The Pittsburgh Penguins have been blessed with some of the most talented players to ever grace a slab of ice. Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jaromir Jagr highlight a rich history of Penguins’ skaters representing the best of their generations.
As fortunate as Pittsburgh has been on the ice, they have been even more blessed to have a long line of fantastic individuals choosing to take up residence in western Pennsylvania.
In the year 2018, it has never been easier to evaluate a player with an educated, detailed analysis of their overall value to a franchise. Technology such as DVR and television streaming services has given fans the ability to review video in ways that would make many coaches envious.
Then there are advanced statistics: a valuable tool that is unfortunately dismissed by a large portion of hockey fans. Shot attempts—better known as Corsi—and all of the supporting metrics give a fairly clear picture of how a player performs on the ice, and how he impacts his teammates.
All of the wonderful tools available to us go a long way toward making a far more educated fan base. But while this information brings a lot of value to the sport, I fear the manner in which these statistics are being used (and sometimes shoved down our throats) is taking away one of the most basic, yet important aspects of the game: appreciating the people and personalities surrounding their beloved franchises.
Skill & Statistics Alone Do Not Endear Players to Fans
Sidney Crosby is the face of the Penguins, and if we are being honest, the entire league. He has accomplished things during his career that a Hollywood scriptwriter would consider too far-fetched to be believed. Hockey historians will remember Crosby as one of the best to ever play the game, but let’s face it, Sid can be pretty boring. You can bet at a media scrum, you will hear an abundance of stale, canned answers. On top of that, we really don’t know much about him away from the game, other than that he is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
The inspiration for this article was a series of Tweets that the Penguins posted featuring Matt Cullen and his children wearing Penguins garb, watching baseball, and playing a game of hockey in their carpeted basement. People are truly happy to see ‘Dad’ back in a Penguins’ uniform, and in most cases, their reasons have nothing to do with statistics.
I can’t think of any particular instances that Cullen did anything out of the ordinary to earn adoration, but he presents himself as a man who loves the game of hockey and is a hard-working family man in a city that appreciates those qualities.
Last season was not a banner year for the 41-year-old center, and from a hockey standpoint, the decision to bring him back to the organization is questionable at best. But much of the fan base is thrilled that he is back, and who among us has the right to tell another how to enjoy the game? Corsi numbers be damned; if watching Cullen wear black and gold brings happiness to people, that’s alright by me.
Players Are Human, Not Fictional Characters
The first live NHL game that I ever attended was the Penguins versus the Flyers on April 1, 1995; I was 13 years old and in awe of the situation. I had been obsessed with the video game NHL ’95, collected hockey cards, and watched each game religiously on television. These players were larger than life to me, yet there they were in the flesh.
Ron Francis, Jagr, Luc Robitaille, and the hated Eric Lindros on the ‘Legion of Doom’ line. The battle between my childhood heroes and villains playing out before me was truly surreal.
As I have grown and been around the game more in many different capacities, the evidence has piled up that these players put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.
In recent years I have attended several Penguins prospect development camps and witnessed the youthful excitement of a new crop of players getting their first taste of NHL hockey. I have talked to family members seeking any morsel of information regarding their young man’s continuing journey. Years of hard work, sacrifice, and 4:00 a.m. trips to the ice rink have led them to this point, and they wanted to relish every moment of it.
I have seen Marc-Andre Fleury go out of his way to make fans happy by signing autographs and taking pictures for an hour after practice had ended. We have all watched Crosby show up unannounced at a youth hockey camp or a children’s hospital. These are just people making their way through life while making the most of the opportunity that they have earned with sweat and tears.
A prime example springs to mind that shows a lack of sympathy towards these athletes that put everything on the line for our entertainment:
Jack Johnson, who was recently signed by the Penguins, has received a fair amount of abuse over the years from social media and certain corners of the internet. His reception in Pittsburgh has been disappointing, to say the least. Criticize his play, critique his advanced statistics, even question the wisdom of his contract length and value. But some took it too far, poking fun at the defender for his financial woes regarding his parents. Even the reaction to his play was a bit over the top. Time will tell if general manager Jim Rutherford was wiser than the rest of us and will reap the rewards of a good signing, but you can be sure that Johnson will do his best on every shift to prove him right.
Personalities Frequently Create Hockey Fans
I have friends that are die-hard hockey fans who think that icing is something that they put on their Cinnabon. They watch the game for certain players and their personalities. Fleury, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, and even Colby Armstrong have been cited as reasons that they fell in love with the game.
There are many people in this world who follow the game for similar reasons. I asked my followers on Twitter to share some of their experiences with players that engaged them as fans to the greatest game on earth. Here are a couple of examples:
I am a hockey fanatic, my husband a casual fan until Phil Kessel came to Pgh. His being a supremely talented American combined w/ the underdog nature of Phil’s story appealed to my husband…now a proud owner of several #81 sweaters & he watches games w/o me! A win all around.
— Debi Porter-Dremak (@DebiPD) July 30, 2018
The day Eddie O got fired I had my daughter and nephew at that practice. Media everywhere. Sid and Mario spent 1/2 hr doing pics and autographs with each kid there before addressing the media. That’s how you build a fan base.
— Flipper (@Flipper628) July 31, 2018
Every hockey fan should love hearing stories like these. Regardless of their status as a player, anyone from an All-Star, to a lowly grinder can be an ambassador of the game.
Quite a few people have offered their stories of favorite player moments over the years that they fondly remember to this day.
One person was inspired to play the game because of Joe Mullen playing roller hockey as a youth in Hell’s Kitchen. He recalled that when Mullen made a return to the Penguins later in his career, the American-born forward could barely skate. But just seeing his favorite player back on his favorite team was wonderful. In fact, a 2014 Bleacher Report article quoted below agrees that Mullen is one of the most beloved players in Penguins’ history.
Dubbed “Slippery Rock Joe” by legendary announcer Mike Lange for his amazing ability to take hits and maintain control of the puck, Mullen was a native of New York City but soon became identified with Slippery Rock University in Western Pennsylvania.
Another fan loved the antics of Tyler Wright and is now a Blue Jackets fan rather than a Penguins fan after Columbus selected him in the expansion draft.
Surprisingly, several people have told me that a car commercial on television featuring Malkin, Armstrong, Talbot, and Sergei Gonchar helped turn them from casual fans into emotionally invested die-hards.
The one that I was impressed the most with was a person who cited Lemieux as their reason for being a Penguins fan. Not because of his skill on the ice, or even being the savior of the franchise multiple times, but for beating cancer and being a champion for others with that affliction.
Hockey truly is the greatest game on the planet, and it deserves every opportunity to be enjoyed by the masses.
My Dad, who grew up in the 50s and 60s, told me stories of listening to Pittsburgh Pirates games on the radio and keeping the box scores in a notebook. The numbers are what drew him to baseball; I know many that do similar things with hockey and love the statistical side of the game.
Some fans are the ‘jacks-of-all-trades’ who love the game, the storylines, the skill of the players, and the personalities. They want to get the full experience of loving the game for every reason that they can.
Then there are those who follow because Fleury and Chris Kunitz took a picture with their infant child (that would be my wife).
Enjoy the game how you want to enjoy it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t root for a player because he has bad possession numbers. If that’s your guy, stick up for him.
The Penguins have been lucky enough to feature some of the best players, people, and personalities in hockey history. They made the franchise one of champions.
The city of Pittsburgh is lucky to have you, the fans. In a city with a sports foundation laid by Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Terry Bradshaw, and “Mean” Joe Greene; you made it “Hockey Tahn USA”.
Until next time.