Too bad, Pittsburgh. Just when the Penguins produce a winning hockey team, just when a 19-year-old named Pierre Larouche is as big an autograph in the Golden Triangle as Franco Harris or Willie Stargell, just when scholarly Goaltender Gary Inness pulls a Mazeroski on another team from New York, just when Dave Burrows perfects his Mean Joe Greene act on defense, they all may be departing for Denver or Seattle—and not just for a short holiday.
On the ice the Pittsburgh franchise has become as solid as the vaults at Mellon Bank. The Penguins, who in seven previous seasons never had come close to winning as many games as they lost, started this season as a no-name gang plus Vic Hadfield. Eighty games later they were at 37-28-15, the sixth-best regular-season record in the 18-team NHL. And along the way some of the no-names lost their anonymity, e.g.: Center Sy1 Apps, MVP in the All-Star Game; the irrepressible M. Larouche, the league's flashiest rookie; the fidgety Inness, who leads Ken Dryden three degrees to two in hockey's brain race; and the sturdy Burrows, the game's best defensive defenseman. In the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs the Penguins briskly dispatched the hated St. Louis Blues in two straight games. Then, thanks to Inness' uncanny stand-up shot blocking, they streaked to three straight wins over the New York Islanders last week, but the Islanders staved off elimination Sunday afternoon with a 3-1 victory.
Off the ice the Penguins are an endangered species. The club is more than $3 million deep in red ink, not including its delinquencies to the NHL, and will be moved to either Denver or Seattle at the end of the playoffs unless team President Tad Potter finds fresh investors. "I don't dare go out to lunch anymore," says Potter. "I've got to stay close to my phone in case a potential buyer calls. My close friend Peter Burchfield, my mother, my cousin and her husband, my aunt and I have 66% of the stock and, thus, control of the team. The rest of the ownership is well spread out. In fact, 25 guys own a total of 5%, and I know they're scattered all over the country. At the start I tried to solve the financial problems in such a way that I could retain control, but I'm afraid it's not possible. In today's financial climate no investor will pour $3 million into something without acquiring control. So I'm ready to bite the bullet."
Back in January the NHL leaked word that the Pittsburgh franchise would be transferred if there were not an immediate upsurge in both attendance at the Civic Arena and investor interest shown by local moneymen. When he returned from the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty called a breakfast meeting of civic leaders and organized a "Save the Penguins" drive. His wife Nancy took an office alongside Potter's and spent weeks phoning the presidents of local companies, imploring them to purchase blocks of tickets for the remaining Penguin games. Nancy's sweet talk obviously worked, for Pittsburgh's average attendance jumped from 10,117 to 12,885 for the last 17 games. Better still, the Penguins have attracted capacity-plus crowds of more than 13,000 for each of their three home playoff games.
But local investors are still not reaching for their wallets. "I don't understand it," Potter says. "The club's going well, they're adding 3,000 seats to the building, and still nothing has happened here. The three groups I'm talking to now are from Philadelphia, Seattle and New York. Who knows what they'll do if they buy control?"
There are no hidden reasons for the financial plight of the Penguins. The small capacity of the Civic Arena ensures nickel-and-dime-sized profits even with full houses, and in 1972, when the NHLWHA war inflated player salaries more than 100%, the Penguins began to report annual losses of up to $1 million. The club's cash-flow position is so bad that it recently held a flea-market sale of used equipment, pulling more than $2,500. At the same time the Penguins were an inferior product on the ice until crafty Jack Button took over as general manager midway through the 1973-74 season and brought in fiery Marc Boileau as coach.
"We were hardly an entertaining team," Button says. "We had Burrows on defense and the line of Apps, [Jean] Pronovost and [Lowell] MacDonald. That was all." Living on the phone, Button acquired tough guys Bob (Battleship) Kelly, Steve Durbano and Bob Paradise, and for the first time the Penguins started to hit back. Inness was moved up from Canadian college ranks after a short stop in Hershey; then Button obtained Vic Hadfield and his $200,000-per-year contract from the New York Rangers.
"What we still didn't have," Button says, "was a player who would get the fans out of their seats. We had a lot of good steady hockey players, the guys you need to win. We didn't have anyone with flair." Enter Pierre Larouche of Amos, Quebec.
Larouche has flair. He was 18 years old at the time of the draft and the Montreal Canadiens called to say that they were thinking about making him one of their five first-round picks. "Don't bother," Larouche said. "If you draft me, you'll send me right to the minor leagues. I'm good enough to play in the NHL now. If you draft me, I'll sign with the World Hockey Association." Forewarned, the Canadiens passed on Larouche, and Button made him Pittsburgh's No. 1 selection and the eighth pick in the entire draft. Two days later Button received a telegram: YOU ARE INVITED TO ATTEND THE FIRST ANNUAL PIERRE LAROUCHE INVITATIONAL GOLF TOURNAMENT IN AMOS, OUEBEC. BRING YOUR OWN CLUBS. PIERRE.
Larouche, who carries a one handicap, introduced himself to the Penguins by beating Hadfield, a golf pro in the offseason, in the club's training-camp tournament. "Vic said I cheated, that I moved the ball with my foot in the rough," Larouche says. "So we played again, and I beat him again. He had another excuse that time, but I forget what it was."
In Pittsburgh the baby-faced Larouche naturally has been the target of many of his teammates' jokes. One day Battleship Kelly invited Larouche to join him for a postpractice drink at the Jamestown Inn. When the waiter brought them their beers, Kelly warned him not to serve Larouche because he was under age. Another day Paradise complained that Boileau had scheduled a 2 p.m. practice because "Pierre doesn't get out of school until 1:30." However, when the needling gets too personal, Larouche will silence a mate like Hadfield by reminding him, "When I was a little kid, Vic, I used to watch you on television."
Larouche has what the gentlelady who covers hockey for The New York Times calls a "fetching" look, and he quickly captivated the crowds in Pittsburgh with his smooth skating, precise stick handling and quick, hard shots. There is some Jean Beliveau in his erect skating stride, some Stan Mikita in his deft moves with a stick and some Phil Esposito in his quick reactions around the net. Playing regularly between Kelly and Chuck Arnason, Larouche scored 31 goals and had 37 assists for 68 points to lead the NHL rookies. "Like most young kids," he says, "I'm a little cocky. Hey, I believe in myself. Am I the best rookie? Sure I am. Why should I say that someone else is the best rookie?"
Near the end of the season a radio station sponsored a "Date with Pierre" contest in which the winner would indeed get a date with Larouche. There were more than 1,500 entrants, including grandmothers, mothers, daughters and a 4-year-old girl who informed Pierre that her measurements were 24-28-26. Larouche met the winner, 20-year-old Karen Ahearn, a secretary, at center ice. "And what is it," the announcer asked, "that a young Frenchman would say to a girl on their very first date?" Larouche laughed. "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" he said unabashedly. Maybe Pittsburgh's not ready for little Pierre.