NASHVILLE — The strongest and clearest link between the Pittsburgh Penguins’ past and present stands on the Bridgestone Arena ice, holding court in both English and French. Eighteen years ago, Mario Lemieux spearheaded an investment group to rescue his beloved franchise from bankruptcy and potential relocation, an unprecedented purchase by an active, not to mention legendary, player. And now, towering over the cameras Sunday night, surveying a Stanley Cup celebration for the second straight June, Lemieux could once more relish in the fruits of his financial faith. “It’s something everyone in the organization can cherish for the rest of our lives,” he says. “It’s very special.”
Of course, Lemieux has been here before. A striking number of his colleagues, as well. Like the two color commentators, one employed by the local television rightsholder and another analyzing over the radio airwaves. There’s the director of player development in the booth, and the assistant coach behind the bench. Even assistant equipment manager Jon Taglianetti—his father Peter was also part of the ‘91 and ‘92 Pittsburgh teams that Lemieux captained to back-to-back titles.
Even if Sidney Crosby and the Penguins hadn’t become this century’s first repeat champions by outlasting Nashville in six games, the memories would’ve rushed back regardless. The 2016–17 season marked the 50th anniversary in franchise history for Pittsburgh, which transformed the winter months into an ongoing reunion. Members from the “Early Years” gathered in October; the ‘09 Cup team assembled on Jan. 8, while an “Alumni Salute” Feb. 3 honored the rest.
And so over the first weekend in December, Lemieux and his former teammates found themselves reverting back to old form, telling the same jokes and pulling the same pranks, just like they had a quarter-century ago. “That’s the beauty,” says former forward Troy Loney. “It’s truly like time stood still.”
“A little more gray, a little more girth,” says center Bryan Trottier, “but the whole thing is just fantastic.” They dined together, toured the locker room, took in a home game against Detroit from the owner’s box, watched compilations of their greatest hits in grainy footage on the video screen. “The welcoming back,” defenseman Jim Paek says, “it gives you goosebumps.”
If so, the stories gave them bellyaches. A favorite dinnertime activity was called “shoe checking,” in which someone snuck under the table, plunked ketchup onto a teammate’s tongue, and then clinked a glass for everyone to see who had been hit. “I did that on [coach] Bob Johnson when we were down 2–1 in the first Cup run,” says former forward Bob Errey. “He loved it because he was one of the boys, but [GM] Scotty Bowman was looking at me, like ‘I’m going to trade this guy.’” Today, Errey offers in-game expertise on Penguins telecasts for Root Sports. But once he dipped Lemieux’s glasses in hot wax while the team leader was occupied on the massage table. “About three coats,” Errey reports. “He couldn’t see anything.”
They remember the thrills and challenges of repeating, too. In both postseasons, Pittsburgh needed seven games to escape the first round, against New Jersey and Washington, respectively. “The playoff atmosphere and the hype, you can’t wait for the next day,” says Trottier, the Hall of Famer who somehow served as the third-line pivot on that loaded roster. “You’re looking forward to the next day so much. You don’t want to be the guy who’s going home. You dig deep, you find a way.”
“It’s hard to keep that much emotion all the time,” Loney says. “Everyone wants a piece of you during the year, so you burn quite a bit of it. We were really good about turning the switch off when a game was done.” Most of this happened inside the team hospitality room at the hotel. “We weren’t having a hundred beers, but we were relaxing and mellowing out.” Individual players were critical in this regard, too; backup goalie Wendell Young only appeared in 18 games each season, but Loney remembers his presence as “like having a team psychologist with you all the time, that calming, reinforcing voice, especially in the playoffs.”
Certainly the Penguins required mental fortitude. Lemieux was sidelined with back issues for most of ‘90-91, though midseason additions like Joe Mullen and Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson fortified the ranks. Then 60 years old, Johnson tragically died of brain cancer that following November, leading Bowman to take over behind the bench. The Penguins struggled at first, but another batch of trades—this time bringing aboard current assistant coach Rick Tocchet, coincidentally enough for Mark Recchi, a front-office official—“woke everyone up, invigorated a different mix and life into the team,” Loney says.
In this regard, Loney draws parallels with Pittsburgh’s current group. Absent defenseman Kris Letang, the workhorse who missed the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery, the blue line nonetheless held together admirably well. Depth forwards like Carter Rowney and Scott Wilson filled in when the likes of Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin battled injuries late in the spring. “Give this group a lot of credit,” Loney says. “They’re very resilient. We didn’t have the injuries like they had.”
And now comes the fun part. The Penguins reveled deep into Sunday night, first at Bridgestone Arena and then at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Nashville, before flying back home on Monday morning. Their predecessors went...harder.
Peter Taglianetti still remembers the ‘90–’91 party at Lemieux’s house, when the Stanley Cup somehow wound up in the bottom of the swimming pool and a small chunk cracked off, because he took 35mm pictures and had them blown up as keepsakes. “It sunk to the bottom,” Taglianetti says, “and nobody could hold their breath long enough to go get it. Pretty hard after however many beers. Plus it’s like 100 pounds once it fills with water.”
The next year, following a four-game sweep of Chicago in the finals, the celebration was held at Three Rivers Stadium. “There was a little bit of a rain delay, so they had the tarp down,” Loney says, “and all of a sudden there’s Trottier running around, sliding on the water with the Stanley Cup.”
Asked for his memories in Nashville, Lemieux goes the serious route. “Well, ‘93 we should’ve won the Cup,” he says. “That was our best team. Didn’t go our way against the Islanders.” Loney argues that Pittsburgh simply ran out of gas. “We rode too high during the year,” he says, “pushing too hard for the Presidents’ Trophy, and Marion in the scoring race. We couldn’t find the next gear.” Such will be the challenge confronting Crosby and Letang and Evgeni Malkin in 2017–18, as they embark on a similar three-peat attempt.
But regardless of the result, count on them all reuniting in 2042–43, when Crosby is 54 years old and Malkin is 55, to reflect on these days and, just maybe, shoe-check each other until their sides split.