It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

It started out as a boyhood dream…

On a cold winter’s night sometime during the 1982-83 hockey season I was sitting in front of a small black and white TV at my grandmother’s house and I was rotating the dial when I came across a hockey game in progress.  Up until that time most of my hockey viewing had been done at the Lethbridge Sportsplex, watching the Lethbridge Broncos of the WHL do battle in the WHL.

One of the teams playing that night was a team wearing a penguin on their jerseys.  I had always loved penguins (the birds) so I couldn’t imagine ever cheering for another team.  At that moment I had become a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It didn’t matter to me that this team was at the bottom of the standings.  It didn’t bother me that the team had a history of losing and hadn’t really ever experienced any success.  I didn’t care that they had been considered a “cursed” franchise, stemming from the deaths of their original mascot “Penguin Pete” in 1968 and promising rookie Michel Briere in 1970.  No, this was my team and nothing would change that.

We had to wait a lot of years before tasting playoff success together.  We got our chance in the 1989 playoffs and even won the opening round series, manhandling the hated New York Rangers in four straight games.  The second round would be a much tougher battle, this time against the hated (notice a trend here?) Philadelphia Flyers.

That year we went to a seventh game and the Flyers started their backup goalie Ken Wregget.  Yes, my boyhood hero who had backstopped some amazing Lethbridge Bronco teams in the early 80’s was all that stood between my team and a trip to the conference final.  It wasn’t meant to be, however — Kenny played a terrific game and sent my beloved Penguins home.

Playoff success would be put on the backburner the following season.  Mario Lemieux‘s back would act up on him and limit his playing time and the team would end up barely missing the playoffs in 89-90.  The highlight of that season for me came on December 16 when I got to attend my first ever NHL game and I watched the Penguins — my Penguins — lose to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Calgary Flames.

The next season though?  Oh, the next season was a different story…

That playoff run could have ended early if not for two huge plays.  The first was rookie Jaromir Jagr’s first ever playoff goal scored in OT of Game 2 to even the series.

(How odd is it to see someone besides Martin Brodeur playing goal for the Devils?  Yes, kids, Marty wouldn’t make his first appearance in the New Jersey crease until the following season — that’s how long ago this was!)

The second big play would come in Game 6.  Down 3-2 in the series, starting goalie Tom Barrasso was injured and backup goalie Frank Pietrangelo was called upon to make his first ever NHL playoff game appearance.  All Penguins fans worth their salt simply call it “The Save”…

Stick that one in your pipe and smoke it, “History Will Be Made” series of commercials…

The second round would be an anti-climatic 4-1 win over Washington, which set up a clash against Boston, the team which seemed to exist purely to lose to Edmonton in the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Boston series will forever be remembered for the knee-on-knee hit between Ulf Samuelsson and Cam Neely and the war it unleashed. 

In the end the Penguins would prevail and head on to their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

The Finals would take place against the Minnesota North Stars — yes, once again kids, that shows how long ago this was.  Long before Dallas had a hockey team and the Wild would come to Minnesota they actually had a franchise!

Game 2 of that series featured one of the defining moments in Penguins history.  It was the offensive counterpart to “The Save” and is commonly known as “Lemieux’s Goal”…

At that moment, every Penguins fan knew the Cup was ours.  Never mind we would lose Game 3 and trail in the series 2-1, we all knew that no one was going to stop Super Mario once he got this close to his first Stanley Cup.  You can bet that Jon Casey and Shawn Chambers knew it too.

It would take six games, but the final game was an 8-0 laugher.  Mario had his Cup and my near decade long suffering as a Penguins fan came to an end. 

I was living in Vauxhall at the time, and I remember I celebrated the win by driving into Lethbridge to go to Burger King.  I was driving a 1980 Toyota pickup that had a bad habit of overheating, and I remember having to stop at an irrigation canal somwhere around Chin or Tempest to pour more water into the radiator to complete the trip.  I remember how it all seemed so surreal, so unlikely.  Stanley Cup.  Pittsburgh.  Wow! 

It’s good that we can never know the future, for it allows us to revel and celebrate in the moment without every worrying about what is to come.  For, while there would be another Stanley Cup the following season, the future would not be that bright for this group that came together to create magic in 1991.

Bob Johnson, the beloved coach, would not even get to enjoy the entire summer before being diagnosed with brain cancer.  Five months after that magical night in Minnesota he would be gone forever.

Mario Lemieux would get his own cancer diagnosis less than two years later, in January of ’93.  While he would survive and add another four 100+ point seasons to his resume, he never really had a chance to perform at such a high level again for an entire season.  He would play just 64 games in 1991-92, 60 games in 92-93, and just 22 games in 93-94 before deciding to sit out the entire 94-95 season.

The Minnesota franchise would move to Dallas in 1993 and the Met Center, the building where the Penguins won that first ever Stanley Cup would be demolished a year later. 

It started out as the dream of a barely ten-year-old boy in front of his grandmother’s TV and it would come true one magical night in Minnesota.  May 25, 1991 — twenty years ago today…


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