Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby has been part of the team's storybook resurgence.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Ten years ago, Pittsburgh's hockey team hit rock bottom. But with the addition of phenom Sidney Crosby and six other players under 25, the young Penguins are back in the Stanley Cup finals. Their story — from bankrupt team languishing at the bottom of the league to one of the country's best teams — is, according to blogger Derek Rocco, one of the most remarkable stories in modern sports.
"It was bad," says Rocco, who writes the Penguins fan blog PensBlog. "It coincided with the demise of the entire league. You didn't really see it happening, then you picked up the newspaper and saw the Penguins were filing for bankruptcy."
The Penguins were a feared and dominant pro hockey team from Pittsburgh, the gritty and hard-working steel town. For years, their arena has been falling down, as it was originally built to house a light opera company. Despite that, the team posted legendary squads throughout the 1980s and 1990s and won the title in 1991.
But then the head coach was diagnosed with cancer. His death inspired the team, which managed to win another title in 1992.
Then the slide began. The next year, the best player on the Penguins, Mario Lemieux, was diagnosed with cancer. And because management was so bad, the Penguins couldn't afford to pay Lemieux. "Howard Baldwin, who owned the Penguins, shouldn't have been allowed to own a Dairy Queen, let alone the Penguins," Rocco says. In disgust, Rocco says, Lemieux retired.
People in Pittsburgh were worried it would get worse.
But they were in luck. In 1999, Lemieux approached the Penguins and offered the team a deal: He'd forgive all the money the team owed him — and he'd assume all the franchise's other debt — on one condition: They had to let Lemieux buy the team and return as a player.
As hockey's first ever player-owner, Lemieux suited up again in December 2000. In his mid-30s, Rocco says, Lemieux was still a great player and helped lead the team back to the finals.
Now, years later and with the addition of phenom Sidney Crosby — and the help of six other players under 25 — the young Penguins are finally back in contention for hockey's top prize.
How good is Crosby? "It's hard to believe," Rocco says. "He's younger than all of us. He plays like he's 35, like he's played all his life."
How good is this story? The Penguins play the Detroit Red Wings this Saturday.