The ice in Pittsburgh was thick with caps after
one-size-fits-all showers honored the three-goal performances of
Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux last Saturday night. Of course
the ritual hat tributes were classier than the tossed octopuses
or the plastic rats that are the rage in other cities this
playoff spring, but they did scant justice to Jagr and Lemieux,
who are as formidable a pair as Death and Taxes. As glum New
York Rangers coach Colin Campbell noted after Jagr and Lemieux
torched his team in the 7-3 win that propelled the Penguins into
the Eastern Conference finals, they are the two best players in
the world. Actually, the Rangers played Jagr and Lemieux dead
even--they scored 15 goals and Death and Taxes scored 15 in the
five-game series. The key man for Pittsburgh, even in Lemieux's
judgment, was neither he nor Jagr.
Penguins goaltender Ken Wregget defines his job this way: "I
don't play unless something happens." Well, something happened,
and it was more unexpected than Lemieux backchecking.
Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie, Tom Barrasso, suffered back spasms in
the Penguins' first-round series against the Washington
Capitals, and Wregget, a virtual career backup, became the hot
playoff goaltender of 1996. While winning seven of eight games
in the first two rounds, Wregget allowed an average of 2.00
goals per game and had the NHL's second-best postseason save
percentage, at .941. The Rangers had girded themselves for Jagr
and Lemieux, but they had to fake esteem for a goalie who
stopped 77 shots in 3-2 and 4-1 Penguins wins in Games 3 and 4
in New York and who made every big save at every big moment when
the series returned to Pittsburgh for the clincher. Wregget
isn't the best goalie in the world--those are his words--but
time in this Cinderella story has stopped at 11:59 p.m.
The obvious question for Barrasso is "Have you heard about Lou
Gehrig and Wally Pipp?" but for more than a year he hasn't
spoken to journalists, other than to say "Move" if they get near
his locker, so the answer will have to wait. Wregget has a
different temperament from tight-lipped Tom. Naturally the
Penguins say they are equally confident playing in front of
either Barrasso or Wregget, but if the topic were which you
would rather share a meal or play a round of golf with, some of
the Pittsburgh players might express a preference. "Different
type of guys, like night and day," says Penguins goalie coach
Gilles Meloche. Wregget is most definitely day.
Pittsburgh media relations director Harry Sanders says the
32-year-old Wregget is everybody's neighbor--probably an
overstatement considering there are more than 250 million people
in the U.S. and Jagr looks like the only Penguin who could be
everywhere at once--but Wregget certainly seems to be
everybody's neighbor in the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St.
Clair. The lawns are manicured. The minivans are in the
driveways. This is the most serene neighborhood outside of Mr.
Rogers'. Jim Senge, a computer consultant who lives with his
wife and family next door to Ken and Susan Wregget, says Ken
helps shovel neighbors' driveways, brings other kids along when
he makes McDonald's runs with his two kids, Matthew, 3, and
Courtney, 2, and takes on all comers in ball-hockey games in his
driveway. The kids on the block always want to know if Ken can
come out and play, but, Senge says, "we don't allow them to ask."
"I bring my kids to the mall like everybody else," says Wregget.
"You go to the mall and somebody recognizes you, you don't blow
them off. If you do, the next time you're in the mall there will
be 10 people pointing fingers at you. Maybe I'm just a regular
guy who thinks people are people and people are good."
Wregget, as the French say, feels good in his skin, but this
wasn't always true. He had trouble being a second banana even if
he had no trouble eating a second banana. In 1984-85, Wregget's
first full season in the NHL, he came to the Toronto Maple
Leafs' training camp weighing 197 pounds and left weighing 207.
One day in practice Toronto center Bill Derlago tied a doughnut
to his stick and baited Wregget with it. "That was a long time
ago," says Wregget, who battled Allan Bester for the starter's
job before becoming the Leafs' No. 1 goalie in '86-87. Despite a
couple of mediocre seasons with less-than-mediocre Toronto,
Wregget was still so highly prized that in '89 the Philadelphia
Flyers gave up two No. 1 draft choices for him even though
Philly only wanted him as a backup to Ron Hextall.
"I've never actually lost a No. 1 job," Wregget says. This is
true. But he has never seized one beyond all doubt, either. He
had his moments--the Flyers started Wregget in Game 7 of the
second round in 1989, and he shocked the Penguins 4-1, which at
least gave him credibility in Pittsburgh when he was traded
cross-state three years later--but he was streaky. After his
first season behind Barrasso, Wregget assessed his career. He
decided he didn't want to be one of those players who always
felt dissatisfied. If he was going to take backup money and play
backup minutes, he would work hard to be ready when those
minutes came. "I was tired of yelling and banging on doors,"
Wregget says. "It didn't work for me."
Still, after leading the NHL with 25 wins in the
lockout-shortened 1995 season when Barrasso missed all but two
games with a wrist injury, Wregget couldn't resist banging a
little. He expressed his frustration last October to Pittsburgh
general manager Craig Patrick and coach Ed Johnston because it
was apparent he was still No. 2. Patrick counseled patience,
telling Wregget his time would come.
That time came at about 8:30 p.m. on April 24, at the beginning
of the second period of Game 4 against the Capitals when
Barrasso couldn't continue because of the back spasms. Some five
hours and 45 minutes later, after the third-longest game in NHL
history, Wregget skated off a star. He had stopped virtually
everything, including a penalty shot by Joe Juneau in the second
overtime. During a break in the third extra session Wregget had
to take the blocker off his right hand--his stick hand--and
literally pry open his middle finger which was locked around the
stick. He had to do that again in the fourth overtime. The game
was a flashback to childhood: It's late, Mom's calling you for
dinner, and there's an understanding that the next goal wins the
game, although in this case there was a sense that the next goal
wins the series. If Washington had nudged one past Wregget, the
Capitals would have taken a 3-1 series lead and Pittsburgh
surely would have been too physically and emotionally drained to
come back. Instead Wregget was steadfast, and Petr Nedved scored
to end what a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline called the pajama
game. Wregget has never had consecutive shutouts in his 13-year
NHL career, but that night and morning he started a shutout
streak of 146 minutes and 30 seconds against Washington that
continued into the second period of Game 5, which the Penguins
won 4-1. Wregget stopped 73 straight shots in the equivalent of
almost 2 1/2 games. Pittsburgh closed out the Capitals in six
New York viewed Wregget as a guy who had had his 146 minutes and
30 seconds of fame. He is not a textbook goalie, although he is
not a comic book one either, having learned positional hockey
from his junior coach, John Chapman, who once tied one end of a
skate lace to the crossbar and the other end to Wregget's waist
so he wouldn't wander. Wregget is just an average puckhandler,
sometimes lurches at the puck when attempting to make a save,
carries his glove hand too low and locks his right knee behind
him when he slides across the crease to his left, which makes it
difficult for him to recover to block a rebound. "Certainly it's
an awkward style," Meloche says, "but he'll come far out of the
crease and let the puck hit him. He's got a great head on his
shoulders." Wregget used it to nudge a puck off the goal line in
Game 4 against New York, a heads-down play. Later an
underwhelmed Campbell termed Wregget "a flopper."
The Rangers weren't exactly models of graciousness throughout
the series. They complained that their bench at Pittsburgh's
Civic Arena was too short. They fretted that on several
occasions Wregget had dislodged the net to force a whistle. They
whined about the Penguins' "diving" to draw penalty calls from
gullible referees, worrying as much about the ice time of
Pittsburgh trainer Skip Thayer, who ministered to the prostrate
Penguins, as that of Lemieux. They yelped that the game tapes
Pittsburgh provided them didn't have, as per NHL custom, the
commercials and intermissions edited out, obliging New York
coaches to do the editing themselves. The only shock is that no
one from the Rangers claimed a dog ate their scouting reports.
New York also griped that the pictures were lousy on the VCR
monitors in Pittsburgh, which might explain why the Rangers
failed to see how solidly Wregget was playing, except for his
6-3 loss to them in Game 2. During the summer New York should
rerun this: With the Rangers down by two goals seven minutes
into the third period last Saturday, Wregget slid across the
crease on his locked knee for a skate save on Brian Leetch's
shot at a yawning net. Hometown fans chanted Wregget's name.
"Usually," he says, "they just yell at me." Penguins center
Bryan Smolinski scored 30 seconds later to put away the Rangers,
who should have felt chastened after they were held in check not
only by a perennial No. 2 goalie but also by a group of
defensemen, only one of whom, Sergei Zubov, would appear to be
good enough to make their team. And New York traded him to
Pittsburgh last August.
Gordon Wregget once told his son Ken that the Wregget men reach
their prime in their 30's. Ken believes him. Maybe this hot
streak is the logical culmination of years of experience, study
and the conditioning that has become a central part of Wregget's
life. Or maybe this is simply kismet, a good run by Good
Neighbor Ken who still provides inviting targets high on both
the glove and the stick sides. We will see. Wregget will too. "I
figured if this was my role, I was going to work hard and do
everything I could at the rink to stay ready," Wregget says.
"And if you're going to back up, this had to be the best place
in the league to do it. I think it's awfully smart, if you want
to win, to cling to talents like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr."
Maybe. But now their hats are off to Wregget. They certainly
have enough of them.