Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Penguins Try to Stay in the Race Without Crosby

The New York Times
Published: January 30, 2008

Rich Schultz/Associated Press
Ryan Malone scores off a rebound against New Jersey's Martin Brodeur.

NEWARK — Like the waiting room at a train station, a visitors’ dressing room is a place to get in and get out. But the Pittsburgh Penguins made themselves at home on Tuesday at Prudential Center, covering the walls with logos and laying a rug on the floor.

A Sidney Crosby sighting would have been more inspirational, but Crosby — the Penguins’ 20-year-old center, captain, leading scorer and N.H.L. centerpiece — will be out for six to eight weeks with a badly sprained right ankle. So the Penguins dug deep, again, and beat the Devils, 4-2.

Crosby’s injury, sustained Jan. 18, was the most serious blow in a series of setbacks for the Penguins, who were already without goaltender Marc-André Fleury. Crosby is the 12th player on the Penguins to miss a game because of injury or illness.

“He’s a leader on the club, he’s the guy pushing everybody every time we step on the ice, and we miss him,” defenseman Sergei Gonchar said of Crosby. “But it’s an opportunity for the rest of the guys to step up and do their thing.”

Or, in some cases, do different things. Brooks Orpik, a defenseman, was moved to left wing for the game against the Devils because the Penguins had seven healthy defensemen and because Coach Michel Therrien did not have many other options.

The Penguins claimed Kris Beech off waivers Saturday, but Beech, a much-traveled forward who played for Pittsburgh for three seasons from 2001 to 2004, was unable to join the team before Tuesday’s game; he was having problems with his work visa, so he could not enter the United States from his native Canada.

“It’s a situation where we are desperate for players, and it’s nothing we can control,” Therrien said glumly.

The Penguins (28-18-4) got two goals from left wing Ryan Malone to pass the Devils (28-19-3) in the standings. Pittsburgh remained 1 point behind Philadelphia (28-16-5), which won Tuesday to hold onto first place in the rugged Atlantic Division. “Everybody’s disappointed, but you remain positive,” Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “It’s not like we were in 10th place and then we lost him.”

The Penguins, who were also without right wing Colby Armstrong on Tuesday because he had the flu, think they are talented enough to withstand the injury to Crosby. They have registered 5 points in the four games Crosby has missed.

The Penguins admit to being motivated by the fact that everyone else seems to think they cannot win without Crosby, particularly while playing in a competitive division in which a three-game losing streak, Whitney said, could break any team.

There is little margin for error for any team in the division. Despite the victory, the Penguins are only 6 points ahead of the Islanders and the Rangers, the eighth-place and ninth-place teams in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re playing as hard as we can as a team, trying to battle through it,” defenseman Darryl Sydor said. “Everyone’s picked us to fail. Nobody thinks we can make the playoffs. We believe we can.”

Goalie Ty Conklin, who began the season with the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton farm team, won 10 of his first 11 starts after Fleury was injured. Without Crosby, the Penguins realize they have to play tougher and tighter on defense.

The mood, they say, remains upbeat, with an undertone of defiance. Crosby may not return until the last two weeks of the regular season, and the Penguins said they wanted those few weeks to mean something.

“It is a challenge,” Malone said. “But we know we’ve got good players in here to do it. It’s up to us. No one’s going to feel sorry for us. The standings are so tight that every night’s a big night.”

Without winning team, Pirates sell hope, but is it false?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Adam LaRoche

The best promotion for any sports team in any market is not fireworks or bobbleheads or concerts, but winning. The second-best promotion is the hope of winning.

The Pirates cannot promise winning so they do the next best thing: They promise the hope of winning.

We saw that last year with the rush of enthusiasm generated by the trade for Adam LaRoche. His power bat would not necessarily help produce a winner, but it helped foster the hope of winning. It was the same the year before when massive expenditures brought Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa to the team. There were no guarantees with this influx of veteran talent, but they created hope.

This year, there are no new faces to excite fans. The only addition of even slight note is veteran utilityman Chris Gomez. But that doesn't mean the Pirates can't continue to try to sell hope. They have to. They have nothing else.

The hope the Pirates are selling this year is that the 2007 team underachieved. If you accept that fact, it logically follows that just the usual course of events will make the team better and -- hopefully -- a winner.

The underachievement theory is being widely accepted, even by usually skeptical journalists. But if the 2007 Pirates underachieved, explain the following:

• Why did their win total improve over their two previous years, going from 67 to 68?

• Why did they have more home runs, more doubles, more total bases and a higher team slugging percentage than at any time in the previous four seasons?

General manager Neal Huntington thinks the team underachieved in a big way. Earlier this month, he said this about the Pirates:

"I would say there is a pretty good nucleus in place with the major-league roster, particularly the rotation. I would argue, too, that if you go around the diamond with our everyday players, there are as many as five who underachieved last year. If just three of those five meet or exceed expectations, those 68 wins become greater."

Freddy Sanchez on his way to the 2006 NL batting title

If Huntington were correct, he might have a decent point. He is not correct. There were not "as many as five" position players that underachieved last year.

It is widely accepted that Jason Bay, Ronny Paulino and LaRoche underachieved. We won't quibble with Bay, who fell off in every area -- offense, defense, baserunning. The case that Paulino and LaRoche underachieved isn't quite so clear.

Paulino's defensive play and attitude were disgraceful. He was so lazy on the field, he should have been benched for a long period or returned to the minors. But, offensively, which is the area easiest to define and what Huntington seemed to be talking about, he did not necessarily underachieve. It's true his batting average fell from .310 to .263. But what is not clear is which of the two is his true number. In eight minor-league seasons, he never batted as high as .310, so there's reason to believe he overachieved in 2006 rather than underachieved in 2007. What's more, his home run total almost doubled in 2007, from six to 11, and his RBI total remained the same.

If Paulino underachieved offensively, it was not by much.

As for LaRoche, his home run total, which was expected to increase because of the dimensions of PNC Park, declined considerably from 32 to 21. But that 21 happens to be the second highest of his major-league career. His RBI total decreased by only two. LaRoche probably underachieved, but based on his career not by much.

Where Huntington came up with five position players who underachieved is difficult to figure.

Right fielder Xavier Nady didn't underachieve. He had the best season of his career, with highs in home runs, RBIs and doubles.

Shortstop Jack Wilson didn't underachieve. His batting average increased by 23 points and was the second highest of his career. His home run total and on-base percentage were the highest of his career.

Second baseman Freddy Sanchez didn't underachieve, unless he's expected to win a batting title every year. His .304 batting average and 81 RBIs were more than acceptable based on his history.

Freddy Sanchez (L) greets Xavier Nady

Third baseman Jose Bautista didn't underachieve. In his second full season, his batting average increased by 19 points and his RBI total by 12.

Center fielder Nate McLouth didn't underachieve. He had career highs in virtually every offensive category.

Nor did reserves Nyjer Morgan, Josh Phelps and Matt Kata underachieve.

The case could be made, particularly when the pitching staff is included, that the Pirates overachieved last season.

But the team should keep selling this brand of hope. After all, there's a sucker born every minute.

Bob Smizik can be reached at
First published on January 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Super Bowl Notebook: Ward a finalist for another Super honor

Man of Year rewards community service

Tuesday, January 29, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Hines Ward -- 719 catches in 10 seasons

PHOENIX -- For the second time in three years, Hines Ward can win one of the NFL's highest awards on Super Bowl Sunday.

He earned the game's MVP when his Steelers beat Seattle in Super Bowl XL. This time he's one of four finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award that will be presented here Sunday.

He places the honor as high as the one he took home from Detroit in 2006.

"I've gotten a lot of awards; that would be right up there with my Super Bowl MVP," Ward said.

"No question it means the world to me, to sit there and be mentioned with Walter Payton and win that award, not only to be known for my production on the field but off the field as well."

Walter Payton- Chicago Bears (1975-1987)...rushed for 16,726 yards and 110 touchdowns...1977 NFL MVP...9X Pro Bowl selection...1993 Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The winner will be announced before the Super Bowl. The other finalists are Woodland Hills High School graduate and Miami defensive end Jason Taylor, Kansas City guard Brian Waters and Dallas tight end Jason Witten.

The award is named after Payton, the Chicago Bears Pro Football Hall of Fame back who died in 1999. It is the only league award that recognizes a player's community service as well as his performance on the field.

Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler who holds most of the Steelers' career receiving records, established the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation to assist biracial children in South Korea who face discrimination. He donated $1 million of his own money to establish the fund and has raised another $1.5 million. He frequently participates in the NFL's annual Take A Player to School program.

He also co-hosts an annual golf outing to benefit the Caring Foundation, with proceeds benefiting families in western Pennsylvania for healthcare for children and adults.

"I'm all about helping kids, trying to raise money for parents who don't have health insurance," Ward said, "and caring places where kids can go and talk to others who lost a loved one.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Some of the Heinz Field turf kicks up during the Monday night game vs. Miami in November.

"I always want to be known as a great player on and off the field."

Other Steelers who won the award were Jerome Bettis in 2001, Lynn Swann in 1981, Joe Greene in 1979 and Franco Harris in 1976.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bay disappointed by Pirates' lack of roster moves

GM responds that team 'pursued many pieces,' but found no fair value

Saturday, January 26, 2008
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Jason Bay happily signs autographs along with Neil Walker and Bob Friend at PirateFest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center last night. But he wasn't happy that Pirates management didn't make any big moves in the offseason.

Jason Bay clearly felt as if he had no choice but to speak up.

So, he did.

After a few days of ruminating with family, the Pirates' All-Star left fielder yesterday publicly expressed his disappointment with management -- albeit stopping well short of pointed criticism -- for its lack of roster moves this offseason.

"I kind of painted myself into a corner when I said last year that there needed to be some moves made, whether I was part of that or not," Bay said at the team's annual media luncheon at PNC Park. "And there were some moves, but probably not the type I was referring to. There was a lot of management and coaching moves. I still think there needs to be player moves."

He stressed that settling for a winning record, even after going 68-94 last summer, even after 15 consecutive losing seasons, was not enough.

"I think that, for a championship-quality team, you need to make more moves. And I'm not talking about the .500 team we can be. I don't think anyone in this room is going to tell you we're a championship-quality team. There still needs to be more moves. And you know what? I'm not trying to tell people anything they don't already know."

The way Bay saw it, remarks he made to the media after the final game of last season obligated him to go public again.

"We've had basically the same group the last four years," he said Sept. 30. "To think we're going to win 100 games or go the World Series next year with the exact same team ... it would be a little foolish. I'm not saying you need an overhaul, but something's got to change."

As Bay put it yesterday, "You say something like that, you've got to come back to it."

The Pirates, making no secret of being focused on the future under new general manager Neal Huntington, have signed only one major-league free-agent this offseason, utility infielder Chris Gomez. There also have been five waiver claims, a Rule 5 draft pick and more than a dozen minor-league contracts.

By every measure, too, the bullpen and bench have been weakened by the departures of Salomon Torres, Shawn Chacon, Josh Phelps and Cesar Izturis.

Some players privately are unhappy about what they see as a lack of support from management. Others, privately and publicly, are happy about certain player subtractions and, in some cases, grateful for the chance to prove they can perform better than they did in 2007.

Huntington has shopped some prominent veterans for trades, including Bay, outfielder Xavier Nady and starter Matt Morris, but did not like the return offers. He also negotiated with several prominent free agents, including relievers Luis Vizcaino, Ron Mahay and Jeremy Affeldt, but did not like the dollars they ended up getting elsewhere.

Told of Bay's comments, Huntington said he has "great respect for Jason Bay and his desire to win" and did not sound at all displeased.

"We aggressively pursued many pieces for the 2008 team," Huntington said. "We can't sign free agents just to appease the public. We can't make trades when players are at their lowest value just to make ourselves feel better."

He pointed, specifically, to the bullpen, which will enter spring training with four openings.

"That's the most difficult position to factor. You can throw money at it and be unsuccessful. You can try all-power and be unsuccessful. What we're trying to do is create options. You see teams all around baseball, Cleveland, Kansas City, Anaheim and others who succeed all different ways."

Huntington also did not hesitate when asked how he expected a 94-loss team to improve with so little roster movement.

"It comes back to most of our guys being younger and, statistically, it is rational to expect them to be better. They should be getting better. We have a number of players -- and they'd be the first to admit this -- who underperformed. Look, we're not preaching that this team is going to contend. We can't say that. But we can say it will be better. How much better? It's going to be very, very interesting to see."

Huntington said no player has approached him directly with roster suggestions, but he added he would welcome any input.

"Absolutely. You always want open lines of communication. I know our players want to win. We all do."

Bay, naturally outspoken, often felt muzzled by previous management, but he seemed genuinely appreciative not only for Huntington's candor about the team's direction but also for the freedom he felt in saying what he did.

"Give Neal credit," Bay said.

Bay is plenty aware that the Pirates tried to trade him, just as he is aware that his backward-step 2007 -- .247 average, 21 home runs -- lowered his value and rendered that difficult. He also recognizes that, once he performs to his ability again, it surely is just a matter of time before the Pirates try again. He is due $13.5 million the next two seasons, and he represents the team's best chance to secure the elite prospects it covets.

Will trade talk distract him?

"You just go out and help your team win," Bay said. "Right now, I'm a Pittsburgh Pirate."

Asked if he would prefer to be traded, he quickly replied, "No, not at all. I've always wanted to be a Pittsburgh Pirate. But I've wanted to play for a winning group of Pittsburgh Pirates. Hopefully, we can turn this team into a winner."

One significant component of the Pirates winning, of course, will be a return of the pre-2007 Bay. And, to that end, Bay expressed optimism, largely because he expects to be fully healthy.

Each of his first four springs with the Pirates, he was coming off a surgery or injury. But this time, after a wonky right knee slowed him last season, he described the knee as "100 percent" and predicted it would stay that way because of a training regimen he has undergone in a Seattle gym aimed at strengthening his legs. He said he and new hitting coach Don Long, who lives 15 minutes from his home, already have noticed an upgrade to his swing in private workouts.

"I found a whole different level of being in shape," Bay said. "My legs were deficient in strength, partly because I was always coming off some injury in the offseason and never had this chance. I've got a much better foundation now."

NOTES -- The Pirates and San Diego have been in touch this week regarding the Padres' continued interest in Nady, but no deal seems imminent. ... Nady, troubled by a hamstring injury all last season, said specialized workouts have helped it regain full flexibility. Of possibly being traded for the third time in the past five years, he joked, "I don't know if people just don't like me or what." ... Morris, whose $9.5 million salary will take up 20 percent of the payroll, said of being dealt, "I know it's very likely to happen, and I understand. But I hope they keep me because we're winning and they feel I can be part of it." ... There has been little progress between the team and closer Matt Capps regarding a long-term contract.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at
First published on January 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

Friday, January 25, 2008

Ward blindsided by Big Ben's comments

Former Super Bowl MVP says Brady, Manning haven't requested taller receivers

Friday, January 25, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
An unhappy Hines Ward leaves the field after the Steelers' loss to the Jaguars Saturday night. (vs. Jaguars 01/05/08)

Hines Ward spends his time these days at home in Atlanta, recovering from postseason surgery on his right knee. A different kind of hurt was delivered by his own quarterback last week.

Ben Roethlisberger called for the Steelers to acquire a tall wide receiver, specifically to help inside the 20 and for a bailout target when he's under pressure. He said he had that with 6-foot-5 Plaxico Burress, but not since after the 2004 season.

"I'm always going to ask for a tall receiver," Roethlisberger said in an interview with the Post-Gazette. "That's just me. Our receivers are unbelievable, but our tallest guy might be Hines. Or Santonio [Holmes]. Hines is going to say he's 6 foot, but he's 5-11."

That stung Ward, the most decorated Steelers receiver in history.

"I don't hear Tom Brady or Peyton Manning asking for that," Ward said yesterday.

"I don't know, whatever he says. I have no idea. To me, it's a rare combination of receivers out there who are good and tall. We won a Super Bowl, we didn't have a tall receiver then. I don't see Tom Brady caring about who's tall or not. He got Randy this year, but he did it before without him.''

Randy Moss, who is 6-4, is Brady's first good, tall receiver in New England, which is trying to win its fourth Super Bowl in the past seven seasons. Moss joined the team this year after a trade and set an NFL record with 23 touchdown receptions.

Reggie Wayne, one of Manning's stable of Indianapolis Colts receivers, led the NFL with 112 receptions and 1,510 yards this season. Like Ward, he is listed at 6 feet. So, too, is Marvin Harrison, who long has been Manning's favorite receiver.

"To me, I have enough problems to worry about than what Ben wants -- I can't give him the contract,'' Ward said, referring to Roethlisberger's wish to have a contract extension as soon as possible. "He wants a tall receiver? Why did we draft Santonio?"

Holmes, who stands 5-11, led the Steelers with eight touchdowns and 942 yards receiving last season, on 52 catches. His 18.1 yards per catch were higher than any of the top 50 receivers in the NFL. Ward led them with 71 receptions despite playing much of the season with a sprained knee and caught seven touchdown passes. Nate Washington, who stands 6-1, was third with 29 catches.

"I don't buy into height,'' said Ward, one of four finalists for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award that will be chosen next week. "Look at my red-zone touchdowns -- I have as many as anyone in the league.''

Since 2002, Ward is tied for second in the league in percentage of touchdowns in the red zone, described by the NFL as inside the 20. Moss is first with 36 percent and Ward, Harrison and Terrell Owens are tied with 33 percent.

That's why Roethlisberger's appeal for a tall receiver to help in the red zone hurt Ward, who holds most Steelers receiving records to go along with his four Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl MVP award.

"In the red zone, it's nice to have a guy like that,'' Roethlisberger said of wanting a taller receiver. "Obviously, we have a guy like Nate who can jump out of this world, he can jump so high. It's nice to have that.

"But to have a big guy who can create mismatches -- the same thing happened when Plax was here. So much presence went to Plax's side just because he's a big, good receiver, that Hines was always open or Antwaan [Randle El]. I just think it would open stuff up for us a lot more."

Said Ward, "I don't buy into the hype you have to be tall.

"You throw the ball up and give somebody a chance to make a play, I'll make as many catches as anyone.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger talks about what he would like to see happen in the off-season

The Steelers do have two tall receivers in 6-5 Heath Miller and 6-7 Matt Spaeth, both tight ends.

"If Ben wants a tall receiver to make him feel comfortable or whatever, maybe the organization will get him one,'' Ward said.

"To me, I like the four guys we have. This is Ben's first year with [coordinator] Bruce Arians, and he had a tremendous year, a Pro Bowl year. I think he's coming into his own. We have weapons, let's gel together a couple more years and let's see what happens.

"If they go and get a tall receiver in the first round, someone's got to lose a job. Now we had all these weapons around us, now what are we going to do?

"I was here with me, Plax and Antwaan; we had three deadly weapons. Did that win us a Super Bowl? No, the year we won the Super Bowl we had me, Antwaan and Cedrick Wilson. If there's a formula for bringing a tall guy in to win, I don't buy that."

He also did not buy Roethlisberger's opinion that because the 6-5 quarterback was throwing down to his smaller receivers, they got "killed" on occasion reaching up for passes. Roethlisberger said he'd like to throw to someone tall who is on his plane.

"A lot of that has to do with technique,'' Ward said. "If he wants to say it's height or whatever or he didn't see me -- I've caught 719 balls. I don't think me being short had anything to do with catching those balls.

"That's his opinion. Even with Plax and Kordell [Stewart], I would be wide open in the red zone, but people get enamored of tall receivers -- 'I have to throw it to him, throw it to him.' Tom Brady looks at coverage. Me, I'd take a guy who will scratch and claw and do anything to get the ball rather than go with height."

Ward had surgery on his right knee Jan. 9 to repair a torn meniscus and said he will be good as new in about four weeks. He said the MCL and PCL in his right knee were torn Sept. 23 against San Francisco, causing him to miss two games. The meniscus was torn at St. Louis Dec. 20. He missed the season finale in Baltimore, then had his most productive playoff game with 135 yards on 10 catches in a loss to Jacksonville.

"I played all year on that one knee," Ward said. "As time went on, the knee got worse because I never let it rest ... That's why I didn't practice on Wednesdays and Thursdays, we were trying to let the PCL heal."

Ward said he talked to coach Mike Tomlin and his trainers about the option of surgery during the season vs. the risk of playing and making the knee worse. He preferred to play.

He said he'd like to play another three or four years and noted that at age 32 come March, he's only one year older than Burress, who turns 31 this year, and Moss; the same age as Torry Holt, and younger than Owens (34), Harrison (35) and Isaac Bruce (35).

"I have three, four good years left, I would like to think,'' Ward said.

"All these other guys are playing 12, 13 years and still going strong. Why can they go strong and 'Hines Ward will be the one to fall off.' I never could fathom that.

"There will always be question marks around me because I'm not the prototypical guy, not flashy. But I've shown you what I can do when they pass the ball."

"I was here with me, Plax and Antwaan; we had three deadly weapons. Did that win us a Super Bowl? No, the year we won the Super Bowl we had me, Antwaan and Cedrick Wilson. If there's a formula for bringing a tall guy in to win, I don't buy that."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on January 25, 2008 at 12:00 am

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A journeyman's ultimate journey: Conklin return a monthlong sensation in goal

Thursday, January 24, 2008
By Ron Musselman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
In the minutes leading up to one of his most watched starts of the season -- the Winter Classic on New Year's Day -- Ty Conklin stays loose by kicking a soccer ball around.

Ty Conklin has been one of the NHL's hottest commodities since being recalled from the minors in early December after a high-ankle sprain injury to starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

Conklin won his first nine starts and wrapped up a sensational monthlong stretch with a 10-1-2 record that has helped move the Penguins into second place in the tight Atlantic Division standings.

Although he has dropped his past two decisions (one a shootout, which is listed as a tie in NHL statistics), Conklin has been nearly invincible in the net since being summoned from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League.

He has compiled a 1.82 goals-against average in 14 games for the Penguins, including a .946 save percentage and two shutouts -- the same total he had logged in 76 previous NHL games.

"I don't think any goalie in the league has played as good as Ty has in the last month or so," goaltending coach Gilles Meloche said.

Conklin, 31, puts the word journey into journeyman.

He was born in Eagle River, Alaska, a suburb of Anchorage. In addition to playing for Edmonton, Columbus and Buffalo in the NHL, he has played for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats,

the Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams in the German Elite League, and the Hamilton Bulldogs, Hartford Wolf Pack, Syracuse Crunch and Baby Penguins in the AHL.

Conklin also led Team USA to a bronze medal at the 2004 Ice Hockey Federation World Championships en route to earning best goaltender honors.

Assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher convinced general manager Ray Shero to sign Conklin as a free agent in July.

He agreed to a one-year, two-way contract and was ticketed to stay in the minors all season, barring an injury to Fleury or backup Dany Sabourin.

"I give Ty a lot of credit," Fletcher said. "He had a tough season last year and a lot of guys won't look in the mirror and realize they have to take a step backward in order to get back to where they want to go. It's pretty impressive that he wanted to do that.

"Since he's been up here, he's been playing great, and you can see the confidence the players have in him when he's in the net. It's not only been a nice story for Ty, it's been a great gain for our club."

Conklin's break came last month when Fleury fell awkwardly outside the crease in a Dec. 6 game against Calgary. Conklin, 11-7 with a 2.21 goals-against average at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, was promoted to the Penguins the next day.

Although his pay jumped from $100,000 to $500,000, Conklin was expected to be the backup. But Sabourin struggled as the starter and Conklin took over, compiling a 1.47 GAA in his 10 victories.

Sabourin, who also is being paid $500,000, has made only three starts since Dec. 21. He is 8-8-1 with a 2.69 GAA and was rocked for four goals on 13 shots Monday by the Washington Capitals before giving way to Conklin in what turned out to be a 6-5 shootout loss.

But Conklin has enjoyed his memorable run, which began Dec. 20 with a victory at Boston.

"It's always fun when you're winning games, but I don't want to get too far ahead of myself," he said.

Conklin, expected to make his first start in six days tonight in Philadelphia, still has his share of doubters. Only once in his NHL career has he played in more than 18 games in a season, going 17-14-4 in 38 appearances with Edmonton in 2003-04.

He is taking a cautious approach now that reigning league MVP Sidney Crosby is out six to eight weeks with a high ankle sprain.

"I think everyone has to raise the level of their games while Sid's out, including me," Conklin said.

Conklin is the latest backup goalie to enjoy a starring role with the Penguins.

In 1996-97, Patrick Lalime was called up from the AHL and compiled a league-record 14-0-2 mark to start his NHL career.

In 1999-2000, veteran Ron Tugnutt, acquired in a deadline trade for Tom Barrasso, led all goaltenders with a .945 save percentage in the playoffs.

A year later, career minor-leaguer Johan Hedberg had a .911 save percentage and 2.30 GAA in the postseason.

Defenseman Ryan Whitney has enjoyed Conklin's quick start.

"To see a guy come in and dominate and do what he's done, when nobody expected it, has been pretty special," Whitney said.

Conklin's stick-handling skills are above average and he hasn't had much trouble keeping the puck out of the net, allowing just 24 goals on 441 shots.

"There isn't much strategy to discuss with Ty when he's playing like he's been," said Meloche. "You just kind of tap him on the back, and say, 'Don't change what you're doing.' "

Before this season, Conklin was best known for his gaffe in Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

After relieving injured Edmonton starter Dwayne Roloson late in the third period of a 4-4 game, Conklin botched an exchange with teammate Jason Smith behind the net. The puck deflected off Smith's stick, and Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour scored the winning goal from in front.

Conklin didn't play for the Oilers again. He was a combined 6-17-5 while shuffling between Buffalo, Columbus and Syracuse last year.

Signing with the Penguins was a fresh start.

"I just wanted to make sure that I played well in the minors, and if an opportunity did present itself to play in the NHL, I was ready for it," Conklin said. "All of this other stuff has been a real bonus."

Although he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a senior at New Hampshire in 2000-01, Conklin was an undrafted free agent. Even then, the Penguins had an interest in signing him.

"But we didn't have any money," Meloche said, "and we got outbid by Edmonton."

Seven years later, Conklin has turned out to be one of the best bargains in the NHL.

"He's done a great job for us," coach Michel Therrien said.

Once Fleury is healthy, Therrien will be forced to make a decision: Does he stick with Conklin if he's still playing well, or does he go back to Fleury, who won 40 games last season?

"I can't control who plays or how much I play," Conklin said. "All I can control is how well I play."

Ron Musselman can be reached at
First published on January 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Better injury happened now than later

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
By Bob Smizik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby grimaces after crashing into the boards in the first period, Crosby left the game with a high ankle sprain.

What with the Penguins already besieged by injuries and much of their recent success based on the unexpectedly good play of a journeyman goaltender whose new-found excellence could evaporate any day, there wouldn't figure to be a worse time to lose Sidney Crosby for six to eight weeks.


Had Crosby sustained his high ankle sprain March 16 instead of Jan. 16, the Penguins would have been in far worse straits. Had Crosby's injury occurred at a point where he would miss a round or more of playoff competition, the Penguins would be in trouble. A player of Crosby's caliber missing time in the regular season is serious, but it has nowhere near the consequences of missing time in the postseason.

The NHL regular season isn't meaningless, just almost so. The league plays 82 games to eliminate 14 of its 30 teams. Fans are in a dither about whether the team is in first or second place when it really doesn't mean that much. It's about finishing in the top eight in the conference, not finishing first in the division.

The Penguins are among the best eight in the Eastern Conference even with their best player missing more than a quarter of the regular season.

Crosby will be back for the final weeks, which should be enough time for him to rally his teammates, if, in fact, that's what they need. Once in the playoffs, the Penguins will have not only the best player in the league, but also one who will be playing at an even higher level than usual because of his reduced regular-season work load.

This is not to suggest the absence of Crosby is a blessing. It's not. It's a critical loss. But it's one that can be overcome. Had the injury occurred later in the season, his loss would have been insurmountable.

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby is taken down by the Lightning's Paul Ranger before crashing in to the boards in the first period. Crosby left the game with a high ankle sprain.

When Crosby walked into the media lounge at Mellon Arena yesterday to answer the obvious questions, the Penguins were in first place in the Atlantic Division, but also two points removed from fourth place. No team has been able to dominate the Atlantic, and that plays in the Penguins' favor. It's essential to have this delicate balance of power remain in place.

In the two games Crosby already has missed, the Penguins have registered three of a possible four points. No one should take that as a sign of things to come. In the immediate aftermath of monumental injuries, emotions can sometimes play a larger role than usual. When the full impact of their situation is more clear to the Penguins, their play will decline. It has to. A team can't lose its best player and not suffer the consequences.

The Penguins have flouted that conventional wisdom in the case of Marc-Andre Fleury, their best goaltender, who had a high ankle sprain Dec. 6. The belief was that if they could just hang close until Fleury returned, they'd be in good shape. They've done more than that, winning 14 of 21 and advancing in the standings.

But Crosby is different from Fleury. He is not replaceable. It's possible Evgeni Malkin will rise to the occasion and play as well as Crosby had been playing. Malkin gave signs of doing that in the Penguins' 6-5 loss Monday to Washington. But if Malkin replaces Crosby, who replaces Malkin?

What the Penguins have to worry about over the next six to eight weeks is not Crosby's ankle so much as the psyche of Ty Conklin, the man who has superbly replaced Fleury. In 14 games, Conklin has a 1.82 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage. If he had played enough games, he would lead the NHL in both categories.

It's a radical departure for Conklin, whose goals-against average in 76 previous NHL games dating to the 2001-02 season was 2.65 and whose save percentage was about .905. In those previous 76 games, Conklin had two shutouts. In his 14 games with the Penguins, he already has had two more.

He's either playing way over his head and could implode at any time or at age 31 has finally found himself. The former makes more sense, but for the sake of the Penguins we can only hope it's the latter.

If in the next six to eight weeks Conklin plays even close to his current level or if Dany Sabourin can pick up part of the load, the Penguins will be fine. If they're even close to a playoff spot when Crosby returns, his play and the emotional lift the team will receive will be more than enough to carry the day.

Once in the playoffs, regardless of who has home-ice advantage, the Penguins will be a formidable opponent for any team and should build on the experience they gained last season.

Bob Smizik can be reached at
First published on January 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

The ankle & the kid: Sid's hiatus sinking in

Penguins' test: Stay in hunt for playoffs without Crosby for 6 to 8 weeks

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
By Dave Molinari, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby -- without crutches or a walking boot -- leaves the news conference yesterday at Mellon Arena, where he discussed the injury that will likely keep him out of action until sometime in March.

The Penguins will not have Sidney Crosby for the next six or eight weeks.

It's hard to imagine anything much worse for them in losing their captain and leading scorer.

Unless you're general manager Ray Shero, who initially feared the time Crosby will need to recover from a high ankle sprain affecting his right foot would be longer.

"To a certain extent, [the prognosis] is better than I originally thought," Shero said. "There was probably less damage than [the medical staff] thought."

Crosby apparently was unaware of those concerns, however, because he said he "was hoping three to four weeks" would be a worst-case scenario for how long he would be out of the lineup.

The timetable for the center's return was determined after an examination yesterday by Dr. Charles Burke, the Penguins' team physician. When Crosby met with reporters in late morning, he still seemed a bit numbed by the news.

"I don't know if it's really set in yet, to be honest with you," he said.

Crosby had missed only four games in his previous two seasons with the Penguins -- one game because of illness, three because of a sore groin -- before being injured when he slid into the boards at Mellon Arena in a 3-0 loss Friday to Tampa Bay.

This is, he said, easily his most severe injury, surpassing a shoulder problem that forced him to miss two weeks when he played junior hockey.

The Penguins have not set a target date for his return, although Crosby said he has "somewhat" decided the game in which he hopes to resume playing. He declined to divulge it, however, and added that "I don't think you want to get caught looking at a certain date."

Crosby expects to wear a boot to immobilize his right foot for the next two weeks, then move on to what he described as "typical rehab stuff."

Unfortunately for Crosby and the Penguins, the most effective treatment for his injury is time to allow the damaged ligaments to mend. Resisting the temptation to do too much too quickly will be critical because of the nature of the injury and the risk of aggravating it.

"It's one of those things that lingers," Crosby said. "You have to be careful. I want to make sure that when I do come back, it's healed enough where, if I do tweak it a bit, it's not going to take it back to square one. That's something I don't want to go through."

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby -- "I want to make sure that when I do come back, it's healed enough where, if I do tweak it a bit, it's not going to take it back to square one. That's something I don't want to go through."

Shero didn't want to go through trying to find a replacement for Crosby, either, but was lucky enough to have Evgeni Malkin on the payroll already. Malkin has been a dominant presence in the two games the Penguins have played without Crosby since the injury.

"We're very fortunate to have a guy like Malkin who can step in and step up," Shero said. "[Most] teams really can't fill like that."

Malkin, who was tied for ninth among the NHL's top scorers through Monday, also will fill in for Crosby at the league's All-Star Game Sunday in Atlanta, having been named to the Eastern Conference squad yesterday.

Crosby isn't the only player whose spot in the lineup has come open lately. The Penguins were missing seven regulars -- forwards Crosby, Gary Roberts, Colby Armstrong, Tyler Kennedy and Adam Hall, defenseman Mark Eaton and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury -- when they lost to Washington, 6-5, in a shootout Monday at Mellon Arena.

Shero was noncommittal about what impact, if any, the Penguins' glut of health problems would have on his approach to personnel moves between now and the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

"I just want to evaluate and continue to talk to teams," he said. "See what's available and what the cost is."

While allowing that "we need to be open to anything to try to improve our team," he pointed out that Eaton is the only player whose injury was season-ending.

Knowing that nearly all of the team's ill and injured players should return eventually lessens the likelihood of a high-profile trade.

"Ideally, the shorter-term solutions come from within," Shero said.

Even though he probably won't be in uniform until sometime in March, Crosby made it clear that he plans to spend a lot of time with his teammates in coming weeks.

"I'm hurt, but that doesn't mean I'm gone," he said. "I have to be there to support the team."

And however down he is about being unable to play for so long, Crosby was adamant that "I'm not going to come into the dressing room pouting or in a grumpy mood."

And certainly not wallowing in self-pity.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," Crosby said. "And I don't expect anyone else to."

Dave Molinari can be reached at
First published on January 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Paying heavy price for glory on Sundays

By Dave Krieger, Rocky Mountain News
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

In the wake of the Patriots' victory Sunday, the world of sports commentary is full of phrases like "on the precipice of football history." They are followed by portentous Roman numerals in connection with the impending Super Bowl. It's as if Caesar himself will officiate. Apparently, we are all very lucky to be alive to see it.

The overwrought prose of my trade got me to thinking about just where football history ranks in the pantheon of histories - say, American or African or Asian, modern or ancient, ideas or events.

The initial instinct, admittedly, is to say that the history of a single modern sport might pale in significance to other human histories and suggest our fascination with it a tad overblown. But I happen to be reading the galleys of a book to be published next month by the pathologist who wrote the first paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal linking repeated concussions in football to a horrible decline and death.

In Play Hard, Die Young, Dr. Bennet Omalu writes a sort of mystery story, particularly suited to this era of CSI mania. He has brain tissue from three former football players who suffered bizarre descents and deaths at relatively young ages. He must figure out why.

On some level, most football fans processed the sad story of Mike Webster's decline after a Hall of Fame career as a center for the Steelers. By the time of his induction speech in Canton, he was already having mental problems.

Omalu tells the heartrending story of Webster arising from the dinner table one night, in front of friends and family, opening the oven door and urinating in the oven, believing it to be a commode. Of his 17-year-old son putting a flag on the porch so his dad might recognize their home. Of his marriage dissolving. Of eventual paranoia and homelessness. Of loved ones having no idea why any of it was happening.

The most heavily publicized part of Webster's story was the NFL's refusal to grant him disability benefits for most of his life, perhaps the most shocking example of a heartless system that is only now being embarrassed into reform.

Less well-publicized were the deaths of Terry Long, an offensive lineman who played beside Webster in Pittsburgh, and Andre Waters, a fearsome defensive back for the Eagles. Long and Waters experienced declines similar to Webster's - a loss of cognitive ability and mood stability along with a growing paranoia.

Long was 45 when he killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Waters was 44 when he shot himself in the mouth.

Omalu is a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who landed in Pittsburgh and was doing about 130 brain autopsies a year in the normal course of his practice. Webster and Long arrived in his lab requiring autopsies. He sought out brain samples from Waters.

Terry Long

Although all three brains appeared normal, Omalu reported that detailed tissue analysis revealed the presence of a form of dementia caused by repeated concussions. Omalu dubbed it "gridiron dementia," similar to dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome, which affects boxers. The brain tissue, Omalu reports, resembled that of an 80-year-old dementia patient.

"The brains of boxers who suffer from dementia pugilistica, the brains of three retired NFL players, and the lives of other retired football players who have suffered from dementia are telling us that the way we look at concussions may not be correct," he writes.

"These brains and lives are telling us that certain types of individuals may not recover completely from concussions. Obvious clinical signs and symptoms may not be grossly present, but the brain cells may not recover bio-chemically at the sub-cellular level."

You may not be surprised to learn that the NFL has fought him every step of the way. In fact, NFL doctors tried to get his first paper, on the Webster case, retracted from the medical journal Neurosurgery, which declined their appeal.

"Some of my colleagues and I have wondered if the NFL was adopting a strategy that may be similar to the denial or coverup of the harmful effects of cigarette smoking by the tobacco industry," Omalu writes. "We honestly do not know."

John Mackey

A year ago, the NFL and players association established the "88 plan" in honor of Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey, who was diagnosed with dementia at age 59. It provided up to $88,000 a year for nursing or day care for former players suffering from dementia. Within three months, 54 retired players had applied for aid from the plan.

In the general population ages 60-69, dementia occurs in 66 out of 100,000 people, Omalu reports. With fewer than 10,000 living retired NFL players, the rate of application for the 88 plan suggests a rate at least 10 times greater.

Omalu's disturbing manuscript gives me a new appreciation for the "precipice of football history." Invocation of the Roman gladiators may not be so far off.

Malkin's transition seamless, spectacular so far

By Mike Prisuta
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin celebrates his first-period goal against the Capitals at Mellon Arena, Jan. 21, 2008.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

The referee's arm went up, Dany Sabourin headed for the bench and Evgeni Malkin jumped over the boards, banging his stick on the ice as he went -- tap-tap-tap-tap-tap -- demanding the puck from Kris Letang.

Letang obliged.

The Penguins, apparently, are starting to figure this life-without-Sidney-Crosby thing out.

Malkin accepted that pass from Letang less than six minutes into the first period on Monday night at Mellon Arena and blasted the puck toward Olaf Kolzig. It was one of five shots Malkin launched toward the Capitals' net.

The assault included a backhand that produced Malkin's 25th goal of the season, a spectacular wrap-around on which Malkin faked a move to the forehand that froze Kolzig.

Malkin, while attempting a subsequent similar move, also absorbed a charge from fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin with such strength and balance that it was Ovechkin who ultimately went bouncing into the boards after bouncing off Malkin. When the play was finally whistled dead, Malkin sought out Ovechkin and let him know in no uncertain terms such shenanigans were unacceptable.

The crowd roared its approval, chanting "Ge-no, Ge-no, Ge-no."

And then the first period ended.

The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin takes out the Capitals' Alex Ovechin in the first period at Mellon Arena, Jan. 21, 2007.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review

Less than four minutes into the second, Malkin struck again, countering an Ovechkin tally and pronounced celebration with a wicked wrist shot from the slot for Goal No. 26 and a mustard-on-the-hot-dog response.

Malkin, clearly, has accepted the challenge.

In doing so, he's provided for the Penguins a blueprint as to how to survive Sid The Kid's absence:

Get Malkin the puck and get out of the way.

His contributions to Monday night's 6-5, shootout loss to the Capitals came on the heels of a performance by Malkin on Saturday night in Montreal that was as dominating as anyone could hope for from anyone in any uniform, Crosby included.

And all of a sudden it doesn't take an interpreter to realize Malkin appreciates the opportunity created by Crosby's high-ankle misfortune.

Although a year older than the Penguins' 20-year-old captain, Malkin is a year behind in terms of adjusting to the NHL and just under a couple decades shy of Crosby's experience in North America.

He'll probably never catch up in that department, but Malkin will always be bigger than Crosby, and he's already a better goal-scorer.

It's not inconceivable to suggest Malkin might be the superior player someday.

To become that he'll have to first keep his head attached -- Ovechkin came close to removing it; others will surely try -- and he'll have to deal with unforeseen pressures and distractions Crosby has long since mastered.

In the meantime, Malkin is embracing center stage.

The newfound spotlight suits him.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at or 412-320-7923.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Steelers Saddened By Holmes Death

Friday, January 18, 2008

* Statement from Dan Rooney

* Holmes 75th Season Bio

* Thoughts from Holmes in November

Myron Cope wrote this about the 1976 game when Joe “Turkey” Jones spiked Terry Bradshaw into the turf at Cleveland Stadium:

“Afterward, at the Cleveland Airport, an ambulance carried Bradshaw onto the tarmac where all of us in the traveling party stood waiting for Terry to be transferred to the team’s plane. He had been strapped to a so-called spine board, on which he lay as medics removed him from the ambulance. ‘Let me have him,’ Fats told them. He wrapped his mighty arms under the spine board, arched his broad back and alone lifted the big quarterback up the stairway into the plane. On instructions from team doctors, he gently carried Terry the length of the aisle to the plane’s farthermost reaches where the arms of seats had been retracted to create a makeshift bed. Years later, when Fats Holmes returned to Pittsburgh for that 25th anniversary of the Steelers’ first championship team, he told his teammates he loved them. He meant it.”

Ernie “Fats” Holmes, one of the anchors of Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense in the 1970s, has died in a car crash. He was 59.

A dispatcher with the Texas Department of Public Safety said Holmes was driving alone Thursday night when his car left the roadway and rolled over several times near Lumberton, about 16 miles north of Beaumont in Southeast Texas.

The department said Friday that Holmes was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the car. He was pronounced dead at the scene, the DPS said. Holmes lived in Wiergate, Texas.

The two-time All-Pro played on two Super Bowl winning teams while with the Steelers from 1972-77. He spent the 1978 season with New England.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the sudden and untimely death of Ernie Holmes," said Dan Rooney. "Ernie was one of the toughest players to ever wear a Steelers uniform. He was a key member of our famous Steel Curtain defense, and many people who played against him considered Ernie almost impossible to block. At his best, he was an intimidating player who even the toughest of opponents did not want to play against.

"Our prayers go out to Ernie’s family and loved ones. He will be missed by the entire Steelers family. "

Holmes finished his six-year career with 40 sacks, still eighth on the team’s all-time list.

He had 11.5 sacks in 1974, including a stretch of six consecutive games with a sack, which ties him with Joe Greene and Greg Lloyd for the longest such streak in team history.

Fans recall Holmes for play, good spirit

By Rick Starr
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fans remembered Ernie "Fats" Holmes as a defensive lineman who didn't just play the game, but waged war in the pits from 1972-77 while helping the Steelers win their first two Super Bowls.

"He put fear in everybody," said Carl Vitti, 72, a season-ticket holder from Stanton Heights.

"When he was in the lineup, you knew the Steelers defense was going to be there that day," Vitti said. "I saw him play many games in person, and I wouldn't want to be on the other side of the line when Ernie was in there."

Holmes died in a car crash Thursday night near Lumberton, Texas. He was 59.

A two-time Pro Bowler, Holmes said after his retirement that he never received his share of credit for his role on the star-studded "Steel Curtain" defense.

At Ike's Barber Shop on East Ohio Street on Friday, Holmes was remembered for more than being one of the toughest tackles in team history.

"I liked him as a person," said Tom Harrison, 73, a 50-year resident of the North Side. "He had a good spirit. I didn't call them the Steel Curtain. I called them the Iron Curtain because they were men of iron."

Feared for his strength and ability to find the ball in traffic, Holmes lined up next to 10-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer Joe Greene during an era when every star had a nickname.

The quartet -- Ernie "Fats" Holmes, "Mean" Joe Greene, L.C. "Hollywood Bags" Greenwood and Dwight "Mad Dog" White -- not only won the hearts of Steelers fans, they wound up on the cover of Time magazine early in their Super Bowl run.

For a two- or three-year span, some felt Holmes was the best of the bunch.

Looking out from behind his facemask, with his eyes as narrow as slits, Holmes, who wore No. 63, had a fearsome presence. He once held a pro football reporter about a foot off the ground so he could lecture him while looking him in the eye.

Practices were intense, and Holmes credited Hall of Fame center Mike Webster for getting him ready to play on Sundays.

"Easy, Fats, easy," more than one teammate said to Holmes while heading off potential trouble.

"Around the locker room, you could say Ernie was well-feared," said Al Vento, 80, of Vento's Pizza in East Liberty.

Vento had rare access to the Steelers locker room after he and Tony Stagno founded Franco's Italian Army in the early 1970s.

It's the brighter side of Holmes' personality that Vento vividly recalled.

"He was a fun guy," Vento said. "In a lot of ways, he was the spark of that group. Despite all the stories, he was very well-liked by his teammates.

"Ernie was the guy everybody depended on for laughter in the dressing room," he said.

Holmes made no secret of his dislike for former coach Chuck Noll's military-style approach to training camp. Holmes was almost impossible to block for 5 yards around the line of scrimmage, but probably couldn't run a 40-yard dash in six seconds. Running before and after practice wasn't what he did best.

It says something about Holmes' impact on the team, however, that Noll and team president (now chairman) Dan Rooney testified as character witnesses when Holmes went on trial for firing a shotgun at a police helicopter.

Holmes had gained a considerable amount of weight and walked with the use of a cane during his last visit to Pittsburgh in 2003.

He described his knees as bone rubbing against bone, and said he suffered from constant headaches, all a result of his playing days.

"Ernie probably didn't get the notoriety he deserved," Vento said. "But he was like a lot of the guys on that defense. They changed the whole concept of football."

Rick Starr can be reached at or 724-226-4691.

Life's reality setting in for Super Steelers

Saturday, January 19, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

December 8, 1975

Are we getting old or what?

They're starting to die off a little more frequently, you know? The Super Steelers. It's frightening, really.

Ernie Holmes, who died Thursday night in a one-car accident in Texas, makes it nine from the Super Bowl teams of the 1970s who have died, joining Mike Webster, Ray Mansfield, Steve Furness, Jim Clack, Joe Gilliam, Steve Courson, Theo Bell and Ray Oldham. Holmes was 59, right around the same age, hard as it is to believe, as the many Hall of Famers -- Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, etc. -- from that fabulous era.

Has it really been 33 years since they handed Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. the first of the four Super Bowl trophies that his team won in a glorious six-year period?

It just doesn't seem possible.

If the passing of Iron Mike Webster at 50 in 2002 from complications after a heart attack was shocking, so, too, was the death of Holmes. This was a man who was much too tough to go out so quickly, without so much as a good fight. He was pronounced dead at the scene after his car went off the road and rolled several times in Lumberton, Texas, about 80 miles from Houston.

Holmes wasn't just a charter member of the Steel Curtain defense, he might have been its most ferocious player. As nicknames go, "Fats" might not have been as terrifying as "Mean Joe" and "Jack Splat," but Holmes was every bit as intimidating as Greene and Lambert in the mid-1970s, before his eating and drinking eventually drove him out of the NFL after the 1978 season.

The only thing Holmes ate up in the 1974 AFC championship game was Oakland Raiders Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw. Holmes was immovable; think Casey Hampton from today's team. The Steelers won, 24-13, on a day they limited the Raiders to 29 rushing yards. Holmes was back at it two weeks later in Super Bowl IX, when the Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6, holding them to 17 rushing yards and 119 total yards.

It helped that opposing players considered Holmes to be nuts, a maniac if you will. He scared them before he even got down in his stance. It wasn't so much the shape of an arrow that he had cut into his scalp, although that was truly bizarre, at least for that kinder, gentler, pre-Dennis Rodman, pre-Mike Tyson era. That was just good fun.

"It points me to the quarterback," he often said.

It was an incident before the 1973 season that earned Holmes his unstable reputation. He snapped while driving on the Ohio Turnpike -- allegedly because of the breakup of his marriage -- and fired shots at trucks and then a hovering police helicopter. That was during a time when the Steelers were able to get him off with five years' probation and the promise that he would get help. He was admitted to Pittsburgh's Western Psychiatric Hospital.

"How long I got to stay here?" team broadcaster Myron Cope quotes Holmes in his book, "Double Yoi!" "All the people here are crazy."

A lot of people around the NFL back then would tell you Holmes fit right in. So, too, probably would Cope, who frequently told the story on the banquet circuit how Holmes, during the night before a road game, asked him to join him in the hotel bar for a Courvoisier.

"If Fats had said to me, 'Cope, let's go down to the bar and have an enema,' I'd be down there having an enema," Cope would say.

But if you could ask Cope, who's hospitalized in intensive care and battling serious health issues of his own, to rank his favorite Steelers, Holmes surely would be high on the list. The man was more a gentle giant than a menace, extremely popular among his teammates. Although they were wary at times of his mood swings and many feared him because of his brute strength, they grew to love him because they knew he had that soft side. Certainly, they weren't afraid to tease him.

The story from training camp not long after the helicopter shooting is legendary. One day at Latrobe, the players and coaches noticed a helicopter hovering nearby. The silence was deafening until linebacker Andy Russell piped up, "Easy, Fats. Easy."

It's a good thing for Russell that Holmes had a sense of humor. Holmes could have snapped him in two with his bare hands. Russell will tell you that.

It's safe to say Russell, Holmes and the other players laughed at that tale many times over during their many reunions. News of Holmes' death had to hit his teammates especially hard because he seemed happy and looked good -- he had lost weight -- when he returned to Pittsburgh this season for the Steelers' 75th anniversary celebration, even if he was disappointed that he wasn't named to their all-time team. He was an ordained minister in Texas.

The news reports said Holmes wasn't wearing a seat belt and was thrown from his vehicle. Who knows? At one point, he weighed well over 400 pounds. Maybe he stopped wearing a seat belt because he couldn't get one around him. He was such an enormous man, a giant both in girth and on the football field.

Now, Holmes is gone, and the rest of us are left to feel just a little bit older than we did before we heard the sad news.

Ron Cook can be reached at
First published on January 19, 2008 at 12:00 am

Steel Curtain's Holmes 'a great guy, a class guy'

By Mike Prisuta
Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ernie "Fats" Holmes was distinguishable by the arrow he once shaved in his hair, infamous for once firing a pistol at trucks and a police helicopter on an unforgettable ride across the Ohio Turnpike, and legendary to those who played alongside him on the Steelers' fabled "Steel Curtain" defense in the 1970s.

Holmes, a two-time Super Bowl winner as a defensive tackle with the Steelers, died in a car crash Thursday night near Lumberton, Texas. He was 59.

"If you look at that Front Four, it probably wasn't noted, but the real tough intimidator was 'Fats' Holmes," former Steelers defensive back J.T. Thomas said. "We, as players, knew that. 'Fats' was the one that would hurt you."

Holmes always took charge, said former Steelers defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene, another member of the Front Four, along with defensive ends Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood.

"When times were tough on the field, you'd look at the people in the huddle, and when you looked at Ernie and saw his face, you always knew he was in the midst of the battle. You didn't see that look that suggested he wanted to be someplace else," Greene said.

A dispatcher with the Texas Department of Public Safety said Holmes was driving alone when his car left the roadway and rolled over several times, about 16 miles north of Beaumont in southeast Texas.

Police said Holmes wasn't wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the car. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

An ordained minister, Holmes lived on a ranch in Wiergate, Texas.

Greene said he saw Holmes "quite a bit" during the past 10 years because the former players often met for personal appearances. Holmes, he said, often carried a Bible and had started to pursue his lifelong dream of being a preacher.

"He'd never miss an opportunity to pray for us and our families, whenever we got together," Greene said. "Things were moving in the right direction. He was happy."

But before the 1973 season, Holmes appeared troubled and on the verge of spiraling out of control. While driving on the Ohio Turnpike he began firing a pistol at trucks and a police helicopter, and eventually wounded an officer during a chase through nearby woods.

He pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to five months' probation. He spent two months in a psychiatric hospital.

Holmes discussed the most publicized of his several runs afoul of the law in a Time Magazine cover story about the Steelers' Front Four published in December 1975.

"Three trucks tried to drive me off the road," he said. "It was all I needed to snap. ... I was considered stone crazy until the Super Bowl last year (1974). Now, I'm back on the bases."

Greenwood described Holmes as a strong-willed player who loved the physical aspect of football. He wants people to remember Holmes not as the character whose off-field escapades generated headlines but as a friendly, generous person.

Holmes, he said, loved his fans.

"Ernie was a very good person," Greenwood said. "... Ernie was a people person. He always liked people. ... It was so good to hear that Ernie had become a preacher and had turned his life around. That was pretty much an inspirational thing for all of us to see."

Thomas said Holmes once brought a gun to practice following a 35-35 tie in Denver in 1974. During that game, the Steelers' defensive players engaged in several heated arguments and exchanged threats with Broncos' players.

But one of Greene's most vivid recollections of Holmes paints a much different picture.

"I remember seeing him at one of our (Steelers) Christmas parties, dressed up like Santa Claus, handing out presents he'd bought out of his own funds for the kids," Greene said. "When I think about Ernie, I think about times like that."

Holmes came to the Steelers as a No. 8b pick from Texas Southern in 1971 and made the team in 1972.

Although he was named All-Pro in 1974 and 1975, Holmes never earned the notoriety afforded Greene, White and Greenwood.

In 1974, Holmes shaved his head but left a clump shaped as an arrow pointing forward.

"That was Ernie distinguishing himself," Thomas said. "He was pointing the way, signifying that he was leading the way. We understood in our hearts that he was.

"Ernie would often be pulled from practices because he was busting guys' heads open. ... That's the kind of intensity he had."

"Ernie just ran over people -- that was his way of approaching the game," Greenwood agreed. "He loved the physical part of the game. That's what he did, and he did it very successfully."

Holmes played with the Steelers until 1977, and finished his career with New England in 1978.

After football, Holmes had minor acting roles. He appeared in an episode of the 1980s TV show "The A-Team" and dabbled in professional wrestling.

Thomas and Greenwood recalled Holmes' seemingly endless fight to control his weight.

"To keep Ernie at 300 pounds was a challenge," Thomas said. "We'd leave training camp on a Saturday and have to be back by Sunday night. They'd weigh Ernie before he left, and after he came back. He'd be gone for about 18 hours and (former head coach) Chuck (Noll) would be screaming, 'How the hell did you gain a pound an hour?' "

During games, Thomas said, "A lot of times we'd have 10 of us in the huddle, and Ernie was on the ball telling the opponents what he was going to do to them. (Linebacker Jack) Lambert used to scream for him to get back in the huddle. Finally, he'd say, 'The hell with it; let him stay out there.' "

Holmes had a penchant for mangling the English language, he said.

"Ernie always loved to use big words. We were leaving a party late one night, walking back to his car in the snow. He looked at me and said, 'J.T., people don't understand me; I'm cannibalistic.' I had had a few beers in me, and I didn't know what to think. To this day, I never did find out what he thought 'cannibalistic' meant, but I know it was complimentary in his mind."

Perhaps Holmes' greatest game was the 1974 AFC Championship Game in Oakland. The Steelers held the Raiders to 29 rushing yards and advanced to their first Super Bowl.

"He let the guys across the field know it was going to be a tough day," Greene said. "He said it, and then he delivered.

"It was just us and the Raiders who were aware of what was happening. If you were standing where I was standing, or where L.C. Greenwood was standing, you heard what he said. Maybe if you were standing where (free safety) Mike Wagner was standing, you heard what he said.

"It was very specific. It was to the point."

That was Ernie "Arrowhead" Holmes.

"He was a great guy, a class guy," Thomas said. "Obviously, he had some situations early in his career, but you still loved Ernie. His calling was really a calling of faith. I wouldn't have thought that in 1973 or 1974."

The Tribune-Review's Sandy Tolliver and The Associated Press contributed to the story.

Mike Prisuta can be reached at or 412-320-7923.

A complicated soul

Holmes' fierce demeanor hid a charming underbelly

Posted: Friday January 18, 2008 6:49PM; Updated: Saturday January 19, 2008 1:44AM

Dr. Z: Inside the NFL

The always intense Ernie Holmes helped scare his Steelers to a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1975 and '76.
Walter Iooss Jr./SI

Once I saw Ernie Holmes pick up a sportswriter by the shirt and hold him, with one hand, against the wall while he lectured the poor guy on the finer points of covering the Steelers. There were people who were scared to death of him, others who didn't want to have anything to do with him, still others who liked him as you would a big, galloping Great Dane puppy.

Count me among the last group ... well, not exactly, because there was always the underlying fear of the unknown with Ernie. You never knew when he would go off.

He died Thursday night at 59 when his car went off the highway and flipped. Many people thought he'd never make it that far, but his former teammates were happy that he seemed to have gotten his life together and was attending Steelers alumni functions.

"He's a reverend now, and he does work with kids," former Pittsburgh linebacker Andy Russell told me a few years ago. "That seems just right for him because he always liked kids."

And, for some reason, Ernie seemed to get a kick out of me, the idea that here I was coming all the way from New York, just to hang out in the Steelers locker room and talk to him. Even after that incident when he pinned the writer to the wall, he turned, saw me, dropped the guy and gave me a big smile. His eyes, which appeared almost shut to begin with, got narrower, the broader his smile got, and now they were just about shut.

"Ah, there he is," he said, "my man from New York."

The world discovered that the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Holmes, who one can safely say was the most feared member of the Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s, was a bit unbalanced when he made headlines by firing his pistol at trucks on the highway. Traffic made him nervous, he explained later. Besides, he said he was careful not to aim at people, just vehicles. When a police helicopter arrived on the scene, he turned his fire skyward.

He was hauled off to prison, and both Chuck Noll the coach, and Dan Rooney, the president, went down to the jail that night. They made a strong case for him. They got his sentence suspended, with a provision that he undergo psychiatric treatment, which he did. When's the last time the coach and team president went down to the jail where one of their players was being held?

Anyway, it gives you a good idea of how important "Fats" Holmes was to their defense. He rejoined the team, and ironically, he was the only Steel Curtain Steeler who never made the Pro Bowl.

"Nobody would line up against him in practice," said Tom Keating, a former Raiders defensive tackle who joined the Steelers for a year in '73, the year before they began their Super Bowl run.

"I got a tremendous kick out of him. I remember one day at practice, a helicopter flew over the field. Ernie stopped and looked up, and this big smile came over his face.

"Looks just like the one I brought down," he said.

Woody Widenhofer, who coached the linebackers, said there were days when Ernie was just as good as Joe Greene. Noll scoffed at the idea that Holmes never earned any kind of All-Pro recognition.

"You want to know how good he was, how tough?" Noll said. "Take a look at the way the guy who had to play against him looks, coming off the field after the game -- if he was able to finish it."

I remember Picture Day before the '76 Super Bowl. Ernie grabbed me and said he wanted to explain what the game meant to him. I took six pages of notes in my 5 x 8 spiral. I didn't understand any of them. I am looking at them right now, and I still don't know what they mean.

"You think I don't care, it's like two iguanas climbing up a tree, which one gets higher, they want to piss on you, I'm not going to let them ..." and on and on, for six pages.

Well, I hope he found some kind of peace toward the end of his life. He was like a big kid. You felt almost protective about him -- but not too closely.

Remembering Ernie 'Fats' Holmes

Steelers lineman provided characteristic, uplifting moment

Saturday, January 19, 2008
By David Fink, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This article first appeared in September 2000

Ernie Holmes and Chuck Noll

This year marks the 25th anniversary of a major event in my life. No, I'm not talking about an anniversary or any other family milestone. I'm talking about the only time in my 36-year career in the newspaper business that I was attacked in a physical manner.

It was a September morn in 1975, and I was covering the Steelers for the Post-Gazette. As far as I could tell, it was a routine day until ...

The memory is clear in many ways; so much so that the event could have happened yesterday. I had arrived at Three Rivers Stadium a few minutes earlier and was talking with Steelers quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Terry Hanratty at a front corner of their locker room. It was a lively, three-way conversation before Ernie "Fats" Holmes chose to interrupt it.

Holmes was a loose cannon, whose somewhat checkered background included shooting and wounding a pilot of a hovering helicopter in Ohio. He once had his head shaved so that the only hair remaining was shaped like an arrow. I had the distinct impression that Fats not only intimidated opponents with his vicious head slaps and considerable strength but also put some of his teammates on edge with his unpredictability and temper.

About 10 days earlier, in advance of an exhibition game between the Steelers and Cowboys in Dallas, I had asked the starting defensive linemen about playing against the Cowboys' new and much-publicized offensive formation, the shotgun. Today, the shotgun is an integral part of almost every offense, but, back then, it was part aberration, part gimmick.

But rushing a quarterback who started the play so far away did not figure to be a pleasant task on a late-summer Dallas night when temperatures figured to be in the upper 90s if not triple digits.

Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White, the other defensive linemen in The Steel Curtain, offered some insights on that as did Holmes, who also said he thought the shotgun formation was like a "schoolyard offense." I had used that quote quite prominently in a story and never thought about it again until that morning.

All of a sudden, my feet were no longer on firm ground. I was suspended in midair by two huge hands, one attached to each of my arms just above the elbows. And before I had any clue how I had gotten into such a precarious position, why I was hanging there or who my tormentor was, I was gently turned around so that I was face to face with Holmes.

Holmes stood about 6 feet 3 and probably weighed about 270 to 275. Most of his frame was molded in steel. Me? I stand closer to 5-9 than 5-10, and my weight at the moment of impact was about 160.

"Was I scared?" some players asked. Not initially because there was no time to be scared. But a few nasty thoughts raced through my mind:

Was there drool around Fats' lips? How was I going to get down? Was I about to be body-slammed by one of the Super Bowl champions' strongest players? Was my insurance paid up? And how was my obituary going to read? No, I'm kidding about the last one. I think. I was at Fats' mercy for more than a minute, likely closer to 90 seconds.

He never raised his voice, never hurt me in any way, used no profanity. He repeatedly insisted that I should not have used the quote. Notice that he never said he was misquoted.

Finally, he lowered me to the ground. Gently. I silently checked for scratches, bruises and missing body parts. There were none. Meanwhile, the hush in the locker room, so palpable a few seconds earlier, quickly gave way to laughter and loud conversation.

I quickly resumed my business, interviewing several players, each of whom wanted to see if he could emulate Fats' feat. Several tried but none could do it for 90 seconds, and only Bradshaw, whose strength always was underestimated, managed to do it for a minute.

Since no bodily harm was done, we had a few good laughs about it and, until now, I have never written about it.

I never had any more run-ins with Holmes. He always was cooperative, usually quotable. Neither of us ever brought up the incident.

Later, a few players assured me they would have rushed to my defense if it had appeared to them that I was in serious danger. My reply to them: "Thanks, but how many of you would it have taken to pull Fats off me if the situation had turned ugly?"

I never got an answer.

David Fink can be reached at or 412-263-1464.
First published on January 19, 2008 at 12:00 am

Obituary: Ernie Holmes / Rugged member of Steelers' Steel Curtain

July 11, 1948 - Jan. 17, 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

John Heller Post-Gazette

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, right, greets Ernie Holmes at the Senator John Heinz History center for the opening of its sports museum in November 2004.

Ernie Holmes played next to Joe Greene as the two defensive tackles in the famed Steel Curtain defense, and some believe he was his equal.

"Ernie was a tremendous football player," said Dwight White, who played right defensive end, next to Mr. Holmes. "Not taking anything away from Joe -- we know where he is -- Ernie was as good, and, in some cases, even better."

Mr. Holmes, who died at age 59 Thursday night in a one-vehicle wreck in his native Texas, made only two Pro Bowls and never was a serious candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But those who played with him for the Steelers of the 1970s knew how good he was.

"Joe Greene got a lot of attention and rightfully so,'' said Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, "but Ernie was a great football player. We all knew it on the team. Our teammates knew how important he was to the team and maybe didn't get the recognition he deserved."

Mr. Holmes, known affectionately as "Fats" because of his tremendous size for the times, was driving alone Thursday night when his SUV left the road and rolled several times near Lumberton, about 80 miles from Houston, a Texas Department of Public Safety dispatcher said. He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the car and pronounced dead at the scene, the department said. Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said yesterday he was told Mr. Holmes fell asleep at the wheel.

Mr. Holmes, an ordained minister, lived on a ranch in Wiergate in Southeast Texas.

Mr. Greene, selected as the best player in franchise history as part of the Steelers' 75th anniversary season celebration last year, remained friends with Mr. Holmes and talked to him often, as did other teammates. Mr. Holmes last appeared publicly in Pittsburgh when he served as an honorary co-captain for the team's Nov. 11 game against Cleveland at Heinz Field.

"We're going to miss ol' Ernie," said a somber Mr. Greene, now a scout for the Steelers who lives in the Dallas area. "We'll miss him a lot."

Mr. Holmes was an eighth-round draft choice from Texas Southern in 1971 as part of what many consider the Steelers' second-best draft in their history, one that included Mr. Ham, Mr. White, Larry Brown, Frank Lewis, Mike Wagner and Gerry Mullins.

He helped form the most famous front four in pro football history -- L.C. Greenwood at left end, Mr. Greene at left tackle, Mr. Holmes at right tackle and Mr. White at right end.

That group dominated Oakland in the 1974 AFC championship, holding the Raiders to 29 yards rushing. In Super Bowl IX two weeks later, they limited the Minnesota Vikings to 17 yards rushing.

"That run we had in '74 and through the playoffs and our first Super Bowl, he just had a dominating performance, especially against Gene Upshaw and the Raiders in Oakland in the AFC championship game," Mr. Ham said. "I think they rushed for 29 yards in that game. It was the most dominating performance against a great offensive line. He's a big reason why we ended up winning that game.

"And what they did against Minnesota, the entire front four!"

The Raiders, with two Hall of Fame offensive linemen in Mr. Upshaw, a guard, and tackle Art Shell, were heavy favorites to beat the Steelers in Oakland in that title game of '74.

How good was Mr. Holmes that day?

"Ask Gene Upshaw, and Gene was good,'' said Mr. White, also a Texas native. "I had Shell, he had Upshaw and he made a long afternoon for Gene and that made it a much easier afternoon for me."

Mr. Holmes was listed at 6-3, 260 pounds, but really weighed much more. He constantly was trying to lose weight in training camps at a time in which there was little organized offseason training in pro football.

"He was really a good guy, played extremely well for us," said Dan Rooney. "He was one of those guys who really was important to the team and the Steel Curtain. He played in the middle and was really tough to get out of there, which gave Joe a chance and the other guys to get to the quarterback."

Mr. Holmes played through the 1977 season with the Steelers, earning two Super Bowl rings, but was released when his play fell off because of weight and other physical problems. He played for New England in 1978.

During his time with the Steelers, he developed a reputation for being "stone crazy," he told Time magazine in 1975. That came partly from a case early in his career when he pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon following a bizarre episode in which he fired a pistol at trucks and a police helicopter in nearby Ohio. He was sentenced to five years' probation.

He later was declared not guilty of possessing cocaine in a trial in Texas. During the 1974 season, he shaved his head in the form of an arrow before the Steelers played a game at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. He kept it that way and told people it was to remind everyone to go forward toward the Super Bowl.

Mr. Rooney said yesterday that Mr. Holmes was out of sorts during the incident in Ohio because he took high doses of caffeine.

"He was hallucinating,'' Mr. Rooney said. "He was taking those No Doze pills and didn't even know where he was. He was released in my custody. I got him into a hospital, and he spent a number of weeks there. He came out OK."

Mr. Rooney and Mr. Holmes' teammates say that's precisely how his life turned out as well. They say he stopped drinking years ago, lost weight and was devoted to his ministry in a Baptist church.

"Ernie came through a lot of struggles, and it looked like he was out ahead of it and living the way he wanted to live his life," Mr. Greene said.

"Ever since I've known him, Ernie always was a guy who read the Bible and wanted to be close to God. In lieu of all of his actions that we've experienced with him, Ernie was always a good man.

"He overcame a lot of those life struggles. Just last year he had a knee replacement and was coming along good with that. He lost a lot of weight and looking good and feeling good about it."

Opponents and sometimes his own teammates feared him.

"Oh, Ernie was definitely an enforcer,'' Mr. Greene said. "I suspect that a lot of guys were kind of afraid of him, not so much what he did on the field but what they read about him off the field. He'd probably do anything to win."

Mr. Holmes, though, was mostly mild-mannered and thoughtful off the field.

"I just wish he could have gotten more recognition for the job he did,'' Mr. White said. "The positives far outweigh the negatives of Ernie Holmes. For all the things and stories and antics that went on 30 years ago, Ernie ended up being a very, very inspiring person, one you could respect and admire."

Mr. Greene remembers one Steelers Christmas party in which, on his own, Mr. Holmes bought presents for the kids, dressed up like Santa Claus and handed out the gifts while the kids sat on his lap.

"Everybody has an Ernie Holmes story,'' Mr. White said. "Obviously, Ernie was a very colorful person back in the day. He did have what I call distractions. But there's an old Texas saying, it's all about where you end up. I can honestly say over the last few years, Ernie made major changes in his life."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this story.
First published on January 19, 2008 at 12:00 am