The Pittsburgh Penguins are more than just a hockey organization, they're a family. This was extremely evident on Oct. 15, when the Pens welcomed 27 alumni from the first decade of the franchise to commemorate the "Early Years" as part of the team's 50th season celebration.
"A lot of things have changed over the years," said general manager Jim Rutherford - who played for the Pens from 1971-74 - during a special luncheon before the game. "The arena has changed, the players have changed, the names of the players have changed, but one thing will never change - the great memories we have made in this organization."
Many of the alumni haven't seen each other since their time in Pittsburgh, but it didn't stop them from quickly rekindling those old friendships.
"It's been about 48 years since I've seen everybody," said Paul Andrea, a right wing who played for the Pens from 1967-69. "It was like a homecoming. We all met yesterday at the hotel. I haven't seen these guys in a long time, but it was great. Hats off to the Penguins organization for inviting us back, it's a great thrill."
"We don't do this too often," added Denis Herron, who stood in goal for the Pens for 10 seasons between 1972 and 1986. "And to see all the old guys and just share memories and stories means a lot. Last night I was with Ken Schinkel and telling stories and everything, it was so fun."
The attendees spent the day at PPG Paints Arena, attending the team's morning skate, meeting the current roster and being honored in a ceremony before the Pens' game against the Anaheim Ducks. The guys even received personalized jerseys with the Pens' 50th season anniversary logo on the front and their names and numbers on the back.
"They're beautiful," said Ab McDonald, the Penguins' first team captain. "A little different than the baby blue we had 50 years ago, but they're beautiful sweaters and they're nice and light."
The alumni noticed more than just a change in the jerseys - they also saw a definitive transformation in the sport and its athletes.
"It's nice to see the young guys today and how hockey has sped up," said Les Binkley, who was the Pens' first-ever goaltender from 1967-72 and later became a scout for the 91-92 Cup team. "They're bigger, stronger, faster than we were at that time."
The special guests were also thrilled to see how the franchise has grown over its 50 years from a team facing bankruptcy and empty seats to a thriving organization with over 400 consecutive sellouts and four Stanley Cups.
"It's great, we won four Cups here. Unfortunately, I didn't play on any of them," Andrea laughed. "But we're always proud Penguins. I watch a lot of hockey still and I'm interested in the Penguins. 'Sid' Crosby is from Nova Scotia, where I'm from, and we're always glad to see him do well. It's been great."
Crosby has another fan from the very first Penguins roster in McDonald, who never doubted the current captain's ability last season, even when the team struggled.
"What are those crazy people talking about?" said McDonald in response to early criticism of Crosby last year. "And seeing what happened, that guy played so well down the stretch and then he comes back again this year and wins the World Cup. That guy is the best player in the world and when I heard them say he's finished I was like no, no."
While the alumni spent the day at current rink among this season's players and fans, they mostly reminisced about their days with the Penguins organization.
"Just being with the Penguins was a great memory," Andrea said. "I got to play with Andy Bathgate, who was a tremendous hockey player and Hall of Famer. I was able to play with him and Ab McDonald on a line. It was a tremendous thrill just being here."
"Just coming here in the early years, it was like a big happy family," added Duane Rupp, a former defenseman who played for the Pens from 1969-74. "In a new city it was always like that, players stuck together. That's one of the biggest things I remember, just being so close to everybody."
However, some stories remain solely between the players, with many of the alumni joking that their best memories are ones they can't share even after 50 years.
"I could tell you a lot, but I'm not," Rupp said with a laugh when asked to share any stories from his time with the Pens.
Having the alumni at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday wasn't just a great experience for those honored, but an amazing chance for the current rosters to interact with the players and staff who helped make the Penguins the franchise they are today.
"I think it's a great opportunity for both the alumni and our players," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "One of the things I really respect about our game is that I think our current players have a lot of respect for the players that have come before them and have paved the way. I think all of our players are history buffs in the sense they're passionate about the game and they're aware of the past generations and what those players have accomplished."
The pregame ceremony included a video highlighting the franchise's 50 years, allowing the alumni to have a final moment of reflection before having their names and positions called out - just like the good old days.
"That was great," said Art Stratton, who played left wing for the Pens during their inaugural season. "It's a whole new era and it's a whole new system out there now. I got to hand it to the Penguins, they have a really good system right now as far as everything they have. They have so much more than when I played. It's really good now."
"I find it hard to believe it was 50 years ago we were here," McDonald said. "It's amazing. It's great to be back, it really is."