Monday, November 28, 2005

Roethlisberger Does Have a Gaudy Statistic: A Record of 18-1

The New York Times
November 28, 2005

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 25 - A part of Ben Roethlisberger envies Peyton Manning.
Roethlisberger would love to throw the ball 35 times a game, the way Manning often does when leading the high-powered offense of the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts. But the Pittsburgh Steelers do not play fun-and-gun football. So Roethlisberger suppresses his gunslinger instincts, although he often imagines playing in a less conservative system.

"As a quarterback, you always want to throw the ball," said Roethlisberger, sitting in the locker room Friday, as the Steelers (7-3) looked toward Monday night's game at Indianapolis (10-0). "It bothers you, because I know I can do it, and I wish I could prove to people that I could.

"But winning games takes care of everything else. I understand what this offense is about, what this team's about, and what it takes to win games. As long as we win, I'm O.K. with it, I guess."

Winning has been Roethlisberger's biggest strength since joining the Steelers last year, when he became a rookie sensation and inspired a Pittsburgh restaurant to name a sandwich in his honor. Although he has never attempted more than 30 passes in a regular-season game, Roethlisberger is 18-1 as a starter, and he has completed 60.8 percent of his passes this season, with 11 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

Roethlisberger's return after a three-game absence due to knee surgery improves Pittsburgh's chances of spoiling the Colts' unbeaten season. The Steelers struggled without him in the lineup, losing their last game to Baltimore, 16-13, with Tommy Maddox at quarterback. But with Roethlisberger back, the Steelers plan to stick to basics against the Colts - pound them with a running game that features Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, play solid defense, and mix in some timely passes by Roethlisberger, who admitted that this game felt special.

"There's a lot of hype, with them 10-0, playing at their place, on 'Monday Night Football,' " said Roethlisberger. "We can't play the game hyped. But at this point, it's the biggest game of the year for us."

It took only a few games last season for Pittsburgh to embrace Roethlisberger. Peppi's Old Tyme Sandwich Shop, a restaurant with four locations around the city, features the Roethlisburger, a sandwich that has sausage, hamburger, fried egg and the customer's choice among lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.

"We had a sandwich that didn't have a name, so we figured, 'Why not?' " said Lou Bosser, the proprietor of one of the Peppi's stores. "It was like we hit the lottery. It's real popular on game days, and we've had people from places like Texas and Canada come in to order it. Steelers Nation is everywhere."

But Roethlisberger faced his share of criticism after the Steelers' 15-1 regular season did not lead to a Super Bowl appearance. Roethlisberger threw three interceptions when Pittsburgh lost, 41-27, to New England in the American Football Conference championship game, and what had been a fantastic season ended in frustration.

"Disappointment comes with the position, in this town, and in any town," said Mark Whipple, the Steelers' quarterback coach. "When you walk into this building and you see four Super Bowl trophies, that speaks volumes for the what the city is about, and what the Steelers are about.

"But I think he's handled it well, as evidenced by his play this year. He worked hard during the off-season on footwork, fundamentals, reading coverage, understanding the schemes of our offense. We put a lot of things on him in camp, forced him to do some things he wasn't as comfortable with the year before. I think that has helped him gain even more confidence."

Roethlisberger wanted to play through the pain in his right knee, but Steelers Coach Bill Cowher convinced him to have surgery earlier this month. Watching games has been difficult for Roethlisberger. When the Steelers won at Green Bay several weeks ago, Roethlisberger could not travel, so he watched from his home with friends, yelling instructions at the television.

"I was acting like my teammates could hear me," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger has dedicated this season to his grandfather Ken Carl Roethlisberger, who died during the summer at age 83. Grandfather and grandson were close, and the 23-year-old Roethlisberger said it has been difficult adjusting to the void in his life.

"It was very tough to lose him," Roethlisberger said. "He never got to see me play in person as a Steeler, but I guess he has front row seats to all the games now."

While Indianapolis has emerged as the favorite to win the A.F.C., the Steelers hope to plant doubt in the Colts' minds by winning on Monday. Even before his grandfather died, Roethlisberger said that this year was special because it might be the last for Bettis, who is fifth on the N.F.L.'s career rushing list.

"If you don't win the Super Bowl, it's a disappointment, especially when you fall short like we did last year for us," Roethlisberger said. "This is probably Jerome's last year, and we don't want it to end in disappointment."

Roethlisberger impressed his teammates last year by smoothly stepping into the starter's role, becoming an offensive leader while respecting his veteran teammates.

"Ben realized he was still learning, and that he didn't have to do everything," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He had a great defense, he had a great offensive line, he had running backs, he had receivers. All he had to do was play."

Roethlisberger has played so well that some teams may have regretted not drafting him in 2004. Roethlisberger fell into Pittsburgh's hands at No. 11 after Eli Manning was taken No. 1 over all and Philip Rivers was chosen No. 4. He will always be compared to those two, but he has loftier goals than trying to prove he should have been the first quarterback selected.

"I want to be the best quarterback in general, not just among guys in my draft class," said Roethlisberger, who played college ball for the relatively low-wattage Miami of Ohio program. "I know Manning and Rivers were taken ahead of me. But my goal is be the best. I don't know if I'll ever put up the best stats in the league, so I don't know if I'll ever be an M.V.P.-type guy. But if I can continue to win football games, maybe people will judge me that way."

After saying that, Roethlisberger saw an opportunity to make a throw in the Steelers' rowdy locker room. He balled up his dirty socks, cocked his arm and threw a strike that hit the unsuspecting wide receiver Antwaan Randle El in the head.

Roethlisberger giggled. Against the Colts, he will take his throwing a little more seriously.
"I'm so glad to be back," Roethlisberger said. "It's going to be exciting."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ben is Back But What About the Running Game?

Big Ben back; is offense?
Ball control is key against the Colts
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger is back, and there's something else the Steelers hope will return to the team Monday -- their running game.

If there's one way for the Steelers to upset the unbeaten Colts Monday night in Indianapolis, it would be to run the ball on long scoring drives and keep it away from Peyton Manning as much as possible.

"That's what we have to do," halfback Jerome Bettis said yesterday. "That's the type of football team we are. Nothing out of the ordinary. There's nothing going into this game saying we have to control the clock more than what we do. We don't have to change our game plan. We have to execute our game plan. We didn't execute our game plan in Baltimore. That's the frustrating part."

The Steelers managed a two-season low of 70 yards rushing against the Ravens, abandoning their vaunted ground game early, when they tried only eight rushes and netted 10 yards rushing in the first half. Bettis carried only two times for no yards, the first time in his career in which he has carried at least once in a regular-season game and came away with zero net yards.

Yesterday, coach Bill Cowher listed Roethlisberger as probable to return after missing the past three games with a knee injury, and that should help the ground game. With Roethlisberger at quarterback, defenses are not likely to gang up quite as much to stop the run because of his efficiency throwing the ball.
"I think having Ben back gives our offense a boost after not being effective last week," Bettis said.

The Steelers return to practice today and Roethlisberger is expected to be first in line behind center.

"He's probable and seems ready to go," Cowher said.

Missing three games, combined with his knee injury, could have an effect on how Roethlisberger plays, Cowher acknowledged.

"Well, yeah, the speed of the game is going to be something, hopefully, he can get acclimated to quickly. It's going to be something that time will tell."

Roethlisberger would lead the AFC with a 112.4 passer rating, except that his 130 attempts are too few to qualify. Roethlisberger, 18-1 in the regular season as a starter, has thrown 30 passes in one game, the Steelers' victory Oct. 31 against Baltimore.

Cowher likely would not want to see him eclipse that Monday night. The Steelers do not want to go toe-to-toe in the passing game the way the Bengals did in a 45-37 loss Sunday to the Colts in Cincinnati. Indianapolis leads the league with 305 points scored.

The Steelers scored 34 points in their opener against Tennessee when they passed only 11 times. They have scored more than that only once in the past four seasons -- a 40-24 victory at San Diego in 2003.

"Hopefully we'll be able to keep this game close," Cowher said. "I think if we can keep it close, get it down to a point where there's a play here, a play there, that's the most important thing in my mind -- to keep this game within striking distance."

Tommy Maddox threw 36 passes against the Ravens, the most by a Steelers quarterback since he threw 38 in a driving snowstorm at the New York Jets in 2003 and lost, 6-0. That season -- when Maddox threw more than 40 times in four games -- convinced Cowher that he had to return to his previous philosophy to run the ball and control the clock.

It's what they would like to do against the Colts.

"If we have to be in a shootout, it will be difficult for us to do that," Bettis said. "We're a smash-mouth football team. For us to score 45 points, that's tough. I don't think we're that type of offense."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at or 412-263-3878.)

Crosby, Pens Slip Past Ovechkin and Caps

Crosby wins duel against Ovechkin, helps Penguins hold off Capitals, 5-4

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Yeah, go ahead and award Round 1 in this rivalry to Sidney Crosby.

After all, he got the better of Washington's Alexander Ovechkin on the scoresheet, as well as the scoreboard, in the Penguins' 5-4 victory against the Capitals last night at Mellon Arena.

But understand this: Whatever it is that separates these two is nothing more than a few degrees of brilliance.

To focus on how Crosby finished with a goal and an assist, while Ovechkin was held to an assist, is to miss the larger point: The game has a very promising future if placed in the hands of young talents such as Crosby and Ovechkin.

"Those two, and probably about 15 or 20 others, are really going to carry this game for a long time," Penguins winger Mark Recchi said. "There are tremendous young players in this league."

But probably none with more promise than Ovechkin and Crosby, the first players chosen in the 2004 and 2005 drafts.

Their first professional confrontation generated interest throughout North America -- and probably on a few other continents, as well -- and Crosby acknowledged afterward that he realized his performance was going to be measured alongside that of Ovechkin.

"You have to be ready for a challenge," he said. "At the same time, you can't get preoccupied with it."

Crosby produced what proved to be the decisive sequence in the game at 13:30 of the second period, after he got the puck near the bottom of the left circle in the Washington zone.

Without looking and while on one knee, he spun and threw a backhand, cross-ice pass to Ziggy Palffy, who was unchecked at the right side of the crease and rapped the puck past Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig to put the Penguins ahead, 5-2.

Washington, after falling behind, 4-0, in the first 15 minutes of play, had gotten two consecutive goals in the second and was dictating the pace of play. The goal Crosby set up not only aborted the Capitals' comeback but also proved to be the winner after another surge by Washington in the third.

"They had momentum, and we got the fifth one," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "It turned out to be huge, obviously."

The victory raised the Penguins' record to 7-9-6, while Washington fell to 8-13.
The outcome was in suspense until the final seconds of regulation, which didn't figure to be the case when the Penguins ran off four consecutive goals in the first period.
"Absolutely, it was a little too exciting," coach Eddie Olczyk said.

Center Matt Hussey and right winger Michel Ouellet, who had been recalled from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, were plugged into the lineup and got significant playing time.

Hussey worked between Mario Lemieux and Mark Recchi and Ouellet, appearing in his first NHL game, was used on a line with John LeClair and Lasse Pirjeta. Neither got a point, but both earned praise from Olczyk.

"[Hussey] did a good job," Olczyk said. "He brought a lot of energy and speed. ... And I thought Ouellet played very well with Lasse and Johnny, did some good work along the [boards]. They both were able to make plays and add a little different look than we had in the past."

The Penguins haven't seen many guys who can give them a look like Ovechkin did, because very few players in the world can do what he does. That he was jeered when announced as the game's No. 3 star said more about the partisan nature of the Mellon Arena crowd than about the quality of his work.

"He's got great hands and he's a powerful skater," Crosby said. "He made some nice moves, made some nice plays to get to the net."

The best might have come about 111/2 minutes into the second, when Ovechkin got the puck in his zone, carried it down the left side and then cut to the net. He put the puck between his legs while closing in on Whitney, and got off a shot that he believed -- mistakenly-- had beaten Penguins goalie Sebastien Caron to make the score 4-3.

"I kind of got picked a little," Whitney said. "But it was just a great move. He had so much speed and still put it between his legs.
"He's a great player. He's got a lot of skill, and a lot of speed. ... I won't be the only defenseman he does that to."

Then again, Washington's defensemen won't be the only ones Crosby tortures, either. And dazzling as his pass to Palffy was, his work while scoring the Penguins' third goal didn't suffer much by comparison.

Crosby got the puck in the slot, split defensemen Brendan Witt and Steve Eminger and moved in on Kolzig before throwing a fake that got him leaning the wrong way and sticking a backhander under the crossbar.

Those few seconds underscored how well-rounded Crosby's repertoire is, and why Recchi, at least, believes he merits a slight edge on Ovechkin.

"I think Sid, right now, possesses a little more of everything," he said. "Ovechkin is a heck of player, but I think Sid is a playmaker, as well as being able to score goals."

Again, though, it comes down to degrees of greatness. Who will get the better of their one-on-one duel probably won't be known for years, but it's safe to assume that the game -- and its fans -- will be the biggest winners.

"I don't fear for the future with those two guys," Olczyk said. "Not at all."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Analysis: Patrick Should Shake Up Pens Soon

Penguins' many flaws too obvious to ignore
Monday, November 21, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Coverage:
Penguins Notebook: It's Ovechkin vs. Crosby I
Q&A: Steve Latin

Three weeks ago, Penguins general manager Craig Patrick acknowledged that he had entered the season not knowing how his dramatically overhauled roster would fare.

Especially in a season when changes in some rules -- and in the interpretation and application of some others -- were certain to affect how the game was played.

"You don't know what you have," Patrick said. "Especially when you're going into an era where it's going to be a different game than you've been playing for a number of years."

Patrick never is one to act in haste -- patience is one of his greatest strengths, when it isn't being one of his greatest liabilities -- but with the first quarter of the 2005-06 season over, the Penguins' situation should be pretty well in focus. Which is why it won't be surprising if they start to make personnel moves soon.

Almost no one anticipated that they would start 6-9-6, and look so bad doing it much of the time. And while Patrick is not inclined to divulge roster changes he's considering, there are a few issues he probably is pondering these days. To wit:

The Penguins realized months ago -- ever since their bid to sign free agents Mike Modano, Peter Forsberg and Alexei Zhamnov failed and they learned that Evgeni Malkin would be spending this winter in Russia -- that they needed another top center. The first 21 games have done nothing to change that.

Todd Marchant turned up on their radar when Columbus waived him last week to open salary-cap space; whether the Penguins are actively pursuing a trade for him isn't clear, however, although he reportedly has this season and three more at an annual salary of about $2.5 million remaining and could veto any deal.

TSN, a Canadian network, reported that Marchant was placed on waivers again over the weekend, and that Anaheim is a strong candidate to claim him -- and assume responsibility for his contract.

The Blue Jackets did not send Marchant to the American Hockey League after he cleared waivers last week, which means he will not have to pass through re-entry waivers -- and thus make Columbus liable for paying half his salary if another club would grab him -- on his way back to the NHL.
Regardless of whether the Penguins still are -- or plan to be -- in the mix for Marchant, adding a quality presence in the middle remains a priority.

The reason goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is back in the AHL is obvious and well-known, and has nothing to do with stopping pucks. Just as obvious is the fact that Jocelyn Thibault and Sebastien Caron have not consistently produced the kind of goaltending the Penguins need to be a factor in the playoff race.

The Penguins are understandably reluctant to pay Fleury at least $3 million in bonuses for which he can qualify by playing 25 games in the NHL -- don't forget, they're already projecting a seven-figure loss -- but have to weigh that expense against what keeping him in Wilkes-Barre could cost.

With the way Fleury has performed in the NHL and the minors this fall, he might well have gotten the Penguins a few more points in the standings. That would enhance their chances of qualifying for postseason play -- something already factored into their fiscal projections -- and likely would bump up ticket sales.

Increasing the payroll by several million dollars might not be an option because of limits imposed by ownership, but Patrick has to at least investigate ways of freeing money -- even trading a front-line player -- that would cover Fleury's bonuses.

There is, of course, no guarantee he would continue to perform at a high level if the Penguins would make him their go-to goalie. Of course, if Fleury wouldn't play the way the Penguins hope, they could return him to Wilkes-Barre before his bonuses kick in.

There are real dangers associated with rushing young defensemen into the NHL before they are ready -- their long-term development can be seriously stunted -- and the Penguins have been understandably cautious in their handling of first-year pro Noah Welch.

But with so many veteran defensemen struggling to adapt to the NHL's zero-tolerance approach to obstruction-related penalties -- including the hooks and holds that defensemen used to get away with if they were in danger of being beaten -- and Welch being so productive in Wilkes-Barre, the idea of recalling him merits serious consideration.

Welch has one goal, six assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-15 in 17 games with the Baby Penguins, who are 16-0-1 after a 5-2 victory yesterday in Bridgeport.

Whether by trade or promotion, meaningful changes aren't always easy to make in the NHL today. Salary-cap issues must be factored into deals, the Penguins' self-imposed ceiling on spending can't be ignored and space has to be carved out on the 23-man roster.

But with a quarter of the season expired and the Penguins stagnating among the Eastern Conference bottom-feeders, simply maintaining the status quo doesn't appear to be a viable option.

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Mike Prisuta: Are the Penguins Kidding?

Mike Prisuta
Friday, November 18, 2005

Are they kidding?

Marc-Andre Fleury stops 45 of 47 shots in Philadelphia and wins in overtime, and the Penguins respond by sending him back to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton?

What would the Pens have done had Fleury pitched a shutout, banish him to Wheeling?

And what, exactly, is it they're trying to accomplish this season, one that was supposed to be about rebounding dramatically and rejuvenating fan interest and generating momentum for a new arena and, oh, by the way, competing for the Stanley Cup?

Apparently, there's a different agenda.

It was understandable when the Penguins opted to go with Jocelyn Thibault and Sebastien Caron in goal at the conclusion of training camp. There had been sentiment within the organization at the conclusion of last season that Fleury still needed a solid year as a No. 1 in the AHL, plus a minor-league playoff run as the No. 1 to resolve some lingering issues with his confidence, before his future as a franchise NHL netminder would be cemented.

And that's a tough nut for anyone to crack in the span of a training camp, particularly when a veteran team trades for a veteran backstop it considers a key piece to the puzzle.

But since then Thibault has been mostly inconsistent and injured. Although he's started to show signs of rediscovering his game of late, he has in no way performed at a level suggesting he should continue to be viewed as the Penguins' best hope in net, no questions asked.

Fleury, meanwhile, has been dazzling enough in the AHL and good enough in the NHL that he should at least have earned a shot to compete with Thibault for the No. 1 job at this point of the season, a critical one for a team that has managed just six wins through its first 20 games.
Fleury's performance against the Flyers on Wednesday night was spectacular, as inspiring and integral to the Penguins' gritty victory as Sidney Crosby's refuse-to-lose passion.

Fleury had NHL analyst and former NHL goaltender John Davidson raving.

Fleury had everyone else lucky enough to be able to reel in a signal from OLN on the edge of their seats.

Shipping him back to the bus league coming off such a performance is indefensible.

It also raises serious questions about the organization's commitment to winning.

In the long run, those questions will cost the organization more than Fleury cashing in his $3 million performance bonus ahead of schedule.

Not to mention what Fleury's absence might cost the Pens in the standings.
Thibault still may assert himself as the No.1 the Penguins thought he'd become all along. But the organization can't be certain.

Likewise, the Penguins can't be certain Fleury isn't their best option right now, as well as down the road.

Would it have somehow devastated the Pens to play Fleury one more time in Saturday night's rematch with the Flyers and then re-evaluate?

Fleury playing in Wilkes-Barre instead is absurd.

And it sends a disturbing message.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Bob Smizik: Signing Bay is One Move Pirates Won't Regret

Signing Bay is one move the Pirates won't regret
Friday, November 18, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Eerily, perhaps ominously, the news conference heralding the signing of the Pirates' best player to a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract came five years to the day -- almost to the minute -- of a news conference heralding the signing of the Pirates' best player to a multiyear, multimillion dollar contract.

On the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2005, the Pirates signed the player they absolutely had to sign.
Just as on the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2000, they signed the player they absolutely had to sign.

On Nov. 17, 2005, Jason was praised not just as an outstanding player but as a fine human being and a credit to the community. Just as on Nov. 17, 2000, Jason was described in similar fashion.
The Pirates can only hope the comparison between Jason Bay and Jason Kendall ends there.

The Kendall signing turned disastrous, bordering on catastrophic, almost from the start. His batting average declined 54 points the year after the signing. The power that was expected to bloom as he matured atrophied instead. As the team lost, he became an unhappy camper. As it lost more, he became the focal point of the blame with some, preposterously, calling him a cancer in the clubhouse.

They'll never say that about Bay, a man of immense baseball talent and a level of humility to match. Bay, who agreed to a four-year, $18.25 million contract, is a throwback to the day when players allowed their accomplishments, not their lifestyle or words, to speak for themselves.
The contract takes away all of Bay's arbitration years but still allows him seek free agency after the 2009 season, the first year he would be eligible. Bay and his agent wanted a fifth year -- which would have significantly increased the value of the contract -- guaranteed. The Pirates wanted the year at their option.

What's important is the franchise has a legitimate player to build around as general manager Dave Littlefield and first-year manager Jim Tracy attempt to turn around 13 years of losing.

Although not surprising since the deal had been simmering since late in this past season, the move was out of character for Littlefield, who has proceeded with extreme caution in doling out money to players. It was Littlefield who was criticized by some for giving Bay little more than a token raise ($50,000) after Bay won the Rookie of the Year award in 2004. It was just Littlefield exercising the fiscal prudence needed in a small-market situation.

That he responded so differently after this past season -- when he didn't have to -- speaks not to the fact Littlefield has changed his style but that he has that much confidence in Bay. He has good reason to feel that way even if his opinion is not shared by many others. Bay not only is underappreciated throughout baseball, the result of playing in Pittsburgh, but he's also underappreciated in Pittsburgh, the result of too many not understanding precisely what his accomplishments have been.

If the discussion at the local bar got around to the best offensive outfielders in baseball, the names most likely heard would be Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and Gary Sheffield.
Put Bay in that group and put him in the top half. In talking about National League outfielders put him at the top.

By conventional baseball statistics Bay is a good player, not approaching a great one. He hit 32 home runs, drove in 101 runs and had a batting average of .306 last season. But those are old-fashioned statistics. Batting average has fallen distinctly behind on-base percentage as a barometer of player value. Likewise, RBIs and home runs are nothing compared to slugging percentage and -- the ultimate offensive statistic -- OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). Runs batted in, for example, are often cited as the most important offensive statistic. But driving in runs requires teammates to be on base. OPS defines what the player has done, not what his teammates have helped him to do.

Among National League outfielders, Bay is fourth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage. When those two numbers are combined to get OPS, Bay is the best in the National League and second only to Ramirez throughout baseball.

In the National League, his OPS of .961 (.402 on base, .559 slugging) trailed only four first basemen -- Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado and Todd Helton -- and led such more highly regarded outfielders as Miguel Cabrera, Lance Berkman, Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds.

If Bay were some kind of buffoon in the outfield, these numbers might not mean as much. But he's an excellent defensive outfielder, whose only shortcoming is a below-average arm. He's ideal for the vast left field at PNC Park.

He's ideal, too, for the Pirates, a Canadian by birth but a Pittsburgher by personality. The Pirates made the right move, the only move. This one won't turn sour.

(Bob Smizik can be reached at

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Crosby Stops Flyers With OT Winner

Crosby makes Flyers pay price
Scores twice, including overtime winner
Thursday, November 17, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PHILADELPHIA -- This is not the final game the Penguins will win this season.
They might even have a victory that will be more satisfying. Maybe. Sometime.

But it will be a long time before they pay a higher price for a victory. Heck, if the Penguins (6-8-6) had gotten a point for every X-ray and ice bag they went through before, during and after their 3-2 overtime decision against Philadelphia at the Wachovia Center last night, they would have wrapped up a playoff spot.
"A lot of guys were giving their all, paying a price," winger Ryan Malone said. "You saw a lot of guys sacrificing their bodies."

Sidney Crosby, already established as a villain-in-training in this city, secured his status by pulling in a lead pass from Malone, breaking in alone on Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki and beating him on the stick side with 46.7 seconds left in overtime for the winner.
The loss snapped the Flyers' nine-game, home-ice winning streak and was a fair reward for the Penguins' most inspired -- and inspiring -- effort of the season.

That included a 45-save performance by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who started only because Jocelyn Thibault was struck in the throat by a Konstantin Koltsov shot in warmups.
Thibault spent most of his night at a hospital; Fleury spent much of his making the Penguins regret that he'll probably be going back to Wilkes-Barre in the next few days. Even Fleury, recalled last week after Sebastien Caron was injured, figures he's headed back to the Baby Penguins.
"I don't know," he said. "Probably. I don't have any control over that."

Caron is about to come off the injured-reserve list and, happily for the Penguins, Thibault apparently won't have to go on it.
"I had a tough time breathing," Thibault said. "I thought I could suck it up and play, but the doctors said it was best for me not to play. It's still swollen, but it's feeling better."

Thibault probably was the Penguins' most serious casualty, but hardly their only one. They entered the game without forward Mario Lemieux (stomach virus) and defenseman Sergei Gonchar (groin), and Crosby, Ryan Whitney and Ric Jackman, among others, were hurt in the game.

Crosby needed stitches in his lip, courtesy of a high-stick in the face from Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher. Jackman was hobbled by a Mike Knuble shot off his left foot while killing a penalty late in the second period, and Whitney took a Kim Johnsson shot off his right hand early in the third.
Whitney had a bag of ice strapped to his hand after the game and was awaiting word on whether his hand was broken.

His injury didn't hurt quite as much as it might have, however, if Crosby hadn't come off the bench with less than a minute to go in overtime, just about the time Malone was getting control of the puck in the Penguins' zone and trying to decide what to do with it.

"I just turned and looked, and Sid was wide open at center ice," Malone said. "I was wondering where the far [defenseman, Dennis Seidenberg] was, but I didn't see anybody, so I just tried to fire it up ice as fast as I could. Then, I just sat there and enjoyed the moment."

Crosby pulled in the long pass from Malone and charged into the Flyers' zone, searching for an opening large enough to accommodate a puck.
"I was just looking for net, looking for something to shoot at," Crosby said. "[Niittymaki] came out far, so there wasn't a lot to shoot at at the start, but he backed up pretty fast."

Not as fast as the puck went past him, however, to give Crosby his second of the night and ninth of the season.

The winner was nice revenge for a series of run-ins with Hatcher, who felled Crosby with a stick to the face at 14:01 of the second, then got him in the neck with a similar blow when Crosby returned a few minutes later.

The referees didn't see fit to penalize Hatcher for either high stick, but did give Crosby an unsportsmanlike conduct for complaining about the non-calls.
"[Hatcher] got away with one, then the next shift I come out and get another one," Crosby said. "I was surprised he got away with two. Obviously, [the official] didn't like what I said, so I got two minutes."

That didn't hurt the Penguins, though, and they broke a scoreless tie when Malone, back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch two nights earlier, converted a feed from Crosby during a power play at 2:03 of the third.

Crosby made the score 2-0 during a scramble 56 seconds later, but the Flyers countered with power-play goals by Joni Pitkanen at 5:10 and 6:44. Fleury stopped the 30 shots that preceded Pitkanen's first goal, and the 13 that followed his second.
And Crosby made sure Fleury -- and the rest of his teammates -- were rewarded for their work.

"Guys battled hard," Crosby said. "This is a tough place to play. And we came in here and held our own."
And then put an ice bag on it.

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Related coverage
Penguins Notebook: Palffy earns Olczyk's confidence with defensive play

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Chuck Finder: Courson's Legacy is Change

Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

GETTYSBURG -- The life and legacy of Steve Courson, a man who tried to alter the drug-enhanced sinew of sports and saved himself in the process by altering his own, were celebrated in a funeral service inside a wide chapel amid the heart of this city with Civil War significance.

Twenty years ago, Courson fired the first volley that started not a war on steroids, but a gradual, intellectual revolution that seemed to reach the national consciousness in the past year or so. The former Steelers offensive lineman, who went public in 1985 about his own steroid use and that of scores of silent NFL brethren, found his reputation reinvigorated -- from whistle-blowing outcast to outspoken expert -- and then found himself lecturing not only school groups but also a U.S. House of Representatives committee in March.

"Steve changed professional sports," Bruce Courson, his half-brother, said from the pulpit of the St. James Lutheran Church.

Steve Courson was killed Thursday while attempting to protect one of his beloved black Labs, Rufus, from a 44-foot tree Courson felled near his Farmington, Pa., home. The tree accidentally landed atop the sturdy Courson, a weightlifter who boasted that his bench-pressing ability would have earned him third place at the last NFL combine. He was 50.
"He changed me. I think he changed a lot of us, for the better," Bruce Courson said.

About 150 family members, friends, former high school teammates from Longmeadow, Mass., and Gettysburg, former University of South Carolina teammates and former Steelers teammates gathered in Gettysburg to remember a half-century of Courson history.

At dinner Monday night and at a luncheon that followed yesterday's service, his South Carolina pals regaled one another with stories, as did his Steelers teammates throughout their four-hour bus ride from Pittsburgh yesterday morning. "If you were there, you could feel the compassion and love those guys share for Steve," said Gary Dunn, breaking up with emotion. The service was postponed 10 minutes to await the arrival of those Steelers alumni.

"Steve's gift to me was [Monday] night, having dinner with all of his buddies from South Carolina, who came from all over," said Charles Yesalis, the Penn State professor with whom Courson wrote a book about steroids in sports and remained close. "The camaraderie, the teammates for life. ... It was wonderful."

Kerry DePasquale from Pittsburgh and fellow Pennsylvanian Bill Lane were the former South Carolina players who came a short distance compared to the others: Russ Manzari from Maryland, Bill Kitteredge and Bill Cregar from New Jersey, Al Tandy from New York, Jason Adamski from Chicago and South Carolinians Gene Antley, Hugh Bell, Tony Penny, Dave Prezioso and Harold White, who still works as an academic advisor in the university's athletic department.

Neither the Steelers' front office nor the NFL were represented at the funeral. The NFL alumni association sent flowers, and nearly a dozen former teammates showed: Larry Brown, Dunn (who flew into Pittsburgh from Key West, Fla.), Bill Hurley, Jon Kolb, Edmund Nelson, Ted Peterson, Cliff Stoudt, Rick Woods, Tunch Ilkin, Craig Wolfley and Dwayne Woodruff. While the players stayed friends, Courson still harbored feelings of being left alone in the steroid spotlight.

"He was the only Steeler to ever use steroids," Yesalis said sarcastically of Courson, who was with the Steelers from 1977-83 and played in Super Bowls XIII and XIV before finishing with Tampa Bay in 1984-85. "He didn't wear his Super Bowl rings anymore. He was bitter ... ostracized."

"A lot of professional athletes probably still aren't happy with Steve," Bruce Courson said. "But Steve felt what he was doing was right. He wanted to share that. By God, he did."

His half-brother endured so much, Bruce Courson said, from the isolation of a whistle-blower, to suffering from the condition called cardiomyopathy that placed him on the heart-transplant list, to not only almost losing his own life but also losing his wife, Cathy, nearly five years ago.

In the past decade and a half he followed a path of nutrition, careful exercise and outdoor life to remove himself from the transplant list and the rolls of those receiving NFL disability payments. Even his services as a speaker about the hazards of steroids, mostly lectures to high schools and youth groups, was on a rapid rise.

Courson, author of "False Glory," apparently was working on another book, which friends and family plan to publish. Yesalis wants to plan a bike ride for charity, starting near Pittsburgh this summer.

As for his Labs, Rufus --injured when the tree fell -- had surgery on both dislocated hips yesterday in Pittsburgh. Rachel already was in the care of close friend, Barb Rodehaver of Farmington, who is set to adopt Rufus as well.

"That big dope, he looked at me [once] and, just as serious as he could be, said, 'Barb, I would die for Rufus and Ray-Ray,' " Rodehaver said. "And he did."

Her brother, Jud, was bringing a tree splitter to Courson's home at the time of the accident to help cut up the roughly 1-ton tree for firewood. He remembered Courson telling him barely two weeks ago how Rufus, 12, was too old and slow to join him on those tree-cutting expeditions.
"He called me the night before," Barb Rodehaver said. "He said, 'You should see Rufy. He's laying on my lap like he's never going to see me again.' "

Added girlfriend Dee Dee Masciola of Coraopolis, "The way he died was proof of the kind of man he was."

(Chuck Finder can be reached at or 412-263-1724.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Craig Wolfley: I Remember Steve

SteelersLIVE Xtra
Sunday, November 13, 2005

The tragic news of Steve Coursons’ passing came like a shot to the stomach. A phone call from Tunch Ilkin just before three o’clock on that Thursday afternoon set me back in my chair and my mind just reeled. How? When? Why? After the initial state of shock had passed, and I started to come to grips with this tragedy, I slipped into a nostalgic mindset and remembered this massive “Gentle Ben” type of man who had made such an impact on my life.

I remember the guy who performed incredible physical acts of athleticism on the field of play, like the time he freight-trained Reggie Williams, a linebacker from the Cincinnati Bengals. Steve pulled out on a sweep and turned upfield. He had this incredible ability to run full speed and stay in a crouched, or “hitting position” at the same time. He hit Reggie so hard, Williams feet skated six inches above the turf for three yards and when he hit the ground, the force of Steve’s hit caused him to flip backwards as if a gymnast doing a back hand spring. Think of a rodeo clown getting gored by a bull. Steve never slowed down and accidentally stepped on Reggie’s chest as he continued on his one man rampage downfield and creamed another Bengal. To this day I have yet to see a more impressive sequence of pillaging a defense than that single play by Steve.

I remember the guy who loved hunting, and went out on the first day of deer season the day after busting up his foot in a game, and walked miles running the deer and then made sure to come in for treatment, so as not to draw the ire of Chuck Noll in full hunting camouflage and tracking muddy footprints all the way through the Steelers offices and into the locker room and training room. Head trainer, Ralph “Plumber” Berlin had a fit over that one, I’ll tell you!

I remember the guy who sat down and ate so many ribs at a rib joint in one sitting that it was commented that the plate looked like “death valley” from the number of bones that lay on the plate and the surrounding table area.

I remember the guy who always had time to sit and talk, who never turned away someone in need, such as we sometimes referred to his condominium in South Fayette as the “Hotel Courson”.

I remembered the good natured guy that laughed along with everybody else as the trickster, Mike Webster, had filled his cowboy boot with shaving cream after practice one day and it spilled out when he shoved his foot into the boot.

I remembered the guy who drove a fully camouflaged four-wheel drive truck with a corvette engine that broke down and was hauled away by a mechanic friend of ours who “repaired” it, causing Steve to call him and tell him what a great job he had done in fixing it up. Paul the mechanic laughed in an uproar as he told Steve that filling it with gas was the only problem with it. And Steve laughed right along with the boys as he re-told that story.

I remembered the “Amazing C” as we used to call him, playing on the Steelers off-season basketball team who would dribble the ball down the court and screech to a halt from a full sprint like Fred Flinstone putting the foot brakes on while driving his car, and jump up to two hand dunk a basketball, because this incredible athlete just couldn’t seem to time a one leg takeoff very well.

I remember the guy who would talk for hours about all the great historical battles across the centuries and summarize them like a university professor.

I remembered the guy who never complained once about his physical problems, or attempted to blame someone else for them. Who so beautifully eulogized his wife after her untimely death a few years ago and showed the strength and character in his personal suffering that has always been a Courson trademark.

This giant of a man who so tenderly cared for his two dogs Rufus and Rachel, like they were his own children. Who yearly spoke to hundreds of young people about the ills of drug use, and impacted the lives of so very many, I, along with all his former teammates, remember.
I would like to thank every person who took the time to read this, for remembering Steve.

Craig is co-host of "In The Locker Room with Tunch and Wolf" which can be heard weekdays from 7-10 a.m. on Fox Sports Radio 970. Wolf is also the sideline reporter for the Steelers Radio Network and played for the Steelers from 1980-89.

Gene Collier: For a Night, It Was Hines Field

Monday, November 14, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Looking intently around the Steelers' first offensive huddle, Hines Ward might well have foreseen a bumpy night.

There was Charlie Batch, fresh off an 0-for-8 third-down performance at Green Bay. There was Matt Kranchick, the anonymous on-and-off-the-practice-squad tight end. There was mildly disillusioned wideout Cedrick Wilson. And just over the jagged horizon of their black helmets, there was a 7-0 Cleveland lead on the Heinz Field scoreboard.

If someone was going to point this episode toward typical prime-time predictability, it would like have to be No. 86.

Two hours later, it was indeed Ward's supremely polished, record-breaking performance that put this game in Pittsburgh's pocket. History will show that it was a fairly pedestrian short-side screen from Batch in the second quarter that was Ward's 538th career reception, one more than John Stallworth collected across 14 memorable autumns a generation ago.

Even in only his eighth season, no Steeler ever, as of that moment, had caught more passes than Hines Ward, and Ward didn't seem to want to allow Stallworth's record to fall on a night when he was anything less than spectacular, so that's what he was.

"Orpheus Roye, who was a year ahead of me with the Steelers, was the first to congratulate me," Ward said of the Cleveland defensive end. "He said, 'Who would have thought a guy from those old special teams would have broken this record.
That's what makes this especially gratifying for me, the fact that I was a third-round pick, the fact that I had two first-round receivers drafted while I was here, and the fact that I just kept workin' my tail off when people said I was only this small and only this fast.

"To be able to do [this] in front of my family and friends who came up for it, and on national TV against the Browns, that was great; it's always great to beat the Browns."

Ward appeared to have scored on that first possession, when he got behind Daylon McCutcheon at the right edge of the end zone, wrestled for Batch's pass, tipped it into the air and caught it just as he fell over the sideline and McCutcheon fell away in pain. It was then that Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel unveiled the only defensive gambit that would be effective on this night against Ward, namely the red flag he threw to trigger a replay challenge. It was a temporary fix for a defense Ward would slash for six catches before halftime.

When Joey Porter's interception set the Steelers up at the Cleveland 40 with only 1:19 left in the half, Batch went to Ward to complete a third-and-3. Ward beat corner Ray Mickens off the line and sliced into the Browns for 14 yards to the 19. Twenty seconds later, it was third-and-3 again, and there wasn't much question what was next. Batch hit Ward for 7 yards to the 5. After Batch hurried for the spike that stopped the clock at 0:16, Ward shook free again near the goal line for what looked convincingly like another touchdown, but again officialdom said otherwise.

From the 1, Batch sneaked home. Ward's three catches had accounted for 27 of the 40-yard drive that made it 17-7 and put Pittsburgh in command. But the play that will help fuel highlight reels for most of the week came early in the third period, minutes after the Steelers' huddle withstood another convulsion. Ward looked to the spot where Batch was supposed to be, which had been the spot where Ben Roethlisberger was supposed to be, and identified one Tommy Maddox.

Batch had injured his throwing hand, and before things started to deteriorate back toward a competitive evening, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt identified the precise spot on this particular tapestry for a defining flourish.

For first-and-10 from the Steelers' 49 -- it was only the third offensive play of the second half -- Whisenhunt sent Duce Staley left with a pitch, brought Antwaan Randle El back against the flow for a handoff from Staley, and had Randle El roll right while looking to throw. Ward was running what looked like an indifferent post pattern from the right edge. Maybe that's what gave the play its slow-motion feel because Ward sold the Cleveland defense on the dubious notion that he was not at all dangerous on that play. A split second later, Randle El's majestic pass was in the air, and Ward was flashing past the startled Mickens yet again for a touchdown so elegant it had instant validity.

"The 50-yard line is the criterion," Whisenhunt said sometime after midnight. "I didn't want to use it before that. Hines had blocked on the play at Green Bay, and that's why it worked."

It measured 51 yards, this scoring play on which four Steelers touched the ball, and it pumped stats to 115 yards on seven catches long before the night ended. Funny how it seemed to end for the Browns right at that moment.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette or 412-263-1283.)

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Joe Starkey: Hampton's Road

Sunday, November 13, 2005

"The film don't lie."

That was Casey Hampton's response when asked if his lack of height might cause him to drop into the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft.
It didn't. Hampton, generously listed at 6-foot-1 and conservatively listed at 325 pounds, went 19th overall to the Steelers, who were enamored with the notion of a havoc-wreaking nose tackle.

Five seasons later, Hampton has become the rock -- OK, the boulder -- on a defense that has gone 19 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
He is, according to his teammates and coach Bill Cowher, playing at least as well as he was before he sustained a torn ACL early last season.

"He's playing better than he's played since I've been here," said linebacker James Farrior. "He's in the backfield on every play."

That tends to show up on film, and the film has always been Hampton's friend. The film is what landed him a scholarship to the University of Texas.

Hampton was tentatively headed to Missouri until some Texas coaches inadvertently saw him on tape. They were analyzing a stud offensive lineman, but the guy he was trying to block stole every scene.

"They thought the offensive lineman was one of the best in Texas," said Gary Wilson, one of Hampton's former coaches and a key figure in his life. "But they kept seeing Casey whup him upside the head, and they said, 'Who is this kid?' "

Nobody knew better than Wilson, who was Hampton's middle-school coach, an assistant on Hampton's Galveston Ball High School team and a father figure.
Hampton was in ninth grade when his father, who lived in Houston, died.

Hampton and his brother and two sisters were raised by their mother, Ivory Anderson, in government housing in a violent, drug-infested section of Galveston. The key to Hampton's survival, in Wilson's words: "He never stood on the corner, and he was always in the weight room."

He also had a strong support system, headed by Anderson, who worked a variety of food-service jobs that enabled her to stay off welfare and keep food on the table. Lots of food. Hampton has never been small. His Steelers teammates call him "Big Snack."
"He's always got something in his mouth," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "He's like a vending machine."

Though he mostly avoided trouble, Hampton was nearly killed as an innocent bystander in a shooting when he was in seventh grade. He said he was at his friend's house playing video games when a man crashed through the front door. The man jumped on Hampton's back, as another man, wielding a gun, barged in and fired three shots.
All three shots hit the man on Hampton's back. None hit Hampton.

"I felt lucky, but that wasn't the only time I was around that kind of stuff," Hampton said.
Hampton discovered early that football was his ticket out of the projects. Others in the neighborhood -- even the dope dealers, he said -- recognized his potential and steered him away from the streets.

"My thing was, it was always the NFL," Hampton said. "No question in my mind that was the only way I was going to get out of there, and I had some coaches who kept me on track."

Wilson started Hampton out as an oversized middle-school fullback. It made sense. Hampton anchored the school's 400-meter relay team before a 50-pound growth spurt around ninth grade.

"He was the fastest man in school and the biggest," Wilson said. "But he wasn't a very good fullback. He ran like a board. He didn't have any lean to him."

The God-given ability was obvious, but a lot of kids where Hampton came from had ability. He had some other qualities, including a ferocious competitive desire and a heart that's 10 times bigger than his tree-trunk legs.

When Hampton signed his first NFL contract, he bought his mother a house.
"All she ever wanted was a big backyard," Wilson said. "Casey got her a house with a big backyard."

Wilson has experienced Hampton's generosity first-hand.
"I get to go up about every year and see him play," Wilson said. "I stay at his house. He treats me like gold. He hasn't changed a bit. He's the most humble young man you'd ever want to meet."

He also hates to lose. Hampton's teammates talk about how he's perfectly quiet until some running back gashes the defense for a few decent gains.
"He goes nuts," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen.

"I call him a crybaby sometimes," Smith said, laughing. "He starts crying and complaining to everybody, but that's when the other team's in trouble."

Hampton is surrounded by plenty of talent with the Steelers, and that is nothing new. In high school, nine of 11 starters on the Galveston Ball defense went on to play major college football, and the quarterback was Brandon Backe, who now pitches for the Houston Astros.

One of Hampton's teammates on the Galveston Ball basketball team was Damon Jones, who now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Hampton's Texas teams were filled with recognizable names such as Ricky Williams, Cedric Benson, Roy Williams, Chris Simms, Quentin Jammer and Hampton's fellow defensive tackle, Shaun Rogers.

Injuries are about the only thing that has ever stopped Hampton. He tore an ACL during his sophomore year at Texas (the opposite knee from last year's injury).

When he was injured last season, against Dallas, Hampton limped to the bench and wept into a towel. It killed him to miss the Steelers' magical season. The only saving grace was that he got to spend more time with his 4-year-old son, Casey Jr.

The Steelers were so convinced that Hampton would return to form that they lavished him last summer with a $6.98 million signing bonus -- third-highest in team history -- as part of a five-year, $22.78 million contract.

Hampton has rewarded them richly, using that low center of gravity and that freakish quickness to destroy opposing centers. Teams have little choice but to double-team him, which frees teammates to make plays.

You don't measure Hampton by his stats, but by his teammates'.

"Every game this year I've seen him push the center in the backfield, five yards deep," said Steelers guard Kendall Simmons. "You don't see that very much. I mean, you have some guys like (Jacksonville's) Marcus Stroud and John Henderson and (San Francisco's) Bryant Young. I've seen them do it. But Casey Hampton does it consistently."
Don't believe that? Check the film.

The film don't lie.

Joe Starkey can be reached at

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2. Hampton's Road
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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Ron Cook: Courson Helped Shine Light on Steroids in Sports

Friday, November 11, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's a safe bet that Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro never heard of Steve Courson.

It's a better bet that you and I wouldn't have heard of Bonds, McGwire and Palmeiro and their steroid use -- intentional or otherwise -- if not for Courson.

That's why it was so jarring yesterday that news of Courson's death at 50 in a tree-cutting accident on his property in Farmington, Fayette County, broke about the time lawmakers in Washington announced there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute Palmeiro for perjury as a result of his testimony in the spring before a congressional hearing on steroids in sports.

Without Courson, Palmeiro might never have been put in a position where he had to sit in the hot seat and point a finger at his congressional interrogators and declare under oath that he never used steroids.

Without Courson, Palmeiro might not have been suspended a few months later for violating baseball's steroids policy or, at least, it wouldn't have been national news.

Without Courson, Congress might not be threatening to institute a standard steroids policy, calling for much harsher penalties than currently exist, for all professional sports.

Courson's legacy isn't that he played on the last two of the Steelers' Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, although that always will make him something of a hero in these parts.
It's that he shined the first bright light on sports' dirty little secret -- steroids.
Those of us who like to believe that what we see on the fields and in the arenas is real and not out of a chemist's bottle should be thankful.

Courson might not have been the first athlete to detail his steroid use publicly, but he became the most visible when he sang his story to Sports Illustrated in 1985. He wrote a book about it in 1991 -- "False Glory" -- that, all of these years later, still should be mandatory reading for coaches and athletes on all levels, from the pee-wees to the pros.

Courson's book isn't like the one former baseball slugger Jose Canseco wrote last winter. Canseco's book was designed to make money for Canseco and, to accomplish that goal, he had to rat out teammates. So he infamously outed McGwire and Palmeiro, among others. Courson's book didn't name names. He wasn't out for the buck. He merely hoped to educate the public -- especially young athletes -- about the rampant use of steroids and their consequences. It was a mission he pursued the rest of his life through interviews, published articles that he authored, public speaking and testimony at the same set of congressional hearings that disgraced McGwire, the resolutely silent former baseball home run king, and, ultimately, Palmeiro, the finger-pointer.

By no means should Courson be glorified for his steroid use. He always was the first to admit that. If anything, the title of his book indicates he believed the steroids made him a bogus character and his feats of strength on the football field fraudulent.

But Courson does deserve credit for having the strength to go public with his tale, a strength that can't be found in any syringe. It didn't win him any friends around the NFL, especially at Steelers headquarters. The Steelers couldn't have been happy that he wrote that 75 percent of their offensive linemen used steroids in the Super Bowl years and that coach Chuck Noll knew of the widespread use but turned his back to it.

"Disgruntled players throughout the league called us the 'Steroid Team,' as if performance-enhancing drugs were the sole reason for our success," Courson wrote. "The fact is, our [steroid] usage was the same -- give or take -- as most of the NFL teams at that time."
Later, there would be a similar story about baseball from Ken Caminiti, a former National League Most Valuable Player.
And Canseco.

There also would be the BALCO scandal, which forever tarnished Bonds' monstrous home run totals and, more than anything, kicked Congress into action.
But Courson was first in a big way.
Somehow, it's hard to imagine Palmeiro and Bonds doing much grieving over his passing.

(Ron Cook can be reached at or 412-263-1525.)

Dave Molinari: LeClair Still a Big Bargain

Penguins' investment in John LeClair pays off on and off the ice, and that doesn't surprise anybody who knows him
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the Penguins signed John LeClair as a free agent this summer -- committed $4 million over two years to a 36-year-old who has had three back operations -- a lot of people figured they had suffered a ghastly lapse in judgment.

That the Penguins were squandering precious resources on a worn-out relic from a bygone era, a guy whose time here would be so forgettable that it wouldn't merit even a footnote in the story of his career.

[More Coverage:
Penguins Notebook: Rest becomes critical need ]

And those were the optimists.

But the Penguins were convinced that LeClair's talent level remained formidable, even though his days as a 50-goal man were a distant memory. And that his contribution would not be limited to what he achieved on the ice.

As the first quarter of the season winds down, they haven't had much reason to second-guess the decision to add him to their payroll. LeClair enters the game tonight against the New York Rangers at Mellon Arena with five goals and five assists in 14 games.

He was scoreless during the Penguins' 3-2 shootout victory against Montreal Thursday -- LeClair's first game back after sitting out three because of multiple fractures near his right eye -- but had scored four goals in his previous four games after getting just one in the first nine.

Factor his leadership into the equation, and the decision to sign LeClair doesn't seem like much of a gamble. Which is pretty much what those who know him best anticipated.
"He's everything I expected him to be, really," said Penguins winger Mark Recchi, LeClair's long-time teammate in Philadelphia.

Coach Eddie Olczyk echoed that sentiment, saying that LeClair has given the Penguins "exactly what I thought we'd get from him." That includes the inspiration he provided by returning to the lineup just days after being struck in the face by a puck last Saturday.

Although the right side of LeClair's face remains swollen and badly bruised, he seized the opportunity to reclaim his place on the third line with Lasse Pirjeta and Konstantin Koltsov. He logged 16 minutes, five seconds of ice time, a full minute more than he had been averaging, against the Canadiens.

The facial injuries assure that LeClair won't be pain-free for a while, but at least his back has been a non-issue to this point. That goes a long way toward explaining the offensive success he has enjoyed lately and why he seems to be enjoying his work so much.
"I feel as good as I have in a long time, that's for sure," LeClair said. "I'm still working out some of the rust from not playing for a while, but it's getting better. The game's starting to become a lot of fun again."

LeClair is 6 foot 2, 234 pounds, and plays a game built on power, not speed. Nonetheless, he's getting around the ice better than he has in several years, an apparent payoff for surgery he had in May.

"He's skating great," Recchi said. "His balance is much better right now than it was, and that's probably because of the procedure he had."

LeClair spent the early part of the season on one of the Penguins' top two lines, and his personal stats probably would be enhanced if he had a couple of offense-oriented linemates, or at least played with a highly skilled center.

Nonetheless, he has accepted a place alongside Pirjeta and Koltsov, anchoring a unit that can grind down opposing defenses with its size and muscle.

"I enjoy my line," LeClair said. "I think we work hard. We're solid in our own end and create some opportunities in the other end. That's what you want to do. Those two guys work hard. They'll go get the puck. It's been fun playing with those guys."

Recchi predicts that "you'll see LeClair control games down low, especially that line if they stay together for a while," and Olczyk knows exactly what he means. He's watched LeClair do just that, sometimes in an up-close-and-personal way, since LeClair broke into the league with Montreal during the 1990-91 season.

"When I watch tape and I watch him in a game, I'm getting exactly what I expected [after] playing against him and coaching against him," Olczyk said.

That's on the ice. Off it, LeClair might be even more of a presence.
"In the dressing room, you can't get enough of guys like him," Recchi said.
"He's obviously a very good leader, he gets along great with the guys. He accepts everything, understands how to play the game, understands how to win."

And guys like that, even 36-year-old ones with surgically repaired backs, can be a good investment at almost any price.

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)

Friday, November 11, 2005

Courson Turned His Life Around

Courson: "There is no better feeling than teaching someone and helping someone better live their lives."

By Joe Bendel
Friday, November 11, 2005

Former Steelers defensive end L.C. Greenwood used to look down from his locker and marvel at the massive kid from Gettysburg in camouflage fatigues. Then, he'd blurt out his usual comment.

"I think Steve Courson's in the room, but we can't see him," Greenwood said Thursday, releasing a soft chuckle.

Greenwood reminisced about his former teammate, an offensive lineman with the Steelers from 1978-83, after learning of Courson's death.

Courson, 50, was killed yesterday afternoon when a dead tree he was clearing from his property in Fayette County fell on him. State police said Courson, of Henry Clay Township, near Farmington, was using a chain saw to cut down the tree when it struck him and his dog.

The dog, which police think Courson may have been trying to save, was taken to a veterinarian.
Police said the tree, which they described as 44 feet tall with a circumference of 5 feet, was dead but still standing. Courson had been working alone, and his body was discovered by a neighbor shortly before 1 p.m.

A statement released by Steelers President Art Rooney II read: "We are saddened to learn of the sudden and untimely death of Steve Courson. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time.

"Steve was an integral member of our last two Super Bowl Championship teams, and returned to the Pittsburgh area after he retired from football."

Courson's former linemate, broadcaster Tunch Ilkin, was at Steelers practice on the South Side when he learned of the tragedy.

Courson became the ninth Steeler teammate of Ilkin's to suffer an untimely death, joining offensive linemen Mike Webster, Dan Turk, Tyrone McGriff, Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long; linebacker David Little, quarterback David Woodley and defensive lineman Steve Furness.

"I don't even know what to say -- it's hard," Ilkin said. "I guess it really shows the brevity of life. And our lives are like a puff of smoke."

Courson, who was traded to Tampa Bay after the 1983 season and retired two years later, seemed to squeeze every bit of life out of that puff, which included: legendary feats of strength on and off the field; playing on two Super Bowl teams; telling Sports Illustrated in a controversial and candid interview in 1985 that he had used steroids; writing a book about his steroid use titled, "False Glory," in 1991; suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy; waiting for a heart transplant, then getting himself off the transplant list by losing weight and living a healthier life.

He'd been working as a wellness, health and fitness consultant in recent years. Courson also spoke an estimated 100 times a year to youngsters about healthy alternatives to steroids, while also making an impact on the NFL's steroid policies.

Ilkin had seen the many sides of Courson -- some good and some not so good.

"Steve almost died (in 1988)," Ilkin said. "He was lying in the hospital, and I was thinking he doesn't look good. But through diet and exercise he came back to health and was doing great. Matter of fact, at this stage of life, he looked fantastic.

"He got real trim. He was into the whole corporate health kick. He wanted to impact others."
During his days with the Steelers, Courson not only was known for his ability to bench press 500 pounds and dead lift 800, but also for his love of history, notably World War II and the Civil War.

"I remember going to his house in the middle of the afternoon, and he was watching reruns of 'The World at War,' " Ilkin said. "He was like a walking encyclopedia of the major battles."
Hence, the camouflage fatigues.

"Oh, yeah, he also had a camouflaged car," Greenwood said. "Steve was an interesting guy, no question. He was one of the original body builder-looking players. He was, as they say today, 'ripped' with muscle. And, he was a great guy."

Courson was an undersized defensive lineman in college at South Carolina when he began using steroids.

Courson, who for a time was an assistant coach at Trinity High School in Washington, Pa., filed a federal lawsuit in 1997 against the National Football League retirement board, claiming the pension board unfairly denied him full disability benefits.

He said that abuse of alcohol and anabolic steroids was rampant among professional football players and that both damaged his heart, putting him on a transplant list for a time. The lawsuit was dismissed by several federal courts.

Courson testified in 1989 as an expert witness in U.S. Senate judiciary hearings investigating steroid use in the NFL. He testified again in April at a House of Representatives hearing on the same subject.

But most of his time was spent warning young people about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
"I never thought that I would live to see the age of 50," Courson said last month in a talk to students at the Kittanning Area Middle School in Armstrong County.

"It was easy giving up drugs and alcohol because I knew if I didn't, I was going to die. Life is a lot better when you live it with a clear head."

Courson told the students his fame as a football player was meaningless unless he used it for good.

"Football is insignificant in comparison to what is important in life. There is no better feeling than teaching someone and helping someone better live their lives."

Staff writer Michael Hasch contributed to this report.

Joe Bendel can be reached at or (412) 320-7811.

Ex-Steeler Courson Dies

Crushed felling a tree on his Fayette County property

Friday, November 11, 2005
By Robert Dvorchak and Cindi Lash, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Decades removed from the roaring football arena in which he won two Super Bowl rings with the Steelers, Steve Courson lived in seclusion with his two beloved black Labrador retrievers, Rufus and Rachel, in the Fayette County mountains. He devoted his life to teaching kids about the perils of steroid use and other risky behavior.

Mr. Courson, 50, died yesterday in a tree-cutting accident outside his home in Farmington, about 12 miles east of Uniontown, apparently while trying to save one of the dogs, who was endangered when a gust of wind changed the direction in which the tree was falling.

"Those dogs were his pals," said Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State University professor who became close friends with Mr. Courson and collaborated with him on a book about steroid abuse in sports. "Hearing the news was like a 500-pound weight hitting me in the stomach. It breaks my heart. He was one of the most caring, honest, ethical people I've met in my 59 years."

A neighbor along Herb Hollow Road in Henry Clay Township became curious when the growl of Mr. Courson's chainsaw fell silent at about 12:40 p.m. Mr. Courson was found pinned face-down by the tree with one of the dogs tangled under his legs.

The tree's weight was such that neither the neighbor nor the emergency crews who responded to a 911 call could move it without sawing the trunk into sections.

Mr. Courson was pronounced dead at 2:20 p.m. of crushing injuries to his chest. The injured dog was taken to a humane facility for treatment.

The dead tree being cleared from his property was five feet in circumference and 44 feet tall.
"The theory is that the dog was with him, and the tree started to go in an unintended direction," said Dr. Phillip E. Reilly, the Fayette County coroner. "The dog was in the path. [Mr. Courson] was bent over and the tree came down and pinned him to the ground."

Many of those who responded to the emergency call knew Mr. Courson not just as a former Steeler but as a good neighbor who coached and counseled youngsters.

"Everyone is so broken up by this whole thing," Dr. Reilly said. "People knew him and his dogs. ...He treated these dogs like his children. People cared for him because he had a big thing for the young people, trying to get them straightened out."

When word of the fatal accident filtered to the Steelers practice facility on the South Side, the team issued this statement: "We will remember Steve for his many on-field contributions to our football club as well as for the caring person he was away from the game. Steve Courson will remain in our prayers and will be missed by everyone who knew him."

Funeral arrangements for Mr. Courson, who grew up in the Gettysburg area, were incomplete. His mother, Elizabeth, is in failing health; he has an adopted brother in Massachusetts.
His career as No. 77 with the Steelers lasted from 1977 to 1983. He also spent two seasons with Tampa Bay following a trade.

Mr. Courson was the first NFL player to speak on the record about steroid use in the NFL when he did a 1985 interview with Sports Illustrated. After his playing days were over, he was told by doctors he would not live without a heart transplant, but he made what he called a miraculous turn-around.

In his 1991 book "False Glory," the muscular guard, whom Steelers fans lauded as the Incredible Hulk, admitted that he began taking a derivative of the sex hormone testosterone while he was a freshman at the University of South Carolina. He continued taking performance-enhancing drugs throughout his NFL career, which he said contributed to a life-threatening condition that weakened his heart muscles.

"When they tell you that you need a new heart or you're going to die, you have time to reflect on the decisions you made in life. Steroids impacted my life in a negative way," Mr. Courson said in a recent interview.

Drug-free for the past 19 years, Mr. Courson recovered to full health by going on a diet and exercise program. He was a popular speaker at colleges, high schools and elementary schools, bluntly telling students that steroids work in building muscle but can cause harmful physical and psychological side effects.

He spoke on Oct. 25 to students at North Allegheny High School and did a similar engagement on Nov. 2 at Laurel Elementary School in New Castle.

"We live in a society that promotes bigger is better and winning at all costs. I know kids are tempted by the glory and the money, so the least I can do is tell them where the minefields are. I was duped into that minefield and almost paid for it with my life," he said. "Some things are more important than Super Bowl rings."

A physical trainer whose weight dropped from 330 pounds to a svelte 240 pounds, Mr. Courson testified earlier this year before a U.S. congressional committee looking to increase the penalties for steroid use by professional athletes. He also testified before a Senate panel in 1989 during the process in which steroid use was made a federal crime.

For five years in the 1990s, Mr. Courson worked as an assistant football coach at Trinity High School with former teammate Ted Peterson, who is now the athletic director at Upper St. Clair High School.

"We were rookies with the Steelers and went through some tough times together. I can't tell you what a loss this is. I've never been hit harder by anything in my life. He's going to be greatly missed," Mr. Peterson said.

"Here was a guy who suffered physically because of some choices he made. But he never, ever whined or complained. He chose to do the right thing. He had the courage to turn his life around and teach the lessons he learned to others so that they might avoid the same pitfalls," he added.
Dr. Yesalis, who was a pallbearer at the funeral of Mr. Courson's wife Cathy several years ago, said he spoke on the phone with his friend at 11 a.m. yesterday.

The two men had talked about heading out West on Harley-Davidson motorcycles next year, and Mr. Courson had begun looking into the purchase of a bike.

"He was black-balled by the NFL for speaking out about steroids. And the only thing that really stuck in his craw -- and you can quote me on this -- was that he was still very disappointed in his teammates for not talking about the truth about steroids," Dr. Yesalis said. "He told the truth all along. He was a man of honesty and integrity in a game that lacks it. I just lost one hell of a friend."

(Robert Dvorchak can be reached at or 412-263-1959. Cindi Lash can be reached at or 412-263-1973. Moustafa Ayad contributed to this report.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Staley Grateful For Cowher's Confidence

Staley grateful for Cowher having confidence in him

By MARK KABOLY, McKeesport Daily News Sports Editor
November 08, 2005

Duce Staley enjoyed getting back on the field. He liked being able to contribute to a win. And he loved scoring his first touchdown in more than a year. But what really made Staley smile was the fact that coach Bill Cowher had enough faith in him to entrust Sunday's game in Green Bay to a running back who hadn't carried the ball since last season's AFC title game.

"The big thing was going in there and knowing the coach had the confidence in me to give me the ball as much as he did," Staley said. "I wanted to be productive when I got the ball. It was good because it tested me. I was surprised that coach has confidence in me and trusts me. If he didn't he wouldn't have given me the ball."

Actually, Cowher didn't have much choice. Jerome Bettis was inactive because of a knee injury and starter Willie Parker left with an ankle injury in the second half of the 20-10 win over the Packers at Lambeau Field. Still, Cowher went with Staley over third-down back Verron Haynes.
"Missing all of preseason, then missing half the season, of course you have doubts," Staley said. "After that first play you kind of have to put it behind you."

Staley rushed 15 times for 76 yards and scored the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was the first rushing touchdown Green Bay allowed at home all season.

"He really seemed to get stronger as the game went on," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "We were pretty thin at running back by the end of the game, but he really carried the load."

Staley had just three first-half carries, but was called on to carry the load in the final two quarters.

"That was his first live contact since last year's championship game," Cowher said. "He's been running well in practice the last couple of weeks. He has been a trooper. He has sat there and been patient."

Ironically, patience hasn't always been Staley's strong suit. His desire to be an every-down back led to him leaving Philadelphia after the 2003 season to sign a five-year, $14 million contract with the Steelers.

Staley held out in training camp in 2003 because he was unhappy with his contract and playing time.

Coming off a season in which he ran for more than 1,000 yards, Staley wanted a contract extension. Facing the likelihood of splitting time with Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook in the final year of his deal, he held out.

He reported to camp before the season started, but was in coach Andy Reid's doghouse. He logged just 96 carries for 463 yards in his contract year.

This season, Staley hasn't complained about a lack of playing time since recovering from preseason knee surgery that was supposed to sideline him for a month.

"It is just the person I am," he said. "That is how I was raised. Everything happens for a reason and sooner or later your time will come. Look at all the running backs who are here now and one of us got hurt and the other had to step in. It feels good to be able to step in knowing that it won't stop."

"Guys accepted their roles," said quarterback Charlie Batch, who stepped in for injured starter Ben Roethlisberger against the Packers. "If guys are complaining it could create chaos around the locker room. It is something that this team has not done. It's nice to know that we all have one common goal."

Staley was a healthy scratch four times before getting his first carry Sunday.

"We have a bunch of good backs here and I am just happy to be back in the rotation," he said. "Whatever it takes. If it takes for me sitting back down and Jerome coming back in to play then that's how it has to be."
"Now I got to keep getting stronger and hopefully get back to the old Duce."

©The Daily News 2005

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Sherry Ross: This Kid is all right

Crosby shows class beyond years
The New York Daily News

The battle for the Calder Trophy, the NHL's top rookie honor, is likely to come down to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who was the first overall draft pick over the summer, and Alexander Ovechkin, who was picked first overall by Washington in 2004. By the most accurate method available to determine the status of any person, place, or thing in North American culture, the Penguins' phenom can be declared the winner.

It's so easy to tell with eBay.

Type in Crosby's name on the virtual marketplace's Web site and you get more than 1,000 hits. Ovechkin? Not so great. A paltry 190 items turned up on his search.

The Crosby collection includes everything from hockey cards, shirts, photos, bobbleheads and hats to the kid himself, sort of. For a mere $2,999, you could start the bidding on a Web site incorporating Crosby's name and number (87, which if you don't know by now, signifies Crosby's birthdate, Aug. 7, 1987).
There were no takers for the domain name. Since Crosby has had his own Web site for years, he won't need to squander his rookie paycheck buying back his own good name.

Speaking of his good name, one of the items for sale was an unauthorized vulgar decal employing Crosby's name and number, but not likeness. It's hard to think of another item that could be less appropriate for Crosby, who spent part of Sunday afternoon wandering, wide-eyed, around Times Square like any other anonymous tourist on his first trip to the Big Apple.
"It's really busy," Crosby proclaimed before his Garden debut last night, where he was named the No. 1 star in Pittsburgh's 3-2 win over the Rangers.

He wasn't recognized or badgered for an autograph until he and a few teammates had dinner later in the evening. All of those scores of fellow sightseers who brushed right past Crosby might just regret the missed opportunities. On Crosby's own Web site, an autographed jersey goes for $679.99. You could have had his signature for a "please" and a "thank you."

On the ice, the 18-year-old Crosby has been compared to a young Wayne Gretzky. After Jaromir Jagr made a near-mystical pass from the right corner to find Petr Prucha in front of the net for a big goal against the Devils on Saturday, Rangers coach Tom Renney was asked who else in the NHL could have crafted such a play. Renney's first candidate: Crosby.

Off the ice, Crosby is also a young No. 99, and not just in his marketability (in addition to his status on eBay, he's a spokesman for Reebok and Gatorade). He is unfailingly polite, polished, accessible, and for the time being, cautious not to say anything that could possibly be construed as the least bit controversial. Crosby will never have a Terrell Owens-type meltdown.
Crosby's debut on the big stage was scrutinized by guys who know all about pressure. Mark Messier, a Garden god, looked on from a luxury suite, as if from Olympus. Mike Eruzione, the legendary U.S. Olympian, visited in the locker room.

Did Crosby dominate? No, but neither did another teenage star, LeBron James, in his first NBA game in New York in February, 2004, but James's 22 points were a glimmer of things to come, and so was Crosby's highlight-caliber second-period goal. He nearly netted an even more dramatic score in the first, busting between two Rangers defenseman to draw a penalty and get a scoring chance that was stopped by Kevin Weekes.
"I should have went high," Crosby said, almost sheepishly. "I was just trying to get a shot off. I've had a couple of chances like that already this year. Hopefully one of these days I'll be able to get one."

Crosby's goal was his fifth of the season, and he leads all NHL rookies with 19 points in 15 games. His first goal at the Garden is just another in what is certain to be a long list of milestones.
And with every game like last night's, Crosby's value skyrockets.

Originally published on November 8, 2005

Monday, November 07, 2005

Rejuvenated Jagr Poses Huge Problems For Pens Tonight

Monday, November 07, 2005
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Coverage:
Penguins Notebook: Lemieux's goal to play full year

NEW YORK -- He is beginning to look awfully familiar, that guy in the New York Rangers' sweater who has been tormenting NHL goaltenders since the earliest moments of this season.
And not just because of the unusual figure -- No. 68 -- on the back of that jersey.

That number still triggers instant recognition, but the most striking thing about Jaromir Jagr these days is the way he has been dominating games, overpowering opponents with his muscle and overwhelming them with his talent.

Just as he did for much of his 11-year run with the Penguins, who drafted him in 1990 and watched him grow -- although, some in the organization will tell you, not grow up -- into the NHL's premier offensive force.

While his attitude and intangibles became an issue his final years with the Penguins, who finally traded him to Washington in 2001, Jagr's talent never was questioned. That might have changed a bit during three mostly forgettable seasons with the Capitals and Rangers, but the idea that his game has slipped doesn't get mentioned much anymore.

Mostly because the numbers he has put up -- 14 goals and nine assists in 15 games -- are enough to refute any words.

Jagr enters the Rangers' game against the Penguins at 7:08 p.m. today at Madison Square Garden with a 12-game scoring streak -- he has 12 goals and seven assists during that stretch -- and a legitimate shot at becoming just the sixth NHL player to score 50 goals in his team's first 50 games.

The last player to do it was Brett Hull of St. Louis in 1991-92; he also did it a year earlier. Other members of that most exclusive club are Wayne Gretzky (three times), Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux.

The same Mario Lemieux who was Jagr's hero when he was growing up in Czechoslovakia and his mentor while they were teammates with the Penguins. The same Mario Lemieux who believes Jagr has a realistic shot at 50 in 50, in part because of the league's crackdown on obstruction-related infractions.

"I think he does," Lemieux said. "The way the game is now, and they're setting him up on the power play from what I've seen, I think he's got a good shot."

A lot of people do -- "With where he is right now, yeah," Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said -- but Jagr insisted during a recent conference call that he doesn't see himself as much of a threat to pull it off.

"It's very tough for any player, and I don't think I am a goal-scorer," he said. "It's tough to score 50 in 82 games. Fifty in 50, I don't know if anybody can do it, even though the rules have changed, that's tough."

And maybe he has a point about not really being a goal-scorer. After all, the guy only has 551 of them; only 18 players in NHL history have scored more.

Precedent suggests the best way to neutralize Jagr is to catch him when he's in a funk; no checking line or game plan can shut him down as effectively as Jagr can himself.

The bad news for the Penguins is that Jagr seems happy and highly motivated these days, so the onus of limiting the damage he does will fall on them.

"It [takes] a total team effort, the five guys on the ice knowing where he is, to [prevent] him from getting the puck," Olczyk said. "Try to put yourself in position to not get beat by him."
Nice idea. Making it happen is a whole lot tougher than devising the strategy.

"With his strength, his speed and the talent that he has, he's going to get his points every night," Lemieux said.

So far, Jagr has been shut out once in 15 games. He is thriving on a line with Michael Nylander and longtime Penguins teammate Martin Straka, the latter of whom is one of six Czechs on New York's roster since the start of the season.

New York's management made a point of bringing in players from Jagr's homeland to make him comfortable, and his play is validating that decision.

"Of course, it helps you," Jagr said. "It helps anybody. Don't forget, we are from different countries, and everything is different. Even if we like it here in America, it is still a different country.

"If you have a guy from the same country we can speak the same language, I think, it is more comfortable. You feel a lot better, and it's better for the hockey.

"I don't know if it's helped my game, but I have a lot of fun. One reason why is because I can speak my own language and I can joke around, and that's always better for the hockey."

Jagr isn't the only reason New York -- an almost-universal choice in the preseason to miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row -- is leading the Atlantic Division. The Rangers have enjoyed excellent goaltending, solid team defense and good special-teams play.

"They made some moves this summer, got some experienced players in there, so I'm not surprised they're doing that well," Lemieux said. "Especially when Jagr's playing great."

(Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.)