It’s a love triangle which has spanned three decades – the Penguins, Mellon Arena and the Pittsburgh fans. Even during those early years, when the Penguins weren’t winning with the regularity they have for the better part of the past 20 years, one constant at the Igloo has been the greatest fans in the National Hockey League.
“We had great fans,” Syl Apps said. “We might not have had a lot of them, but the fans we did have were great fans.”
“The fans were just great,” Red Sullivan, the head coach of the team during their inaugural campaign, said. “Everybody was nice to me, my wife and the entire team. They were ready for hockey.”
NHL hockey debuted at what was then called the Civic Arena on Oct. 11, 1967. The Penguins opened against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, suffering a 2-1 setback thanks to Hall of Famer Jean Bealiveau’s 400th career goal.
Andy Bathgate picked up the Penguins’ lone tally on that evening 7:06 into the third period.
“I certainly remember the first one,” said Bathgate, whose grandson was drafted by the Penguins in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. “It was a great way to start. It was a clean-cut goal. I was in the slot and I was able to get a decent shot off.”
Although the Penguins played Montreal tough on that night, success was hard to come by for the team. At that time the National Football League’s Steelers and Major League Baseball’s Pirates dominated the local sports scene, while the Penguins’ hockey predecessors, the American Hockey League’s Hornets, were extremely popular.
“It was hard when we came in that first year with the blue sweaters and hardly anybody from the Hornets on the team,” Jack Riley, the Penguins original general manager, said.
“When the Steelers and Pirates were winning, we were kind of like poor cousins,” Apps said.
|Jean Pronovost/ Getty Images |
“We worked hard and wanted to be successful,” Jean Pronovost said. “We wanted to make Pittsburgh proud. We did our best, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. We had competition. I remember at that time Pittsburgh was called ‘City of Champions … Except the Penguins.’ But that’s changed now, so that goes in cycles.”
Pronovost and several of his teammates from the 1970s thought they had that cycle reversed during the 1975 season. Led by the ‘Century Line’ of Pronovost, Apps and Lowell MacDonald, along with rookie sensation Pierre Larouche, Pittsburgh swept the St. Louis Blues, 2-0, in the preliminary round of the playoffs, before jumping out to a 3-0 series lead on the New York Islanders in the quarterfinals.
All the Penguins needed was one victory to advance to eliminate New York and advance within one round of the Stanley Cup Final. Unfortunately, that one win proved to be too elusive. The Penguins became just the third franchise to surrender a 3-0 series lead when Ed Westfall watched a shot re-direct off his body into the net to give the Islanders a 1-0 victory in Game 7 at the Civic Arena.
“Especially that series against the Islanders, we made some mistakes,” Pronovost said. “We should have put the nail in the coffin and we did not. We allowed them to come back and win it on a cheap goal in the seventh game. It hit Ed Westfall in the chest and fell into the net. But that’s hockey.”
“If you go back to that ’75 series,” Apps said, “if it would have went the other way and we could have gone another round we could have moved the team forward in the right direction rather than a step back.”
That heartbreak led to a downward spiral that began with the Penguins filing for bankruptcy in the late ‘70s. By the time the 1980s arrived, the Penguins seemed more destined to leave Pittsburgh than become eventual Stanley Cup champions.
But that all changed with one draft pick. When then-general manager Eddie Johnston used the first-overall pick of the 1984 entry draft on Mario Lemieux, he not only changed the entire fortune of a franchise, but he helped put hockey on the map in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux provided that franchise player the Penguins had sorely been lacking. Over the next 21 seasons he would turn the Penguins from lovable losers into one of the NHL’s elite franchises.
“When Mario came in, giving the team a national figure here, it really elevated the game in Pittsburgh,” Apps said. “That is what led to them having the team they do now. That all started with Mario coming in.”
|Mario Lemieux/ Getty Images |
Yes, Lemieux eventually turned the Penguins into back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 1991 and ’92, but it took several years to build up a supporting cast capable of helping Lemieux lead Pittsburgh to the Promised Land.
The quest to surround Lemieux with quality running mates began with the acquisition of all-star defenseman Paul Coffey in 1987.
“I was very excited when I came here in ’87,” Coffey said. “However, I remember saying to myself after the first week, ‘what have you gotten yourself into?’ Other than Mario being a great player, it seemed like some things needed to be put into place. The Penguins, under the DeBartolo family at the time, were very receptive. They wanted to win as much as anybody. They really got the ball rolling.”
As the Penguins continued to add championship caliber teammates for Lemieux such Tom Barrasso, Mark Recchi, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, among countless others, there was still one hurdle to overcome – postseason success.
Pittsburgh qualified for the first time since drafting Lemieux following the 1988-89 campaign. They swept the New York Rangers in the opening round, before falling in a hard-fought seven-game series to the hated Philadelphia Flyers in round two.
While the final result in that series was disappointing – the Penguins lost Game 7 at home, 4-1 – Lemieux showcased his postseason flair for the dramatic in Game 5 at the Civic Arena when he tied NHL playoff records with five goals and eight points during the Penguins’ 10-7 victory.
That night also provided one of the all-time Igloo highlights. Following a Rob Brown goal, Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall chased the Penguins winger with his goaltenders stick in a highlight that is still popular to his day.
“That was the only time I ever skated fast in this rink,” Brown joked. “Danny Quinn was coming over to give me a high-five and over his shoulder I could see Hextall just fuming. He started skating with his stick up and I was like ‘see you later, Quinner.’
“(Quinn) was stunned. If you ever watch the video you can see the look on Quinner’s face. It’s like, where are you going? I’m coming to say congratulations. Then, when he saw Hextall was coming after me he was saying, ‘go Brownie, get away.’”
Hextall’s chasing of Brown was rather ironic, because for the next 20 years, the rest of the NHL spent many nights chasing some of the most-talented teams around the ice.
Throughout the 1990s, Mellon Arena would be home to some of the greatest talent in NHL history. The Penguins dressing room was a who’s who of future Hall of Famers – Bryan Trottier, Joe Mullen, Luc Robitaille … the list could go on and on.
“I remember when I first got traded here from Philadelphia it was like walking into an all-star game locker room,” Ken Wregget said. “Each line had something special. You really realized how good that team was.”
Between 1991 and 2001, Mellon Arena would be home to two Stanley Cup championships (’91 and ’92), five division titles (’91, ’93, ’94, ’96 and ’98) and one Presidents’ Trophy (’93).
As the Penguins grew into champions, it seemed as if the entire city quickly turned into hockey fans.
“To have the chance to watch it turn full circle, and to have been here for that was great,” Troy Loney said. “We have always had that strong core fan-base. To see it expand to include the whole city was great to see.”
Those good times gave way to a lean period at the beginning of the 21st century as the Penguins finished in last place for four-straight seasons. Once again, it appeared as though the Penguins were headed out of town.
After filing for bankruptcy for the second time in team history, Lemieux saved the franchise yet again. He put together an ownership group, along with Ron Burkle, to purchase the team in 1999.
However the organization’s fortunes changed drastically when the Penguins won the 2005 NHL Draft Lottery – earning the right to select young phenom Sidney Crosby
– hockey was once again reborn in the city of Pittsburgh.
“I think we were really lucky to get him in the draw because I think Sidney is one of the real reasons why there is a new building going across the road,” Riley said.
Much like it was with Lemieux in 1984, Crosby could not rebuild the Penguins into winners alone. As a result of all those last-place finishes, Pittsburgh was able to add Evgeni Malkin
, Marc-Andre Fleury
and Jordan Staal
to help Crosby lead the team to the franchise’s third Stanley Cup championship in 2009.
“We knew how special they were because they were all high-character kids,” Greg Malone, the Penguins head scout at the time and a player during the 1970s, said. “I think a big part of their success has been they have grown up together. These kids have a lot of feelings for each other, even the ones not here anymore, because they started their careers here together. They have been able to grow into young men together.”
Much like the superstars before them, this supremely talented group of youngsters have formed a unique bond with the Pittsburgh fans. As the Penguins have marched to back-to-back Cup Finals, Pittsburgh’s love affair with their hockey team has once again made Mellon Arena one of the toughest venues for opposing teams.
“The whole support from the fans and the organization, it is not like this anywhere else,” Gary Roberts said. “I hope all the players enjoy it because when it’s over – it’s over. These are the kinds of memories you have to look back on. You really realize how special this really was.”
Another player who knows what a difference the fans have made is Coffey. He has one final wish for Mellon Arena as this year’s team embarks on the building’s final postseason run.
“Anytime you make it to the playoffs the fans just seem to take it to a whole new level,” Coffey said. “They are like a seventh attacker that really willed the team. I guess the only unfortunate thing, unless they can do it this year, which we are all hoping they can, is win one at home. The fans really deserve to see that Cup won here.”