You couldn't tell if Warren Young, the Pittsburgh Penguins' rookie left wing, was proposing a toast or philosophizing on life, but it amounted to the same thing. Sitting down to lunch the other day, he held up his glass of milk, glanced reverently at a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder and said, "Live the moment."
That, explains Young, is the philosophy of survival taught him by Gene Ubriaco, his coach for the last four years of his seemingly dead-end, five-season, four-city minor league career. It was an attitude that sustained him while he rode buses to nowhere and skated on lines that seemed to have Frustration on one wing and Discouragement on the other. "Gene's idea of getting the most out of what you're doing today and not worrying about tomorrow is one of the things that kept me going," says Young. That perseverance has finally made him, at age 29, the oldest rookie in the NHL. Young is senior to the average NHL player by 3½ years, and all but three of his teammates, some of whom, predictably, call him Warren Old, are younger.
But he is more than just the league's oldest rookie; he is one of its best. At week's end, he led all rookies in goals, with 26 (including a penalty shot at Toronto earlier this month), was third in points (44), led the entire league in shooting percentage (35.6) and led Pittsburgh in plus-minus ratings with a plus-13. Young is a major reason why the Penguins, the worst team in the NHL for the last two seasons, are currently 18-21-4, for 40 points, two points more than they came up with all last season. Pittsburgh has become a legitimate contender in the three-way race with New Jersey and the New York Rangers for the Patrick Division's fourth and final playoff berth. Unfortunately, none of his contributions save Young from the good-natured taunts of his teammates.
"We're not going to shave Warren's hair," says team captain Mike Bullard of the standard rookie initiation rite, "because at his age it might not grow back."
Young was trying to control the future, not live the moment, when he left his Toronto home and the Tier II Jr. A Dixie Beehives to accept a hockey scholarship at Michigan Tech in 1974. Though he was a fourth-round choice of the California Golden Seals in 1975, Young chose to finish college, earning a B.S. in management in 1979. After college, Young's hockey career became a depressing odyssey of bus rides and bag lunches through minor league stints in Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Oklahoma City again, Nashville, Birmingham and, finally, back to Baltimore. A full circle of frustration.
"All those years and I kept wondering, 'Can I do it? Can I play in the NHL?' " he says. "If I'd made the NHL and failed, then I'd have quit and not worried. But never getting a chance to know was always a bother to me. It's tough to go through life not knowing."
Young's rights were owned by Minnesota, and he was called up for just five games with the North Stars in the '81-82 and '82-83 seasons. He sounds more frustrated than bitter when he says, "I don't call five games in four years a chance."
Neither did Ubriaco, who coached Young at Baltimore, Nashville and Birmingham. "The criticism of Warren was always that he had to work on his skating," says Ubriaco, "but he's got great hands, can handle the puck well, he's tough and he can score."
When Ubriaco left the Minnesota system in 1983 to become a minor league coach with the Penguins, he persuaded Pittsburgh to sign Young, then a free agent. "I told Warren he'd get a chance with Pittsburgh, but at his age he wouldn't get too many."
Chance No. 1 came early last season. And Young blew it. In 14 games with the Pens, Young had one goal and, in December, one ticket back to Baltimore. "At 27 I figured that was it," he says. Young, who is single, says that if he were married he might have packed it in right there. "Can you imagine knocking around the minors that long with a wife and family?"
It was Ubriaco and Young's mother, Arleene, who kept him going after that seemingly final demotion. "I knew Warren still loved to play, so I told him to enjoy it and stay with it another year," says Ubriaco. Live the moment.
"He'd call and be down in the dumps," says Young's father, Warren Sr., "but his mother would say, 'God doesn't close a door but that He opens a window.' "
The window opened a crack on March 29, 1984, when the Pens recalled Young for one game against the Rangers in New York. "That was what did it," says Pittsburgh general manager Ed Johnston. "Their defenseman, Steve Richmond, was running a lot of our guys, and Warren stood up to him. Fought him. Beat him pretty good. A lot of guys would've said, 'Why should I stick my nose in when I know I'm going back down tomorrow?' Warren got involved." Warren lived the moment.
"When they invited me to camp in September, I thought it was my last chance," says Young.
"It was really his first chance," says Johnston. "The first time he got a serious look."
Though his skating has not improved that much—Young got old fast but he didn't get fast old—he altered his style to take better advantage of his 6'3", 195-pound body. "Coming out of college, I wanted to be known only as a skillful hockey player," he says. "But if you're a big guy and you won't fight and take the body, they'll take advantage of you. It dawned on me last year that the physical stuff—body-checking, not just fighting—is another part of the game. It has to be done."
Young's ability to finish a check as well as a play impressed Pittsburgh's new coach, Bob Berry, who says he decided to keep Warren after this training-camp conversation:
Berry: "What can you contribute to the team?"
Young: "I can forecheck and bodycheck."
Berry: "Can you score 50 goals?"
Young: "No, but I can score 30 or 35."
Berry: "If you can do the second part without forgetting about the first, you've got a job."
So far, Young has kept his end of the bargain. Playing on a line centered by the gifted and vastly more publicized 19-year-old rookie Mario Lemieux, Young is not only getting his share of goals, but is also enhancing Lemieux's skills with his style of play. Indeed, it was Lemieux who requested that Young be his leftwinger.
"He handles the puck so well he makes room for me," says Lemieux. That was obvious in the second period of a 6-5 win over the Islanders recently. Moving left to right into the slot, Young took a pass from Lemieux, but instead of taking advantage of a good scoring opportunity, Young turned in traffic and passed back to Lemieux, who had a better chance. Mario popped it in.
It was an unselfish play by an unselfish man to the teammate who may well beat him out as the league's Rookie of the Year.
"Rookie of the Year?" says Young. "I don't even think about stuff like that. This year my only goal was to finally see if I could play in the National Hockey League."
Who knows what the next moment may bring.