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Pens recall back-to-back titles

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins drafted 18-year-old phenom Mario Lemieux in the summer of 1984 with the hopes that the rising star would not only save the franchise from extinction, but also lead it to the mountaintop. 

It took several years and a strong supporting cast around Lemieux, but that promise was delivered when the Pens claimed back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and '92.

"That was my goal when I came here in '84, to win a few Stanley Cups for the city of Pittsburgh," Lemieux said. "I was fortunate to win two as a player."

The Pens will honor those Cup teams prior to their Saturday contest against the Detroit Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena with many of the players and staff returning for a day's worth of events.  

It's amazing to think that it was 25 years ago that Pittsburgh pulled off those back-to-back championships.

Lemieux had dethroned Wayne Gretzky as the best player in the NHL by wresting away the league's scoring title in the late 80s, but it wasn't until the arrival of players like Paul Coffey, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens and Bryan Trottier that the Pens took the ultimate step to true contenders.

But something was missing.

"It was interesting because we had a lot of talent," said Craig Patrick, the Pens general manager from 1989-06. "They had Coffey, (Tom) Barrasso, Mario, Kevin Stevens, it was a good group of guys here. But the chemistry wasn't very good. We needed to change the chemistry."

Patrick made several deals throughout the '90-91 season, obtaining players like Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy and of course Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from Hartford at the trade deadline.

"Eddie Johnston was the GM in Hartford and he called me and said, 'I've been told I have to trade Ronnie Francis,'" Patrick said. "So I said, 'Well, we're interested.' We went back and forth for a couple weeks and he threw in Ulf. Right away you could tell the difference in our locker room because Ulfie and Ronnie were such great leaders."

Pittsburgh won its first division title and would defeat New Jersey (4-3), Washington (4-1), Boston (4-2) and Minnesota (4-2) en route to the city's first Stanley Cup title, providing endless memories along the way.

"The best part about it was after games we would sit in one of they guy's rooms, have a couple beers, talk about the game, talk about everything," Recchi recalled. "Those were the fun parts. We always stuck together."

"It's emotional to be involved in a run like that because so much goes through your mind," Phil Bourque said. "A lot goes back to your family and your childhood, all the teammates and coaches that got you to this point, all the people who said, 'ahh that Bourque guy, he'll never make it.' So it all comes back, all those emotions in a 30-second span."

The following season the Pens were an early favorite to contend once again for a championship. However, the team stumbled to start the season.

"I think a lot of teams that win the Cup have a little bit of a hangover the next year. We certainly did," Patrick said. "I was still looking for more character and to bolster the defense."

Patrick pulled the trigger on a three-way deal, trading Coffey and Recchi in exchange for Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, Ken Wregget and Jeff Chychrun. The Pens would overcome a 3-1 series deficit against Washington, the loss of Lemieux against the NY Rangers and then a double sweep of Boston and Chicago to claim its second Stanley Cup in as many seasons.

"Back-to-back was awesome. It was great," Patrick said. "Not many teams get to do that. It made everybody in the city proud because now we're champions, legitimate champions. It wasn't a fluke."

"I think that the teams we had, we were very close," Lemieux said. "The chemistry was right. We had a good mix of young players and the veterans that came in to help us out, teach us how to win. Everybody got along and we were just a big family."

Even new arrivals like Tocchet felt the family atmosphere.

"That team and that leadership was real close," he said. "It was a fun team. Guys would go out together, a lot of dinners. I think that closeness really helped us."

The Pens went from lovable losers to two-time Stanley Cup champions. And no man may have been more instrumental in that transformation than head coach "Badger" Bob Johnson.

Johnson's optimistic attitude and close personal relationships with the players left a mark that will never be forgotten.

"He's marked all of us throughout our careers," Lemieux said. "He taught us a lot about the game and how to approach the game and how to win."

Johnson led the Pens to their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history. But unfortunately he wasn't around to see their second. Just three months after lifting the Cup, Johnson was diagnosed with brain cancer. He left us in November of that year.

"It was devastating to all of us," Lemieux said. "Bob was an amazing person first of all. Great coach, always positive."

"He cared about you as a person," Bob Errey said. "It was the questions he asked you away from hockey. 'Did you get your oatmeal this morning?' 'Did you get that station wagon you've been talking about?' It was those kind of interactions that I remember."

Johnson not only left his mark on the team, franchise and players, but his optimistic expression still survives his passing. Pens players for generations to come will walk out of the locker room in Pittsburgh and before taking the ice they'll see carved on the wall the embodiment of Johnson's philosophy on life:

"It's a great day for hockey."

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