Chris Thorburn and Karl Stewart are easy-going guys.
And, they adapt quickly to change.
That’s a good thing because Thorburn and Stewart have had to take a crash course in Penguins Hockey 101.
While most new players familiarize themselves with their teammates, coaches and playing system during training camp, Thorburn and Stewart did not have that luxury – here, at least.
Sure, the two worked hard on and off the ice during the grueling September days leading up to the NHL season.
Problem is, they did it in different cities – Thorburn in Buffalo and Stewart in Anaheim.
So, when they joined the Penguins in Pittsburgh via the waiver wire, Stewart (claimed Sept. 27) and Thorburn (Oct. 3) had a lot of catching up to do.
“It was nerve-wracking coming in, but the guys in the locker room really helped me out,” Thorburn said. “They are great guys. They took me under their wing and showed me around. The coaching staff has been great, too – really informative. I feel comfortable, but I think I have a little longer to get jelled into the mold of the organization.”
Stewart, a feisty center, was thrilled when he found out he was coming to Pittsburgh.
“I was so excited that these guys picked me up. I watched Mario Lemieux growing up,” he said. “Just being a part of this organization and doing whatever I can to help this team win is a dream come true.”
After all, the Toronto-area native grew up rooting for the Penguins when he wasn’t watching the Maple Leafs.
“My first hockey jersey ever was a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey,” Stewart said. “I remember watching them win Stanley Cups in the early 1990s. I grew up a Maple Leafs fan, obviously coming from Toronto, but with Mario Lemieux being the player he was, I just followed him. It was awesome meeting him when I came here. It was an amazing experience and it’s just amazing to be here.”
Thorburn, a gritty 6-foot-3 center, was surprised he wound up in Pittsburgh. He got a good look at his future team after the Penguins and Sabres battled in preseason games on consecutive nights (Sept. 29, 30) just before he was claimed.
“I was shocked. I never really went through the whole [waiver] process before,” he said. “To meet a whole new bunch of guys was a change; I am not really that outgoing. But, they have been great to me and I am really appreciative of it.
“I had a couple buddies, the Fata brothers, who played through the system [in Pittsburgh] and they told me about it,” he continued. “As soon as they found out I was claimed, they gave me a shout and told me it was a great place. I had an open mind coming here and I just thank the organization for giving me a second opportunity and chance to play in this league.”
While the adaptation process was formidable so close to the Penguins’ season-opener on Oct. 5, at least Thorburn and Stewart got through it together. And, it wasn’t the first time the two called themselves teammates. Both played for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League during the 2002-03 season.
“Thorby and I played in Plymouth. It’s kind of nice that we know each other from the past,” Stewart said. “It makes things a lot easier as far as getting comfortable in the room.”
In addition, the Penguins’ veterans have welcomed the newcomers.
“Every day I feel more comfortable in the room,” Stewart said. “Mark Recchi and Johnny LeClair are great veterans to talk to and they sure make you feel comfortable.”
Both 23-year-olds have meshed well with the Penguins’ talented young core.
“You look around the room and we have a few 18- and 19-year-olds. I am 23 and I am probably one of the older guys in here,” Stewart said with a laugh. “This team is young and there is a great core. We’re just sticking to a great system. This team is going to be really good for years to come.”
Thorburn believes the mix of solid veterans and exciting young talent creates an ideal environment in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a great mold with the veteran leadership. You grow up watching guys like John LeClair and Mark Recchi and now you’re sitting beside them in the locker room,” he said. “It’s just great. They have so much information to share and they have done that. With the younger guys, they just work hard. Everyone in here has bright futures and that bodes well for the team.”
Both Thorburn and Stewart have been working hard to apply their talents in the Penguins’ system and prove themselves at the NHL level.
Buffalo drafted Thorburn in the second round (50th overall) of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He played in two games with the Sabres last season and had one assist and seven penalty minutes.
“I met with the coaches when I first got here and they expressed to me to work hard and I wouldn’t have a problem,” Thorburn said. “I am just trying to do that and also work smart and trying to follow the systems because that will help me as well as a team.”
“I just try to go up and down and work on my wall and get pucks in and out and block shots and just play the grind. If that’s what they need, I can do that. I just hope I can fulfill their expectations as well as mine.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta signed Stewart as a free agent in 2001. He played in five games for the Thrashers in the 2003-04 season and appeared in eight games last season. He was dealt to the Ducks in August before the Penguins claimed him on waivers when he was designated for assignment to the American Hockey League.
“I play hard. I wouldn’t call myself a dirty player or anything, but when I am on the ice, I give 110 percent and I am going to forecheck hard and take the body whenever possible,” he said. “That usually doesn’t sit well with the other team. They usually take a disliking to me. Whenever I get the opportunity, I am going to make the best of it. For now, I am going to keep the room positive and practice hard and make the team better however I can.”
Both rookies have been impressed with Pittsburgh as well as Penguins fans.
“I love the city. It’s nice to see, especially with the fall colors,” Thorburn said. “The fans are crazy for hockey here; it’s great.”
Added Stewart: “I think it’s a beautiful city. This city is definitely hockey literate. They are smart and they know the game. From what I see the last couple games, these fans really know the game and they seem like great fans to play in front of.”