NHL Penguins' Remarkable Resurgence Ten years ago, Pittsburgh's hockey team hit rock bottom: The Penguins couldn't afford to pay the star player, the coach died of cancer and then Mario Lemieux, the star player himself, also got cancer. But Lemieux survived, bought the team — and now, years later, with the addition of phenom Sidney Crosby, the unlikely Penguins have skated their way back into the Stanley Cup finals.
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NHL Penguins' Remarkable Resurgence

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NHL Penguins' Remarkable Resurgence

NHL Penguins' Remarkable Resurgence

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Rachel, I think we have established that you are a casual fan of professional sports teams, yes?


I am, yes, in general. Pro sports, if they happen to be on and I'm trapped in a room and there's no one else to talk to and Kurt Rambus or Robert Parish are playing, I'll watch, which signals that I have not watched in a very long time.

PESCA: Well, will you watch sports movies?

MARTIN: Sports movies, yeah, I like some sports movies.


MARTIN: "Mighty Ducks..."

PESCA: Uh huh.

MARTIN: Was that a sports movie?

PESCA: Yes it was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: No, that was a touching documentary about avian flight. OK, so what I'm going to do is I'll describe a sports flick to you and then you tell me when you would press stop on the DVD because it gets too cliche.


PESCA: You've got a pro hockey team from a gritty, hard-working town, let's even say a steel town. The arena is falling down because it was originally built to house a light opera company. Anyway, the team is great in the '90s. They win a title. Then their head coach gets cancer.

MARTIN: Oh, stop, stop.

PESCA: Well, I've got to keep going. The head coach dies, but that inspires the team. They win another title, but right after that their best player gets cancer...

MARTIN: Are you kidding me?

PESCA: No, I'm not kidding. Stick with me. He beats cancer. He makes a comeback. He's still the best player in hockey. The team is great, but management is so awful the team files for bankruptcy.


PESCA: But the best player, the one I talked about...

MARTIN: The cancer guy.

PESCA: He's now retired, but he buys the team.

MARTIN: Of course he does.

PESCA: And he suits up again and...


PESCA: And in his late 30s, he's still great.

MARTIN: I do not believe you.

PESCA: It is all true. The team is the Pittsburgh Penguins...


PESCA: They are now in the Stanley Cup Finals. It really happened.

MARTIN: Wow, I really - I would be a fan of that team just because of that narrative.

PESCA: Well, we have someone here who is a fan of that team. His name is Derrick Roco from the Penguins Fan Blog, Pens Blog. Hey, Derrick.

Mr. DERRICK ROCO (The Penguins Fan Blog): Hey. How are you guys doing this morning?

PESCA: Great. Did I leave any of the big chapters out of the Penguins' history?

Mr. ROCO: You know, I was just thinking that you pretty much summed up my entire life for the last 10 years, so that was very well done. We say it all the time - it almost gets old - that the Penguins are like a movie. You did a very, very good job.

MARTIN: That's amazing.

PESCA: How bad was it in the '90s when the team declared bankruptcy? Were the Penguins fans all bereft?

Mr. ROCO: Oh, it was bad. It was a really negative situation because, you know, all the while it kind of coincided with the kind of demise the entire league.

PESCA: Uh huh.

Mr. ROCO: In 1998, the Penguins were still making the playoffs, and everything was still good, but it was kind of one of those things where you didn't really see it happening then until you sort of pick up the newspaper the next day and you saw the Penguins were filing for bankruptcy. It all started in November of 1998, and it just kind of kept getting worse and everything just fell downhill.

PESCA: Did Mario Lemieux know he was the player we were talking about - the great player, did he really save them in terms of financially? I know he's one of the best players in NHL history.

Mr. ROCO: Yes absolutely. What happened was that Howard Baldwin, who owned the Penguins, he shouldn't have been allowed to own a Dairy Queen...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCO: Let alone a professional sports franchise, and he ended up owing Mario Lemieux a substantial amount of money. And Lemieux became one of the main creditors or debitors (ph) on the team. What happened was Lemieux, the Penguins filed for bankruptcy, and Lemieux wasn't going to get paid ,so he stepped in and said I will pay off all the creditors and debitors including myself if you let me buy this team and save them. So you know without him, they were definitely gone.

PESCA: Was it all up hill from there until today?

Mr. ROCO: No, it wasn't. It was actually a long course from there. He did prevent the Penguins from moving, but an arena deal really, really was the issue that remained. The Penguins still weren't competitive enough. They had to sell off one of their best players, a guy named Yonri Younger who plays in New York. I'm sure you guys have heard of him.

PESCA: And that's what happens when the outlying communities can't afford, some of the New York team...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Drops in.

Mr. ROCO: Exactly and then they traded him to Washington, but he ended up in New York.


Mr. ROCO: But I mean, it's the same deal, and it just was a complete disaster.

PESCA: By the way, isn't that what happened to Jennifer Beals at the end of "Flash Dance"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Another Pittsburgh girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Let's just do this let's fast forward to today, because it's an amazing history but the team today - how did they assemble those guys, and tell me a little bit about them?

Mr. ROCO: Sure they were able to draft Sidney Crosby. They really, it all started with Marc-Andre Fleury.

PESCA: The goalie.

Mr. ROCO: Exactly, because of the Penguins weren't good they were able to use some draft picks. They got Marc-Andre Fleury, and the very next year, they were able to draft Evgeni Malkin from Russia who's an incredible player, and then it all came kind of full circle, and the final missing piece kind of came in when Sidney Crosby - then when they won the rights to the NHL lottery to win Sidney Crosby.

PESCA: And I know you guys love him, but objectively - you can't be objective, that's kind of the point - but how good is this kid who's what not even 21, and how good can he be?

Mr. ROCO: Yeah, it's hard to believe. I mean, he's younger than all of us, and I mean, we're just like just in awe of him, and he plays like he's 35 and he's played all his life. He's just so focused. It's just unbelievable to see somebody in no matter what profession they do to be as good and focused as he is. It's truly an incredible experience for everybody, for a fan base it's just been - we've been blessed with a lot of stars, but Crosby he's just in a class of his own.

PESCA: And now that the arena is going away, are you nostalgic for this old place that, like I said, was originally built to house an opera company?

Mr. ROCO: Oh, absolutely (unintelligible) arena, there's something to be said about the sticky floors, the long waits in the restroom lines. The arena is a complete disaster. If you guys were to go there, you'd just go, what is this place? It is just a mess. It's like an old frat house dorm of a college campus, and it's just a mess, but you know, it's ours, and it means a whole lot to us. So we cherish it, and it's one of the lousiest places in the NHL, but it's definitely time for a change. We need a new one.

PESCA: Derrick Roco from Pens Blog. Thanks. Good luck against the Red Wings and duck any octopi that they throw at you.

Mr. Roco: Thanks guys. Have a great morning.

PESCA: Thanks.

MARTIN: Thanks. Stay with us. Next on the big show, the writer of "Recount" a new film about the 2000 election. Remember that one? It's coming up next on the BPP. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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