs, Penguins fans are re-energized with the idea of cheering for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

“It’s well-deserved because our fans have been super-supportive over the last little while,” Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said. “It’s extremely exciting and I think the anticipation is certainly building.”

It all started when the Penguins had the good fortune of winning the NHL Draft Drawing, which gave them the No. 1 pick and the right to draft Crosby. It signified the beginning of a new Penguins era.

“Oh definitely,” Penguins Executive Vice President/General Manager Craig Patrick said. “It all started with the lottery ball and it’s been a joyful ride the rest of the summer.”

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL Players’ Association and the NHL Board of Governors ended the work stoppage. In the process, it created a restructured financial landscape, which gave small-market teams more resources for adding players.

“Everybody is on a fairly even playing field now; it’s certainly a lot more level for us than it has been in the past eight or nine years,” Patrick said. “It’s nice to be able to get into the action and be part of what’s going on in the league. I think we’ve done a real nice job putting a team together and that should bode well for us.”

In addition, the new NHL instituted a number of rules changes to help open up the offensive game, which suits the Penguins and their recent personnel additions.

“Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons we have been very active on the free agent market,” Lemieux said. “We wanted to put a great team together to compete for the Cup.”

Pittsburgh last won the Stanley Cup in 1992. However, a key part of the team’s first Cup championship in 1991 – Mark Recchi – is back in Pittsburgh. He left Philadelphia to sign with the Penguins on July 9, 2004. Since there was no season last year, Recchi will make his debut with the team’s other acquisitions Oct. 5 in New Jersey.

“We started the process a year ago and now we’re seeing the final product and we’re excited about it,” Patrick said. “We have guys who are great scorers, great playmakers and can play any part of the game. I think we have all the ingredients to be a real strong, competitive team.”

Recchi could see what Patrick and Lemieux envisioned in the restructured NHL and was eager to become a part of it.

“Part of the reason why I came back was because I trusted Craig and Mario and knowing that we were really going to be able to compete in the new CBA system,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen quite this quick, but it’s pretty neat.”

Certainly, the Penguins’ additions were geared toward offensive production. However, Patrick has made sure a balance remains so the Penguins can be an all-around threat.

“This is what we envisioned and this is what we were hoping for,” Olczyk said. “Craig has done a masterful job of bringing in players where we thought we needed to upgrade and thought could be difference-makers not only offensively, but defensively and with team toughness. We’re excited about that because we believe they will blend in with the younger players well.

“We had a plan. We knew exactly what we were trying to get accomplished and we wanted to bring those pieces of the puzzle in and set that up for the future,” he continued. “With Craig’s leadership, along with Mario’s, we thought we needed to address some needs and that’s what we did.”

In addition, the players Patrick acquired not only possess high skill levels, but leadership qualities as well. Almost every player has worn a C or A on his jersey at one time as a captain or alternate captain.

“The type of people we brought in are great leaders. They have proven throughout their careers in the league so far wherever they’ve been,” Patrick said. “It’s going to be nice to have a Ryan Malone and a Brooks Orpik and all the young guys we have looking to them for leadership and learning how to lead for the future.”

The Penguins have plenty of depth as well as skill.

“Absolutely. You need an abundance of guys to win,” Recchi said. “You’re not going to win with one line anymore. You have to throw four lines at people and be exciting and fast. It’s going to be a great thing to be a part of and I am really looking forward to it.”

The mix of savvy veterans and a talented young core of players is intriguing and mirrors the successful blend of early 1990s.

“When we won the Cup in ’91, we had (Brian) Trottier and (Joey) Mullen, Randy Hillier – some older players who were very important parts of our team. You need your veterans to help your young guys,” Recchi said. “We had a number of young guys and we had that great mix with veterans. That’s what we have right now. You have to have the right older guys, too – guys that are willing to go out and teach the young guys and help them get better and grow as players and as people. That’s what we have now.”

And much like Jaromir Jagr in the early 1990s, Crosby is the budding star in the Penguins’ mix.

“It’s an extra blessing to have Sidney here and having him for years to come. Fans are going to enjoy him just like they do with Mario, I am sure,” Patrick said. “He’s a great young man. He is really levelheaded. For an 18-year-old, he is much more mature than I anticipated. That bodes well for this organization.”

While it’s been an exciting summer, the fall should be even better. Training camp starts Tuesday.

“Guys are starting to come into town now, so we’re excited to get started,” Patrick said. “It’s nice to see their smiling faces. We’re looking forward to getting started and carrying on the tradition we had in the early 1990s.”

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