Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rooney's departure hurts NFL

Tuesday, March 31, 2009
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette

Steelers' owner Dan Rooney Sr. walks with President Barack Obama near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center during the campaign last year.

When the NFL owners shook hands with the Steelers' Dan Rooney last week and wished him well in his new position as U.S. ambassador to Ireland, they weren't just saying goodbye to an old, dear friend. They could have been saying goodbye to the long-term health of their league.

You might think that's a bit overdramatic, but it's not. No one, other than former commissioner Pete Rozelle, has had a greater impact on the NFL's dizzying success than Rooney. The league will struggle going forward without him.

Maybe it would be different with a better economy. Certainly, it would be different if the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987 weren't looming. But the economy is rotten and, well, let's allow new NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith to address the work-stoppage threat: "There isn't a day where I do not hope for peace. But at the same time, there isn't a day that we will not prepare for war."

At a time the NFL needs Rooney more than ever, he's not going to be there. Not as long as the U.S. Senate approves his appointment by President Barack Obama.

Good luck to the league with that.

The day-to-day operations of the Steelers shouldn't be affected much with Rooney off in Ireland doing wonderful things for the Obama administration and the Irish people. Team president Art Rooney II -- Dan's son -- has played a prominent part in running the club for years. As he has said, his father will be just a phone call away for advice on the really big issues, a new contract for linebacker James Harrison, perhaps, or one for coach Mike Tomlin.

It's at the league level where Rooney will be missed the most, especially with the contentious labor negotiations ahead. One of his greatest strengths is his sense of reason, his ability to get his fellow owners to find a common ground with the union even during times when the two sides didn't like each other much. He was so good at it that he helped the NFL to become the best, most stable and most competitive professional sports league in this country, if not the world.
The NFL desperately needs someone to fill that role now.

Really, these next negotiations could get ugly.

Almost immediately after doing the most recent deal with the players in March 2006, the owners had regrets about giving away too much -- now 60 percent of their revenues. In November, they opted to re-open the contract. If a new basic agreement isn't reached, the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap. If that happens, the players have said they won't agree to a cap again. The owners appear ready to lock the players out after the 2011 draft.

Yes, we're talking ugly.

We're also talking about the possibility -- remote, maybe, but still a possibility -- of football turning into baseball.

Could you imagine a worse nightmare than the Steelers turning into the Pirates?

It's nice to think the NFL owners -- even without Rooney's steadying hand -- won't allow their league to follow that destructive path. But who knows? They might not even be able to agree among themselves about what is best for their sport. Rich owners Daniel Snyder of Washington and Jerry Jones of Dallas figure to have a different agenda than relatively poor owners Mike Brown of Cincinnati and Ralph Wilson of Buffalo. The result could be the chaos that baseball often experiences.

That's another area where Rooney will be missed. He wasn't just a mediator between the owners and players; he was a consensus builder among the owners. Snyder and Jones -- billionaires who aren't used to listening to anyone -- listened to him and respected his opinions. So did Brown and Wilson.

To whom will the owners listen now?

No one else in the league commands that respect.

That's why the owners did their goodbyes with Rooney at their meetings in Dana Point, Calif., with what had to be mixed emotions. They are happy for him, to be sure. The ambassadorship is a tremendous honor. It's not just a reward from Obama, whom Rooney prominently backed last year for office. It's well-deserved because of the trust Rooney has built up with the Irish people with his great work in Ireland over the years.

"It's an inspired choice," Chicago Bears owner Mike McCaskey told the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette of Rooney's appointment.

Absolutely, it is.

But what's good for Rooney, the Obama administration and Ireland clearly isn't good for the NFL. The owners had good reason to feel a lot of sadness in those goodbye handshakes with Rooney. They know the harsh truth: Their league won't be nearly as strong without him.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on March 31, 2009 at 12:00 am

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mike Tomlin: He considers himself a Western Pa. guy

2009 Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year

Sunday, March 29, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin's long list of things to do at the NFL meetings at Dana Point, Calif., last week included a phone call to Pittsburgh.

He wanted to talk to Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon after the Panthers made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. He did not want to congratulate him, however, because "the job's not done.''

Tomlin has become a Pitt fan, basketball and football. He has become a Penguins fan. He has been known to show up at WPIAL high school basketball games. Who knows, he might even have joined that list of long-suffering Pirates fans.

Living in Pittsburgh just a little more than two years, Tomlin has embraced all the city and Western Pennsylvania has to offer, not merely because it looks good as coach of the Steelers but because he enjoys it all. Kennywood Park, Seven Springs, the Strip District, you name it, Tomlin has explored the area's top attractions. He's the first Steelers coach to move his family into a city neighborhood, Shadyside, in half a century.

And he recognizes the honor of earning the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year Award and the history that goes with it.

"Yeah, man, that's Western Pa. I consider myself a Western Pa. guy at this point, man, so it's an honor. When you think about some of the people who have been honored in that way, it's humbling, and I look forward to the evening."

The evening takes place Thursday, and Tomlin joins a select crew that includes his two predecessors, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll. It's appropriate since both of those former Steelers coaches have other things in common with Tomlin, including Super Bowl rings.

Tomlin not only joined Noll and Cowher among the Super Bowl winning coaches, he became the youngest coach in the 43-year history of the Super Bowl to win it. He won at 36, and now he's 37 and his future looks bright.

He entered a situation with the Steelers that was the envy of some coaches, while others might have seen all the landmines. Indeed, the Steelers had good talent when he took over in 2007 and the team had won the Super Bowl two years earlier.

Getty Images

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers holds his daughter Harlyn Quinn as he celebrates their 27-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

But it was not a happy team. The Steelers cut popular linebacker and captain Joey Porter, and another captain, Alan Faneca, was disgruntled by his contract situation. Add the fact that the Steelers were coming off a disappointing 8-8 season as Super Bowl champions, and that many were upset that neither Russ Grimm nor Ken Whisenhunt got the coaching job, and there were potential problems everywhere.

Then, Tomlin, a coach no one knew, laid down the law and a tough training camp schedule.

"He kind of took the respect the first year," linebacker James Harrison said. "Everything was his way. There was no negotiating of anything. We were in full pads hitting and banging until week 15 or 16."

He got the players' attention and, eventually, they responded. The Steelers rebounded to win the AFC North Division title in Tomlin's rookie season of 2007 at 10-6, but lost their first playoff game.

A year later, he adjusted some of his style and schedule.

"This year, he came in and he started to take care of us," Harrison said of the 2008 season. "He got us out of pads early in the season and that helps your body out down the road. I think him changing from the things he did last year, I guess he may have learned a little bit from there until now."

That's the thing about being 36 or 37 and running your own show. You can be open to learning new things along the way.

"I will make adjustments to what has happened to me and us on a year-to-year basis every year," Tomlin said the other day. "I'm in the process of going through that in terms of delivering a message to our football team for '09. From that standpoint, it'll be different but it'll be the same in that will be ongoing every year."

Tomlin has laughed as he continues to be asked if he thought he could coach a team to a Super Bowl victory so soon, and if so why.

"You know, I think that belief in one's self is a big part of it. I believed in myself and my vision in terms of what I wanted to do as a head coach. And, of course, I had no visual evidence but such is life.

Getty Images

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

"I had a great deal of trust in the Rooneys that they knew what they were doing from a selection standpoint, and my comfort lied in the fact they had a great deal of belief in me."

Now it's become vogue to hire head coaches in their early 30s in the NFL. Some say Tomlin's quick success helped pave the way for those others; Tomlin is not among those saying it.

"I'm not going to think that what I do has any effect over what's going on around this game or in this league. I'm not going to be so presumptuous. I think those owners went through a process they felt was necessary in their situations and circumstance and made the correct decisions from their perspective."

The cover

Mike Tomlin, Shavonte Zellous and Dick LeBeau take their places this week among a Who's Who of Pittsburgh sports in the past 70 years. Pictured are some of the previous honorees. The pantheon includes, clockwise from the upper left corner: Billy Conn, Ralph Kiner, Terry Bradshaw, Mario Lemieux, Suzie McConnell-Serio, Willie Stargell, Joe Greene, Arnold Palmer, Roberto Clemente, Tony Dorsett, Sidney Crosby, John Michelosen, Dave Parker, Agnus Berenato, Stan Musial, Bill Cowher, Johnny Majors, Lauryn Williams, Ben Howland, ElRoy Face, Dan Marino, Swin Cash, Dick Groat, Joe Paterno, Danny Murtaugh and Chuck Noll. Conn was the first Dapper Dan sportsman of the year recipient in 1939.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Dick LeBeau: Renaissance man

2009 Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award

Sunday, March 29, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

Each time the defense gathers before practice, Dick LeBeau greets his players by saying something like this: "Men, it's a great day to be alive."

It's his way of telling them to seize the moment, and like everything else about the Steelers defensive coordinator, it comes from his heart.

"I believe that. Each day is a gift. Let's not waste too much time complaining about things," LeBeau says. "Every new day is a great day to get something done. Tomorrow is promised to no man."

First as a player and then as a coach, LeBeau, 71, has been getting things done on a football field for five decades in the NFL. He has influenced the game to the extent that just about every team's defensive game plan incorporates some of his ideas.

Not only have LeBeau's defenses regularly ranked among the NFL's elite, he has been on the sidelines of five Super Bowl entrants -- twice with the Bengals and all three times the Steelers have made the big game since the Chuck Noll era.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, LeBeau has the utmost respect of his peers. Consider the words of Brian Billick, who operated his own highly acclaimed defense when he coached the Ravens.

"Virtually every team in the NFL runs some form or another of concepts LeBeau initiated," Billick said. "You can't help but be impressed with LeBeau and how the Steelers operate ...Dick LeBeau is what every player, coach, scout, owner and fan should aspire to be. His love and commitment to the game [are] pure and unselfish."

Billick posted those comments on his blog after the Steelers honored LeBeau last season for his 50 years in the NFL. But they just as easily apply to the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award that LeBeau will receive this week.


A native of London, Ohio, in flat farm country about 25 miles west of Columbus, LeBeau played on a national championship team under Woody Hayes at Ohio State in 1957.

In the NFL, he was an All-Pro in the suffocating secondary of the Detroit Lions, intercepting 62 passes in 14 seasons and establishing an NFL record for games played by a cornerback with 171.

Teammates Yale Larry, Dick "Night Train" Lane and Lem Barney were headed to the Hall of Fame. LeBeau stayed in the game as a coach who has been countering offenses for 36 years.

After the 2003 season, finishing up a stint as the assistant head coach in Buffalo, LeBeau had four job offers. But he elected to return to the Steelers under Bill Cowher.

Getty Images
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 27: Assistant coach Dick LeBeau of the Pittsburgh Steelers talks with the media during the AFC Media Day at Raymond James Stadium on January 27, 2009 in Tampa, Florida.

The Steelers failed to make the playoffs that year. But LeBeau had watched them defend every blade of grass against the playoff-bound Ravens in the final game, taking them into overtime before losing.

"I saw how hard that defense played. I thought, 'That's a great bunch of men right there. If I had an opportunity, I sure would like to be associated with them.'"

Defense has been a hallmark of the Steelers even in the years before they started winning. In LeBeau's playing days, the Steelers may not have won on the scoreboard, but they had a reputation of winning the physical battles.

Then came the Steel Curtain that set the standard for defensive excellence in the glory days of the 1970s.

Some coaches might shy away from being in the shadow of a dynasty. Not LeBeau.

"That legacy fuels us. Our guys are aware of that history, and they accept the challenge. We don't want to be the ones that take Pittsburgh out of being the city that's known for playing pretty good defense." LeBeau said.

In fact, after establishing themselves as the NFL's top defense during the regular season, the Steelers held the Chargers to 15 yards rushing, which was even stingier than the playoff record established by the Steel Curtain.


As ferocious as the Steelers are on defense, the soft-spoken coach who leads them is a Renaissance man. He recites poetry and quotes Frederick the Great.

Each year, he brings out the little boy in his players when he recites, by heart, Twas The Night Before Christmas.

Some influential women in his life -- his mother, Buelah, still going strong at 95, and aunts Evelyn, Martha and Miriam -- had taught him the powerful bond of family.

"Those four women made Christmas a joy and a blessing for me. I learned that poem just to let them know the spirit of Christmas had been passed on," he said. "At first, I said it for my immediate family. Then I began to do it for my extended family."

His second family may be comprised of brawny linemen, frothing linebackers and punishing defensive backs, but they are as rapt as choir boys when LeBeau speaks.

Getty Images
PITTSBURGH - FEBRUARY 03: Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau of the Pittsburgh Steelers pumps his fists during a parade to celebrate winning Super Bowl XLIII on February 3, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"Some people would say it's not good for coaches to get that close to their players. But I do regard them as family," LeBeau said. "For a good part of my career, the people in the game were like my brothers. Then they became more like my sons. In some respects now, they'd be more like my grandsons."

Christmas poetry has little in common with a zone blitz, except passion is at the heart of both.

People talk about his concepts -- rushing the quarterback from unexpected angles, defenders dropping back into coverage where they normally shouldn't be -- but his philosophy in a nutshell is to give everything you have on every snap.

"If there's one characteristic of our defense, they play hard," LeBeau said. "They play every minute they have left."

Speaking of his defensive philosophies during Super Bowl week, LeBeau quoted Frederick The Great: "He who defends everything, defends nothing."

Added LeBeau: "I think I know what he meant. He had a pretty good competitive record."


Previous winners of the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award are Arnold Palmer and Dan Rooney. It is by no means a farewell award for LeBeau.

"I still have a good competitive drive. I know I'm not going to get better at golf, but I'm still trying. It's the same thing in football. There are some things we can discover and get better. It's exciting," LeBeau said.

A couple of years ago, when the Steelers were playing in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, the defensive players shelled out $300 apiece for LeBeau's No. 44 jersey. It was their way of saying they think it's a travesty that he's not enshrined.

For his 70th birthday, he was presented with a gold Rolex watched. The inscription on the back was from the '07 Defense.

"I told them, 'Guys, you're working with someone from London, Ohio, here. This watch is worth more than my whole wardrobe.' I asked them not to get me anything for my birthday this year. And guess what? They gave me a Super Bowl championship," LeBeau said.

He is the kind of man who appreciates the company he has been selected to join, but he hasn't lost a wink of sleep mulling over things like the Hall of Fame.

"It's a tremendous honor to win this award. It's more than I deserve, particularly when you talk about people like Arnold Palmer and Mr. Rooney. That's pretty heady company. I don't quite see myself in that circle. But I'm going to be in there, and I'm proud of it. That should be enough for any man," LeBeau said.

"To have our players treat me with the respect they do, to have my name in the category of people in this city who have won this award, that's honor enough for me. I'm not the type who spends his time ruing over what might have been or what could be. Let's face it. I've been blessed. We won the Super Bowl. We led the league in defense in almost every category. My players are like family to me. I've never had a better situation in my life. Ever. What more could a man ask for?"

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Crosby's low winner puts Penguins on a high

"[Gonchar] told me he thought [Lundqvist] was holding his glove a little high."

Sunday, March 29, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Reuters Pictures
Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby scores the eventual winning goal while New York Rangers Wade Redden defends in the third period of their NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania March, 28, 2009.

Two-thirds of the way through the regular hockey season's final Mellon Arena matinee, nearly all of the prerequisites for exquisite Penguins-Rangers theatre had been met or surpassed.

There was the Tyler Kennedy-Sean Avery fight in the first period, the Eric Godard-Colton Orr heavyweight bout in the second and there was the significantly less ceremonious pre-game removal of an upper deck banner displaying the same crude sexual remark that got Avery banished from the league until the Rangers rescued him via the backstairs.

Real classy.

There was the brilliant Marc-Andre Fleury, 16-5-3 in his past 24 starts, matching the equally brilliant New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist save-for-breathtaking-save, making fairly crystalline the primary reasons for the late-season resurgencies of two clubs under new coaches with extended playoff ambitions.

The only element still conspicuously anticipated as the third period began with a 3-3 tie to be broken was a puck in the net off the stick of Sidney Crosby, who had scored in 10 consecutive games but not on any of the six shots -- all of them sterling scoring chances -- against Lundqvist in the first two periods.

"I talked to Gonch [Sergie Gonchar] between periods," Crosby smiled an hour later. "He told me he thought [Lundqvist] was holding his glove a little high."

The veteran defenseman generally doesn't deal in advice just to hear himself talk, especially not to former NHL scoring champions, but he had a longer, perhaps broader view of King Henrik's afternoon from his perch along the blue line.

He decided to pass along the glove observation.

"He's tall to begin with, so maybe it's natural for him to hold it high," Gonchar said a bit sheepishly. "But it just looked a little too high to me."

All of this became relevant on what would be Crosby's seventh shot of the game, seven being more than twice as many as any other Penguins player.

Ruslan Fedotenko, somewhat suddenly playing the kind of offensive hockey for which general manager Ray Shero acquired him in July, won a puck battle along the center ice boards and swept the puck to Crosby breaking into the New York zone. Crosby wheeled wide around Rangers defenseman Derek Morris and outskated a desperate Wade Redden toward the inside of the left wing circle, just as suddenly recalling Gonchar's advice.

He snapped that seventh shot long, to Lundqvist's glove side.

"Hit the bottom of his glove, or maybe the outside," Crosby said. "I couldn't tell."

Gonchar thought he could.

"Looked like it hit the bottom," he grinned.

One thing it surely hit, and that was the back of the net, giving the Penguins the goal that Fleury made stand with superb last-minute saves for a 4-3 victory and two more crucial points against a divisional rival entering the final two weeks of Eastern Conference politics. The Penguins have 90 points with six games left. The Rangers are stuck on 87, having six left as well.

"I guess the thing that's frustrating is that it's two teams with the type of position we're in this time of year," said Rangers coach John Tortorella, still fuming over a five-minute interference major and accompanying game-misconduct administered to Orr for a third-period hit on Mark Eaton. "I just hope we allow the teams to make the difference, to determine the results. I'll leave it at that."

New York managed to kill the penalty because it isn't the best penalty-killing team in the NHL for nothing, but might have expended enough energy in the process that Crosby enjoyed an expanse of ice in the middle to begin his game-winning rush barely two minutes later.

To that point, it appeared as though Sid could shoot at Lundqvist until Tuesday without lighting the lamp, and even after getting his 29th goal of the season and extending his scoring streak to 11 games, the Captain couldn't remember a game in which he had had as many prime scoring opportunities as he did yesterday.

"No, and I was getting the puck in good areas," he said.

Four times in the second period alone, Lundqvist stopped Crosby with nothing between them but the puck, once on each doorstop, twice in the slot not 12 feet away.

"It's a 60-minute game," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said nonchalantly. "And [Sid] got another chance in the third and got a big goal."

The only official assist went to Fedotenko, but a second should have gone to Gonchar.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on March 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Friday, March 27, 2009

Lemieux's children, Crosby's sister making waves

Friday, March 27, 2009
By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dave Hickey/Junior Penguins

From left, Trina Crosby, Troy Crosby, Austin Lemieux, Taylor Crosby, Mario Lemieux and Nathalie Lemieux pose for a photograph at a peewee tournament last month in Quebec where Austin's and Taylor's teams met in a special exhibition game.

The family crossover, the common interest, the closeness in age -- it was probably inevitable that the three teenagers would bond.

"I think it was the first game I went to in Pittsburgh. I met them, and we just started talking," Taylor Crosby said of Stephanie and Austin Lemieux. "Right away we were friends. I always stay with them when I go to Pittsburgh. We text or e-mail. You could say we're kind of like cousins."

The three are the next wave of players from Pittsburgh's first families of hockey.

Stephanie Lemieux, 14, and Austin Lemieux, 13, are the middle children of Penguins co-owner and Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux and his wife, Nathalie. Taylor Crosby, 13, is the sister of Penguins center and captain Sidney Crosby.

Mario Lemieux, who helps coach Austin with the Junior Penguins peewee AAA team and occasionally Stephanie with the Team Pittsburgh under-14 girls' AAA team, got a kick out of his children's shy reluctance to do interviews and beamed when he talked about the budding hockey players.

"I grew up playing the game and loved the game since I was a little boy," Lemieux said. "I think they're the same way. They're on the ice as much as they can be. If not, they're in the driveway."

Stephanie and Austin Lemieux also play for the Quaker Valley High School co-ed freshman team, sometimes on the same line.

"We pass to each other," Austin said.

Taylor Crosby plays goaltender for the Cole Harbour (Nova Scotia) Wings, a boys' peewee AA team.

Sidney Crosby, who has lived with the Lemieux family during the hockey season since he arrived in 2005 and goes home to Nova Scotia in the summer, tracks the three younger players.

"It's really nice the way it's worked out," Crosby said. "They've all become close."

The two families are connected in many ways, going back to 1984 when Mario Lemieux was selected first overall by the Penguins in the NHL draft. Twelve rounds later, Montreal took Troy Crosby, a goaltender who never played in the NHL but now keeps close tabs on his daughter and famous son. Sidney Crosby was selected first overall by the Penguins in the 2005 draft.

Stephanie and Austin Lemieux and Taylor Crosby all have birthdays in March.

Austin scored against Taylor during an exhibition game set up by organizers of a prestigious international peewee tournament last month in Quebec. Taylor has skated with Stephanie Lemieux at practice occasionally when she is in town visiting.

The three have learned to ignore what Mario Lemieux called "a little crap sometimes because of their name."

Stephanie Lemieux plans to move to Minnesota in the fall to attend Shattuck-St. Mary's, a boarding school with a strong hockey program where Sidney Crosby spent one school year.

"I talked to him about it. He said I'll like it," said Stephanie, who hopes Taylor Crosby will join her there a year later -- something Troy Crosby said is a possibility.

"I'm very excited for her going to Minnesota because she's quite the hockey player," Taylor Crosby said of Stephanie. "Hopefully, one day I'll be able to go there, too."

Austin Lemieux, a right winger, had three goals and 17 points in 15 games with Quaker Valley.

"Austin's pretty good, but he's kind of small still," Lemieux said of his son.

Stephanie Lemieux, a left winger and occasionally a center, and Taylor Crosby are tall for their ages and have a common aspiration -- to play for the Canadian women's team in the Olympics.

"For her age, [Stephanie] can do things that a lot of girls can't," said Stephen Walkom, director of officiating for the NHL and Stephanie's Team Pittsburgh coach. "When she comes to compete, she's almost unstoppable."

Stephanie had nine goals and 21 points in 20 games and has three goals in five games in the playoffs with Team Pittsburgh, which will be playing in the national under-14 tournament beginning Wednesday in Rochester, N.Y. She had five goals and 26 points in 20 games with Quaker Valley.

Taylor Crosby is in just her third season playing hockey and first on a boys' team after having devoted her previous spare time to horseback riding.

While individual statistics are not available for Taylor with the Wings -- they close their season next week with a tournament in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia -- she and the team's other goaltender combined for a 3.00 goals-against average over 12 first-half games and a 1.33 goals-against average over 12 second-half games, the latter number the best in their league.

"I'm pretty proud of myself. I think I've improved a lot," said Taylor, who credits her summers playing baseball for developing her good glove hand.

Playing hockey has tightened the bond between her and the Lemieux siblings.

"It's a remarkable story, and they're a remarkable family," said Trina Crosby, Taylor and Sidney's mother. "Sidney left home so young. He and Taylor have always been close and always will be. But it might have been hard for her to have him live with another family with kids about her age. They just included him in their life, and now they're doing the same thing with our daughter. She gets to feel a part of it. I think that's important."

NOTES -- Penguins center and NHL leading scorer Evgeni Malkin was given the day off to rest yesterday while the remainder of the team went through a long, skills-oriented practice at Southpointe.

Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.
First published on March 27, 2009 at 12:00 am

Pens' Orpik's overall play is a hit

Friday, March 27, 2009

Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (left) battles Calgary's Dustin Boyd in front of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury during the third period Wednesday.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review

The final hit count was Brooks Orpik 10, Dion Phaneuf 9 -- but, really, the game Wednesday between the Penguins and Calgary Flames just sort of played out that way.

Orpik, a Penguins defenseman who rates second in the NHL with 317 hits, swears he "was not attempting to one-up" Phaneuf, his Flames counterpart and the player most often shown in video highlights delivering crushing blows to opposing skaters.

In fact, Orpik does not believe Phaneuf -- whose big hits have made him popular among fans and somewhat feared by league players, at least if various anonymous polls are accurate -- is the defenseman worth watching for Calgary.

"When I watch their team, to be honest, Cory Sarich is a lot more responsible when it comes to playing physical but being a lot more under control that Phaneuf is," Orpik said Wednesday morning. "Phaneuf runs around a lot more and takes himself out of position a lot more; if you watch a guy like Sarich, he plays his position really well and he's a lot more responsible defensively."

The same is said of Orpik these days, especially by Penguins teammates such as defenseman Rob Scuderi, who labeled Orpik "our leader without a letter."

"To me, he's gotten steadily better every year," Scuderi said. "So I'm not surprised he's a little bit better this year than he was last year. I've played with him a long time and that's just the way he's grown as a player."

In the first season of a six-year contract worth $22.5 million, Orpik, 28, has grown into the type of steady defensemen that most past Stanley Cup teams -- think Ken Daneyko for the 1995, 2000 and 2003 championship New Jersey clubs (only Orpik can skate) -- would not have traded for flashier players such as Phaneuf.

The Penguins sure wouldn't deal Orpik, whom they drafted 18th overall at the 2000 entry draft.
"He really sets the tone for our defense, and even for our team," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It wasn't too long ago when things weren't always good here and everything was a lot more difficult. (Orpik) has lived that, so he keeps everything at a pretty even-keel. That's important. It keeps the guys on this team level-headed."

Orpik's overall game has reached a more consistent level this season. He has already matched a career-high in goals and set a new benchmark for points while building upon his reputation as a leading hitter and upper-echelon shot-blocker (16th overall with 145).

This followed a playoff run last season that general manager Ray Shero recently said "probably was the best Orpik (had) ever played."

"He's always been a physical player, but his positioning has really improved the past couple of years," said Sergei Gonchar, Orpik's partner on the Penguins' top defensive pairing since late last season.

"All the people recognized how good he was hitting and being physical, and nobody is paying attention to those parts of his game. That says everything about how good of an overall defenseman he's become."

A veteran of 11 seasons, Sarich said Orpik gaining recognition as a player as opposed to simply a huge hitter is "really special."

"Defensemen only get recognized for being better when we add something to our game," Sarich said. "Sometimes it is adding offense for a defensive defenseman, but it can also be just becoming better defensively for a big hitter.

"It looks to me like he's improved offensively and defensively, and that's not easy."

Orpik's maturation as a player has coincided with a rise to leadership on a club for which he serves as the longest-tenured player. On a team consisting of "lots of guys that don't wear letters but say or do the right thing," Orpik stands out, Scuderi said.

At no point this season was that more evident than in the early months the Penguins played without Gonchar and former defenseman Ryan Whitney -- ice-time leaders from last year that began this campaign on the long-term injury list with respective left shoulder and left foot injuries.

Suddenly a perceived-as-deep defensive corps needed to count upon a rookie, Alex Goligoski, and a second-year player, Kris Letang, to fill significant roles. Those players turned to Orpik, though he refused any credit for Goligoski leading team defensemen in scoring before his reassignment to the AHL or Letang's progression as a rounded defenseman.

"To me, he's had such confidence since the end of last season, and young guys go toward that when they need help," Gonchar said. "Everything he's doing well on the ice this year -- he's doing it off the ice for this team, too."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Kid and his Penguins find a little magic ... so far

Timely Turnaround

By Garth Woolsey
The Toronto Star
Mar 23, 2009 04:30 AM

PITTSBURGH - MARCH 17: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins trips as he keeps control of the puck against the Atlanta Thrashers at the Mellon Arena March 17, 2009 in Pittsburgh. (Getty Images)

Sid the Kid and the Pittsburgh Penguins have played themselves back into the thick of the NHL playoff race, and this is a good thing not only for them but also for hockey in general.

The league needs its biggest stars on its biggest stages and the Penguins have a couple of those, at least, in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, 1-2 in league scoring. But not so long ago, despite individual excellence, the Penguins were a team in disarray, well out of a playoff spot and mere shadows of the outfit that took the Detroit Red Wings to six games before losing the Stanley Cup final last spring.

What's turned them around, despite yesterday's home ice 3-1 loss to the cross-state Philadelphia Flyers? How have they gone from a mess at the start of March to a sort of madness that has seen them lose only one game in regulation time – yesterday's – in their last 13?

The turnaround began, in retrospect, when GM Ray Shero fired head coach Michel Therrien, whose old-school disciplinarian style had lost its effectiveness. His detractors accused him of grumpily trying to fit all his players into one Everyman mould. Therrien's replacement, Dan Bylsma, immediately implemented a full-out attacking style guaranteed to please the troops and the fans – so long as it worked in the won-lost column. Which it has in spades: Bylsma's record since taking over on an interim basis on Feb.15 is 12-2-3.

But changing coaches was not all Shero did with some degree of desperation and, it now seems, magic. He would know as well as anyone that such in-season moves fail at least as often as they succeed.

There have been seven such coaching moves made this season with mixed results – certainly Bob Gainey taking over from Guy Carbonneau in Montreal is at the opposite end of the spectrum, so far, from the Penguins' experience.

Shero's other moves were to swing a trade that brought winger Chris Kunitz from Anaheim and then to make a creative deadline deal with the Islanders to acquire 38-year-old Bill Guerin. Those two merely have become regulars on a line with Crosby, who has gone through dozens of wingmen in his brief career and rarely clicked so well so soon.

PITTSBURGH - MARCH 17: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates out onto the ice to face the Atlanta Thrashers at the Mellon Arena March 17, 2009 in Pittsburgh. (Getty Images)

The three play a rousting, barging game that is difficult for opponents to handle, although the Flyers did so yesterday. Crosby did manage to dig the puck out of a corner scrum and set up Kris Letang for the lone Pittsburgh goal, on the power play. But the Flyers scored a pair of power-play goals of their own and added an empty-netter in a crucial win that broke their deadlock with the Penguins for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

These teams had a memorable meeting in last season's Eastern final and may well meet again somewhere along the line after this regular season ends in three weeks. Philly has three games in hand on Pittsburgh and may well have nailed down home-ice advantage yesterday, despite having lost four of the teams' six meetings this season.

The other wild cards for Pittsburgh have been the return to form of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the return to health of defenceman and power-play wizard Sergei Gonchar, who had shoulder surgery in September and missed 56 games.

But the Penguins are, first and foremost, Crosby's team. He has 23 points in his last 13 games, including 16 since returning to the lineup nine games ago after missing four games with a groin injury. Having the Kid healthy and happy is good for the NHL – he sells tickets everywhere he goes, not only in Pittsburgh, where sellouts have again become automatic. Is there any more anticipated game than one involving Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals?

Hard to believe that Crosby, at 21, already is in his NHL fourth season. Harder to believe is that anyone might underestimate Crosby – it would make sense we have yet to see his best, right?

Yes, Ovechkin and Malkin are vying for the top individual offensive honours and claiming the headlines. But the best Canadian-born forward in the game is conceding nothing and, barring a total turnaround, neither are the Penguins, his Penguins.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Steelers coach aspires to keep improving

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

DANA POINT, Calif. — He did not draw near the crowd of first-year Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who was besieged with questions about a relationship with star quarterback Jay Cutler that soured before it even started.

But Mike Tomlin got his share of visitors at his table during a media breakfast Tuesday at the NFL owners' meetings. And he seemed just as comfortable holding court as he does presiding over practice at the Steelers' South Side facility.

That he can be as engaging as a politician belies an admission that Tomlin made earlier this week.

"I'm a private person," Tomlin said.

Privacy is a relative term with Tomlin, particularly since he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. But the trait that is obscured by his outgoing persona is not the reason why he has maintained a low profile during the offseason. Tomlin said he has been busy playing "catch-up" since the Steelers' extended 2008 season condensed the period that he has to prepare for this season — and a run at another Super Bowl title.

Tomlin is nothing if not forward-thinking. That is why he allowed himself little time to celebrate a monumental achievement before turning his attention to the NFL Draft and subjects such as how to frame the Steelers' approach to the 2009 season to his players.

"Hungry is a word that I've been analyzing here of late," Tomlin said when asked if winning a Super Bowl whetted his appetite for more championships. "It's not hunger that drives me; it's not hunger that needs to drive our football team. Hunger and thirst are things that can be quenched. We have to be a driven group. We have to seek greatness."

Translation: legacies are not constructed on one championship.

That Tomlin embraces the challenge of winning multiple Super Bowls, of measuring up to a bar he may have set impossibly high for himself, offers insight into the unwavering confidence that is one of his trademarks.

"That's what impressed me from the get-go," former Raiders coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden said of Tomlin. "You can't feel real confident going around the curve when you don't know what is on the other side, but he did (as a rookie head coach). He was confident with everything he did. He hasn't changed."

Yet, Tomlin acknowledges there is a line between confidence and arrogance, which is why he said there is still room for him to grow as a coach.

"I'm not going to be resistant to change just because we won the ultimate prize," said Tomlin, who turned 37 less than two weeks ago. "I think that mistakes were made along the way like there always will be, particularly by me. Hopefully, I'm better in '09."

One thing Tomlin doesn't appear to be in 2009 is different — at least in his approach to a job that he hesitates to call work because he is so passionate about it.

"I haven't sensed any change at all," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said of Tomlin. "We were all were excited about winning the Super Bowl, but we all understand we have to continue to prepare for next season. I think there will be a time in June and July after the draft and the OTAs are completed when you have time to sit back and reflect."

Whether Tomlin does that remains to be seen.

"I don't view it as something like I won the lottery," he said of guiding the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl title. "I'm proud of the sacrifices and the accomplishments of the men involved, but it was something I thought we were capable of. So the end result doesn't register the response that winning the lottery or something of that nature, where you have to pinch yourself."

Talk of Tomlin

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on ...

Whether he plans to address the dreaded Super Bowl hangover with his players:

"I think if I attempt to avoid it, I may acknowledge the possibility of it happening exists. I'm not willing to do that. We simply are just going to prepare and attack the challenges that lie ahead for us. We know that things that happened in the past are things that happened in the past and it may affect how we're judged from a perception standpoint, but it's not going to dictate how we work or how we approach our business."

The Steelers having a target on them this season because they are the reigning Super Bowl champions:

"Bring it on; it comes with the territory. I'd rather have that problem than the opposite."

Whether he has caught up as far as the NFL Draft and other preparations for the 2009 season are concerned:

"I don't know if I'm going to have that feeling, and really I'm comfortable with a heightened sense of urgency like we're under the gun, because we are. I'm comfortable in the mentality that we need to play catch up at this point."

Whether the Steelers' offensive line has the potential to make significant improvement:

"I believe that, and I think our actions this offseason support that: our re-signing of Chris (Kemoeatu); our placing a claim on a guy like Max (Starks). We believe in the upside of the group and we also believe in the upside of the individuals. You are talking about a bunch of young guys, relatively speaking, as far as the jobs that they do, and we believe that's a group that's on the rise."

Dan Rooney bids NFL owners farewell

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Dan Rooney said goodbye to the National Football League this week as he prepares to become a U.S. ambassador.

He has resigned from all the committees he chaired and worked on. He stood up before his fellow team owners and bade them farewell in his typical low-key manner Monday, and the process has become emotional for him and his friends in the league.

"I find it hard to internalize that he's going off," said Mike Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals. "As long as I can remember, he's been around here and he's been a very important contributor and it's coming to an end. Everything does, but it's difficult sometimes when that happens."

Rooney spoke Monday at the NFL's privileged session that included only the principal owners of each team.

"There was a bunch of us sitting around and talking and Dan sort of said goodbye to all of us," said Bill Bidwill, owner of the Arizona Cardinals, whose family long has been friendly with the Rooneys. "I'm sorry to see him go, but that's the way it's coming down."

Rooney, not an overly sentimental sort, has been trying to maintain that reputation.

"I'm trying to prevent it from not becoming emotional," he said yesterday. "It's really the separation. These guys have been good friends of mine. But it's the way life is, move on to a new challenge."

His new challenge will be as ambassador to Ireland once his appointment by President Barack Obama is approved by the U.S. Senate. Coincidentally, the country's most recent ambassador to Germany traded seats of sort with Rooney and offered some insight into what he can expect.

As part of the separation process, Rooney resigned this week as chairman of the NFL's Pro Football Hall of Fame committee. He also gave up his seat on the Hall of Fame's board of trustees, a seat he held for years and one his father, Art Rooney Sr., had held before him.

One person who rejoined that board is Tim Timken, who served as ambassador to Germany from August 2005 until last December. Timken, a Canton, Ohio, resident, served on the Hall of Fame board until he had to resign when he became ambassador.

"I will say this: The clearance that you go through effectively requires you to get out of everything that you do," Timken said of the process he went through before taking his post in Germany. "I had to resign all my business with all my charitable things and everything else. I had to have a clean slate."

Timken also spent most of his time in Germany.

"If you're the ambassador to Germany, your job is in Germany, not the United States. So I came home very rarely. I worked seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day. It was a very demanding schedule that required me to be in Germany.

"Germany is our largest mission outside the United States. Obviously, Ireland is not that magnitude, so Dan would have leeway to operate things differently."

Rooney has declined to discuss much about the position, and Timken said there is a reason for that.

"We're counseled to do that," Timken said. "Remember, he has to be confirmed by the Senate, and even though the Democrats control the process, senators have very strong feelings about their ability to carry out their consent, which is basically what it is. You don't want to do anything to make them feel that somehow you're already the ambassador."

It has not stopped others from talking about it, however.

Said Chicago Bears owner Mike McCaskey: "To choose a man who has such a long and productive association with Ireland and has actively tried to provide resources to help build unity within the different communities there, I'm just thrilled for Ireland and thrilled for the United States. It's an inspired choice."

But some in the NFL also have found it hard to say goodbye this week to a man who has been so influential and involved in league matters for half a century.

"The team's in good hands with Art [Rooney II] being the president, I don't worry about that for a second," McCaskey said. "Danny's always been terrific in terms of a level head, especially the collective-bargaining area, and we need to fashion a new labor agreement. We'll miss him there."

Dan Rooney's son, Art, assumed the Steelers' presidency from his father in 2002 and has taken on many of those chores and those in the league. But Dan has been such an influence throughout the league and a presence that it's difficult for some to see him go.

"He's been one of the very important owners in this league for a long time," Cincinnati's Brown said. "His franchise has been at the top more than anybody else's. If you accomplish that, you have won the race, and during his time in this league, he has won the race.

"Beyond that, he's been instrumental in the way the league has operated over the years. He's been a huge force in the labor dealings the league has had, and in other areas as well."

Joe Horrigan, a Hall of Fame vice president, called Rooney "our champion."

"He speaks to the owners and they believe what he says," Horrigan said. "He brings that legacy feeling of importance of preserving the heritage of the game. It's a sincere thing on his behalf and to us it's an essential ingredient."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Penguins and the Playoff Chase: The Book on Bylsma

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
bY Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The co-author of two books, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma would appear to be hard at work on the completion of an instructional trilogy.

With his father, Jay, Bylsma has written "So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL" and its sequel, "So You Want to Play in the NHL," and though there is no working title for the subsequent text and "So Your Mother Wants to Play in the NHL" is probably out, there's very likely a prime market for "So Your Underachieving NHL Team Needs a Late-Season Slap in the Psyche."

Publishers haven't lined up yet, but who better to write that one?

Five-and-a-half weeks looks like all the dossier Bylsma needs. It has been only that long since Bylsma swapped nurturing the Baby Penguins for coaching the presumably adult version, which at the time had buried itself well short of expectations, not to mention the playoffs.

But with Bylsma behind the bench, the Penguins suddenly went a month between regulation losses, piled up 27 points in his first 16 games, and jet-packed into the middle of the postseason field.

Could someone at least feign surprise around here?

Not yesterday.

"This day and age, it's like the old Yogi-ism, 90 percent of the game is half mental, and a lot of that is true," said Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton after another of Bylsma's upbeat practices. "A month ago this was a pretty fragile hockey team with a timid attitude. Now it's like we feel there's nothing we can't do. We can get behind, come back and win, but it was a long time coming.

"I think everyone knew the team had this kind of potential. Going back to the beginning of the year, we knew this team was capable of playing this kind of hockey."

You'd hate to think that all this team was waiting for was for Michel Therrien to be shoved off the ice floe, in part because that would undervalue what Bylsma's done for this team. Only six first-time coaches in the entire history of the National Hockey League ever started their careers at a higher rate of success. Certainly Bylsma got a huge assist from general manager Ray Shero, perhaps the only man in the building with a hotter hand than he. It was Shero who brought Bill Guerin to town at the trade deadline, alone with Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams, amping the toughness and agitation quotients back to customary levels.

But it was Bylsma who had to walk into that room and read the faces. To see where this team was and take it to another place.

"At times before he got here," Sidney Crosby said yesterday, "we could all look around the room and see guys who could give more than they were giving. It wasn't easy for him. It's been a combination of things, but part of it was we had to face up to the fact that we weren't doing everything we could do."

Perhaps it seems almost unremarkable, what these Penguins have done in 51/2 weeks, because Bylsma has done it without any verbal slashing or roughing, at least not in public. This isn't anything like Mike Tomlin's new-sheriff-in-town transition, initially derided in a similarly veteran locker room and only slowly and even grudgingly assimilated. Moreover, Bylsma wouldn't even take credit for the sudden shift in Penguins tactics, claiming he was merely explaining Therrien systems in new terms.

"Everyone's buying in," said center Tyler Kennedy. "Everyone's being more accountable. Guys have just been more responsible."

In any event, there's no denying that Shero looks pretty smart as the Penguins prepare to see how they'll bounce back tonight against the Calgary Flames after a rare loss. Bylsma looks even smarter, a notion that the head coach rejected pretty flatly outside his office yesterday.

"I can say clearly that I'm not that smart," he said. "The players here have just bought into a different mindset and played a little different tempo. We have good players here who were willing to work at establishing our identity as a hockey team. It's usually something you develop in the first 25 to 30 games and then you hone for the next 20 or 30. Here we've done it all in 17.

"But the credit goes to the players. To be honest, I was not surprised at all that things went that way."

Eight games remain until a postseason that to some seemed impossible only a month ago (guilty), but Bylsma's team must still sense the desperation.

"We've got to come back hard tonight," said Guerin. "We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves."

Maybe this team isn't one you'd necessarily write a book about just yet, but you've got to like the outline.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tomlin: Greatness is all about drive

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

It's not hunger that drives coach Mike Tomlin in his quest for the Steelers' seventh Super Bowl title.

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Different coach, different year, different players, even -- soon -- different ownership. Mike Tomlin knows all about how the Steelers fell flat on their face the previous time they entered the season as Super Bowl champions. He hopes for one more difference this time: The outcome.

That 2006 season turned into one big Super Bowl hangover for the Steelers that began with one big headache for their quarterback and ended with an 8-8 record, no playoffs and the end of the road for coach Bill Cowher, who resigned after that season.

None of that means much to Tomlin as he prepares his team to defend its sixth NFL championship.

"It's not something that I'm going to attempt to avoid," Tomlin said yesterday at the NFL meetings. "I think if I attempt to avoid it, I may acknowledge the possibility of it happening exists. I'm not willing to do that.

"We simply are just going to prepare and attack the challenges that lie ahead for us. We know that things that happened in the past are things that happened in the past, and it may affect how we're judged from a perception standpoint. But it's not going to dictate how we work or how we approach our business."

Tomlin spoke at length publicly yesterday for the first time in seven weeks, or since he appeared the day after his team won Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., at the winner's news conference Feb. 2. He has taken a low-key public approach since he and his players paraded through downtown Pittsburgh Feb. 3.

"I'm a private person by nature," Tomlin explained. "This is what I do, it's not who I am. I understand that it's necessary that people get to know me. I have somewhat of a public job. I'd like to think that the longer I'm on my job, the more I'll simply be evaluated by the quality of my work, and the necessity to hear myself talk this time of the year when it doesn't matter will be less and less."

He does not want his 2009 team to be hungry as much as driven, he said.
"Hungry is a word that I've been analyzing here of late. It's not hunger that drives me, it's not hunger that needs to drive our football team. Hunger and thirst are things that can be quenched. We have to be a driven group, we have to seek greatness. I think driven is a more appropriate word, it's a word I tend to use with them as we prepare for '09."

That preparation will change a bit in light of the Steelers having played games into February. Tomlin and Garrett Giemont, his conditioning coordinator, developed a plan to take the long season into account this year.

"In order to be a candidate for a championship-caliber team you have to work hard, but within that we have to find a delicate balance of working smart," Tomlin said. "And we have to acknowledge what has happened to us here in the past few months in terms of what we have done to our bodies as a football team."

So, young players who did not play much or at all last season are working at team headquarters now. Tomlin will stagger other players' starting dates based on the number of snaps they took last season.

Tomlin likes his team, even if he has lost a few players to free agency such as Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden. The Steelers re-signed nine of their own free agents but no one else's over the past 3Â 1/2 weeks of the signing period.

"I think, really, it's kind of in line the way we approach our business. I think it's consistent to what's happened here in the past and probably what's going to happen here in the future.

"We value the growth and development of our guys, we're going to try to retain as many of those guys as we can. We understand what comes with being successful, that sometimes people are going to value your players and sometimes in the process you're going to lose some of them. That comes with the territory. I think we're all comfortable where we are right now in free agency."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Monday, March 23, 2009

Steelers great Stallworth is among team's three new partners

Monday, March 23, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Steelers hall of famers John Stallworth, right, and Terry Bradshaw, hug after being honored at half-time of a NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens as members of the 75th Anniversary Steelers team in Pittsburgh, Monday, Nov. 5, 2007. (AP)

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Hall of Fame wide receiver John Stallworth is among the three new partners in the Steelers who were approved today by NFL owners.

Stallworth, the president and CEO of Genesis II; Bruce V. Rauner, Chairman of GTCR Golder Rauner, LLC;, and the Varischetti family of Brockway, Pa., bring to six new partners the NFL has approved under the realignment of Steelers ownership under Dan and Art Rooney.

Rauner, Stallworth and the Varischetti family join James Haslam III, the Paul family and Thomas Tull as new partners to help maintain the Rooney family ownership of the Steelers.

The agreement among the Rooney family for closing the transaction was originally set to take place before March 31, 2009, but with the possible addition of new investors the closing will be postponed until May.

Two or three more partners could be added by then, team president Art Rooney II has said.

The following information on the three new Steelers partners was provided by the team today:

John Stallworth

• 56 years old; based in Huntsville, Alabama

• Played 14 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was a member of four Super Bowl championship teams. He earned four trips to the Pro Bowl and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

• Current partner at Genesis II, a family business office created in 2006 to enhance the partner's philanthropic support efforts, investments and related business interests.

• Serves as Chairman, Board of Directors for the John Stallworth Foundation, a non-profit organization he founded in 1984 to provide scholarships to students attending his alma mater, Alabama A&M University.

• Served as President and CEO of Madison Research Corporation (MRC) before selling the company and retiring in 2006. MRC is a technology and government contracting corporation in Huntsville, Ala., with operations in South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Washington D.C.

• Earned his B.S. in Business Administration (Management) and his M.B.A. in Business Administration (Finance) from Alabama A&M University.

• Serves on the Board of Directors for many organizations, including Crestwood Medical Center, First Commercial Bank, Big Spring Partners, Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the Huntsville Botanical Garden Foundation.

• Married (Flo) with two children (John, Jr. and Natasha) and four grandchildren (John III, Jacob, Julia and Taylor).

Varischetti Family

• Operations headquartered in Brockway, Pa.

• Family has substantial involvement in many businesses, including Guardian Elder Care Holdings, Inc.; Varischetti & Sons, Inc.; Phoenix Sintered Metals, Inc.; and Apple Tractor, Inc.

• All companies combined have over 2,000 employees.

• Family very active in community projects through the Frank Varischetti Foundation, which primarily serves the Brockway and DuBois areas.

• Guardian Elder Care Holdings, Inc. has 23 nursing facilities, including 20 in Pennsylvania, two in Ohio and one in West Virginia. The company was originated in 1995. Guardian also owns a long-term care pharmacy, a rehabilitation services company and a home health care company.

• Varischetti & Sons, Inc. owns and manages commercial real estate in Pennsylvania and New York and provides consultation services to the waste industry. The company's interest also includes VSI Racing, which competes on the Nationwide Series.

• Phoenix Sintered Metals, Inc. is a manufacturer of powder metal parts serving many different industries, including Outdoor Power Equipment, Sporting Goods, Hydraulic/Fluid Power, Automotive, Recreational Vehicles, Food Service and Medical. The company is a consolidation of assets from four local manufacturing plants in one central location in Brockway.

• Apple Tractor, Inc. is a major supplier of quality machinery for the construction and mining industries, selling, renting and buying new and used equipment such as tractors, excavators, wheel loaders, crawler loaders, backhoes, articulated trucks and hydraulic hammers.

• The Varischetti business history dates back to the 1960's when the late Frank Varischetti built Varischetti Sanitation into one of the largest independently owned sanitation companies in Pennsylvania.

Bruce V. Rauner

• 53 years old; based in Chicago, Illinois

• Chairman of GTCR Golder Rauner, LLC, a venture capital and private equity firm.

• GTCR forms and finances companies in partnership with outstanding executives whose goal is to build market-leading businesses over time through strategic acquisitions as well as through disciplined internal growth.

• Member of the board of directors for a number of public and privately held companies nationally and serves on the boards of civic and philanthropic organizations around Chicago, including the Renaissance Schools Fund.

• Provided major funding for the construction of the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College and has endowed and funded programs at Dartmouth College, Morehouse College, University of Chicago, Harvard Business School and University of Illinois.

• Works with the Nature Conservancy and Montana Land Reliance to preserve ranch land and wildlife habitat in Montana and received the Murie-Broome Award from The Wilderness Society for outstanding work in wilderness preservation.

• Chicago native who received a B.A. degree in economics, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard University.

First published on March 23, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Pens may actually be better than last year

Monday, March 23, 2009

Quick question: If the Penguins make the playoffs, will the mayor change his name to Luke Jordanstahl?

Here's a better question, raised by USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen during our conversation Saturday: Is this Penguins team better than last year's at the same point of the season?

At first, the notion might seem preposterous — especially if you put too much stock into Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the first time in 13 games the Penguins did not record a point.

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby works the puck away from the Flyers' Bryadon Coburn during the second period Sunday at Mellon Arena.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review

How could any team lose one of the best all-around players in the world (Marian Hossa), plus a key team leader and power-play presence (Ryan Malone) and be better?

Break it down, though, and you realize it's a legitimate question.

Several reasons:

• The Penguin's top two players have expanded their games and are showing they can play at peak level concurrently.

At various times in their careers, it seemed that when either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin took a step forward, the other receded, just a bit, into the shadows. Lately, they seem intent on proving that two suns can, in fact, burn to maximum brightness in the same universe.

They also can combine for zero shots, as they did yesterday. But that was only the second time that's happened, and as Flyers forward Mike Richards put it, "They still had their opportunities."

• Crosby is healthier than he was late last season. And remember this: If he hadn't missed five games, he and Malkin would be waging a titanic, in-team battle for the scoring title, separated by only a few points.

• The third and fourth lines are better. Matt Cooke is a prime example why. He has more points (27) than Jarkko Ruutu's ever had in a season and is every bit as abrasive.

• The team's other under-25 players, besides Malkin and Crosby, are flourishing. That would include center Jordan Staal, defenseman Kris Letang, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and winger Tyler Kennedy. Staal, Letang and Kennedy (who had no goals in last year's playoffs) have benefited greatly from coach Dan Bylsma's aggressive, skating-based system.

• The power play alignment actually makes sense lately, with Malkin freed from left-point exile. (Next step: Dump the puck when a team such as the Flyers puts four men across the blue line).

• The top line might be as good or better, even without Hossa. Crosby now has two capable scorers/well-rounded players on his wings in Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

Here's the thing: The Penguins could actually be better than last season and not go as far because the playoff field will be radically improved. Last year's field was banged up and not all that special in the first place, as compared to a potential top three of Bruins, Capitals and Devils this year, plus lower-bracket teams that are rolling at the right time.

None of which is to minimize the losses of Hossa and Malone. Hossa gave the Penguins a third player who could win a game by himself. Malone had become an inspirational force.

Oh, yeah, and this year's team still has to make the playoffs.

Know what, though?

I like the Penguins' chances of getting through the East again, which is something only a fool would have said a month ago.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ward's hit may bring change

Blindside blocks could draw flag

Thursday, March 19, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana / Post-Gazette

'The Hit' on Cincinnati's Keith Rivers on October 21st. Hines Ward, right, lays a crushing block that broke the jaw of Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers in Cincinnati.

The NFL changed a rule more than 30 years ago that became known as the Mel Blount Rule, and now Hines Ward might have one to call his own as well.

A rule to eliminate a blindside block to the head of a defender will be proposed at the league meetings, which begin Sunday in Dana Point, Calif.

Those proposing the rule acknowledged yesterday that Ward's block in October, which broke the jaw of rookie Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers, was among the plays reviewed when they drew it up.

"It's one of several plays we looked at, that's correct," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "Under this year's rules, that was a legal hit but we're trying to advance our player safety ... and that would be a flag play."

By that, Anderson meant that the hit raised a flag as to the new rules proposal, and even after viewing it on film they were not sure if Ward's would be a legal hit or not if the new rule passes.

The proposal, according to Anderson and competition committee co-chair Rich McKay, is to try to eliminate or penalize any helmet-to-helmet contact that occurs on a blindside block.

"We have people downfield -- tight ends, receivers or even linemen -- who head back to the line of scrimmage [to throw a block]," McKay said. "We're trying to protect that defender and so that you cannot block that defender in the head. We'd rather have the blocker attempt the block in the chest area, anywhere but the head."

It's not clear even by watching the video, the two NFL officials said, whether Ward's block was with his helmet or shoulder.

"I think there was some debate there," Anderson said. "Some of our eyes may have seen helmet to helmet, some may have seen shoulder to helmet."

Ward was neither penalized nor fined for the hit on Rivers.

"Certainly Hines' was one that was perfectly legal last year," Anderson said, "but as Rich said, the result of those types of hits led to the conclusion that for safety's sake, we want to eliminate those types of blindside hits if you will."

The NFL passed new rules in 1978 that benefited the passing game. Perhaps the major change was the one that become known as the "Mel Blount Rule" because defenders no longer could bump a receiver 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Previously, they could bump a receiver anywhere until the ball was in the air. Blount, a Steelers Hall of Fame cornerback, used his 6-foot-3, 205-pound size to overwhelm receivers before a pass was thrown.

McKay acknowledged that the competition committee focused on player safety when they came up with four of their seven rules proposals for the owners to consider next week. Another Steelers player might have helped inspire one of them.

Ryan Clark had celebrated hits on New England wide receiver Wes Welker and Baltimore running back Willis McGahee last season, which were decried by many but declared legal and never drew fines. Those might fall in a gray area if Rule Proposal No. 4 passes next week.

"In 1995, we passed a rule that allowed there to be protection for a defenseless receiver in the air, helmet to helmet," McKay said.

The new rule would expand that to include a hit with a forearm or shoulder to the head until the receiver has two feet on the ground.

"There were an awful lot of hits in the last couple of years that have been legal but very tough on the players," McKay said. "We're trying to expand that protection."

While Clark's hits came with his shoulder to the head, both receivers had their feet on the ground at the time, so that type of hit still might be legal if the new rule passes.

Other safety rules proposals involve the elimination of the "bunching" of players on onside kicks and limiting the number of players who can be used in a "wedge" on kickoff returns to two.

Some other minor rules adjustments will be considered, including a small expansion of plays that can be reviewed by replay. The owners also will continue to discuss expanding the regular season to 17 or 18 games but no decision can be made on that. The NFL Players Association would have to agree to such an expansion and that likely will be among the debates when the sides begin labor negotiations.

There is a proposal to change the draft order of teams involved in the playoffs, but there is little sentiment by players or club officials to change the NFL's overtime rules, the two league officials said yesterday.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 19, 2009 at 12:00 am

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rooney's Irish road trip

President Obama calls his nominee for ambassador 'an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education'

Wednesday, March 18, 2009
By James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lawrence Jackson/The White House
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulates Steelers owner Dan Rooney, President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to Ireland, yesterday at the White House.

As ambassador-designate, Dan Rooney is heading to a Dublin whose economic troubles pose a challenging new context for the traditionally strong ties between the U.S. and the Republic of Ireland.

After decades of involvement in the American Ireland Fund, Mr. Rooney is familiar with even tougher challenges in Irish politics. He and the organization he helped found persisted as voices for peace through some of the worst years of violence as citizens on both sides of the Republic's border with Northern Ireland endured politics of division.

"I think people will cheer on both sides of the Atlantic," said Ted Smyth, a former Irish diplomat who was a firsthand observer of the birth and work of the American Ireland Fund. "Dan has an extraordinary record of commitment to the peace process in Ireland."

Mr. Smyth noted the millions raised by the fund, but added, "More than that, Dan raised awareness across America that there was a peaceful way forward, and the way of the gun was not the way to go. In retrospect, it looks like the peace process was inevitable.But it was never inevitable."

President Barack Obama, who nominated Mr. Rooney yesterday, pointed to the ambassador-designate's record as he met with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen for the traditional shamrock ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Before a small group of members of Congress, American and Irish diplomats, he called the Steelers owner "an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture and education."

Mr. Obama and Mr. Rooney forged personal bonds over the political strife of the presidential campaign, when the lifelong Republican endorsed Mr. Obama before the Pennsylvania primary and campaigned for him extensively through the general election.

"Dan is a great friend," Mr. Obama added. "He and his family are as gracious and thoughtful a group of people as I know."

On the eve of the president's inauguration, Mr. Rooney presented him with a game ball from that weekend's AFC championship game. While accepting the Super Bowl trophy two weeks later, Mr. Rooney drew some Republican criticism as he said, while holding the Lombardi trophy on national television, "I would like to thank President Barack Obama."

American politicians of both parties praised the nomination, which must be ratified by the Senate. Echoing his host, Mr. Cowen said, "Dan has been a great personal friend of mine down the years, too, and I really very much welcome his appointment."

In a subsequent interview with CNN, the Irish politician recalled that "He and [former Heinz CEO] Tony O'Reilly set up the Ireland Fund that's been a great source of cross-partnership, trust and community projects for many years. Even in the very bad times during the conflict and the violence, Dan Rooney has been instrumental in bringing together many people of good will."

In a brief interview with KDKA at the White House yesterday, Mr. Rooney said he was "honored" and "thrilled," at the appointment.

"I'm just there to serve any way I can," he said.

During the West Wing ceremony, Mr. Rooney sat behind his new boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose defeat he sought throughout the state's primary struggle. Her broad smile suggested she had forgiven the slight. Also in the audience was former Sen. George Mitchell, who, as President Bill Clinton's special envoy to Northern Ireland, won praise for brokering the 1998 Good Friday agreement that marked a pivotal turn toward peace in Northern Ireland.

While three shooting deaths in Northern Ireland over the last week were a reminder of the troubles once so prominent a force throughout Ireland, they also suggested the progress since the Good Friday agreement.

"The Northern Ireland problem had gone sort of off the radar in the last few years and has just suddenly come back with the three killings in the last week or so," said David Miller, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. "What's most remarkable is the definite intent on the part of almost everybody to resist going back to where they were before."

"I'm not nearly as worried about that as I am about the economy in Ireland, both north and south," he added.

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Hines Ward greets team owner Dan Rooney on the stage during a parade for the Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006.

Tony Novosel, who teaches Irish history at the University of Pittsburgh, also cited the economic crisis as perhaps the greatest challenge to Ireland, and, by extension, the envoy who represents the United States there.

"Their economic collapse make our problems look like a hiccup," he said of a nation whose once-soaring economy won the designation "Celtic Tiger."

In a CNN interview yesterday, Mr. Cowen noted that after more than a decade of Gross Domestic Product growth averaging between 6 percent and 7 percent, the republic's economy was expected to shrink by 6 percent in 2009.

Unemployment, just 4.5 percent at the beginning of last year, is now more than 10 percent.

"I don't know that there's much an American ambassador can do about that," said Carnegie Mellon's Miller.

Still, said Mr. Smyth, the former Irish diplomat, "It can make an enormous difference because the ambassador is the face of the nation in the other country. ... It's a two-way street; you're representing your county abroad and you're conveying the concerns of that country. With that common touch Dan has, he'll relate very well."

In addition to a salary of between $150,000 and $163,000, according to the State Department, Mr. Rooney will receive the keys to one of the finest houses in Dublin. The American ambassador's residence, on 62 acres of lawn and gardens in Phoenix Park, was built the year of America's Declaration of Independence. For much of its existence, it housed the British chief secretaries for Ireland, among them, the Duke of Wellington, and Sir Robert Peel, both future prime ministers of the United Kingdom.

The embassy's Web site points out that, as a child, Winston Churchill played on its grounds while his father, Randolph Churchill, served there as a junior diplomat.

After the Irish Republic gained its independence in 1922, the British were out and the home became the U.S. embassy. Mr. Rooney is a member of a long line of private citizens who have been appointed to serve there.

Only the first post-independence ambassador was a career foreign service officer.

In a telephone interview as he was leaving the announcement, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said, "You know it's a good day when you show up at the White House and there's green water coming out of the fountains."

He said the Steelers executive "has all the skills you'd want for this job. He understands government. He understands large organizations and he understands the peace process."

Mr. Casey sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is charged with performing what is expected to be a pro forma review of the nomination.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, another member of the White House audience, also lauded Mr. Rooney's qualifications, noting that he "spent years behind the scenes working to promote peace, justice and prosperity in Ireland."

Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562
First published on March 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

Steelers to lose personal touch with Dan Rooney in Dublin

Wednesday, March 18, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger smiles with Dan Rooney last March after signing a new $102 million contract.

Dan Rooney will soon earn the official title, yet he's always been an Irish ambassador with his Steelers and throughout the NFL. He's long been known as the league's voice of reason and conscience and, when it appeared war would break out or did between the league's players and owners, a man of peace.

Ireland may be gaining an ambassador, but the Steelers and the NFL are losing football royalty, a Hall of Famer and son of the franchise's founder who put personal integrity above all else while operating his team and dealing with its people.

His absence will be felt in Pittsburgh and across the NFL, where labor war clouds again are gathering. His son, Art Rooney II, succeeded his father as Steelers president in 2002, and the public will discern few changes in the way the team is operated, partly because Art has run the daily operations of the team anyway. And Art's chief adviser, his father, will remain only a phone call away in Dublin.

"I don't believe Dan would be able to take on these new responsibilities if his son Art wasn't already a Super Bowl-winning club president,'' said Joe Browne, the NFL's longtime executive vice president of communications and himself an Irishman.

The Steelers will miss Dan Rooney's personal touch. Like his Hall of Fame father, Art Rooney Sr., Dan often visits the locker room, sits with secretaries at lunch, stops by the press room at the team's offices on the South Side to chat, and remains an important connection to the 1930s, when he first hung around his father's new football team, and even to the great days of the 1970s, a time fewer and fewer Steelers employees have experienced.

Mr. Rooney made a heavy commitment to this new post; it is not an absentee job or one that allows for weekend visits home in the fall to watch the family football team. He's expected to depart for his new job sometime during his team's training camp, and for a man who has missed few games in franchise history, it might not be an easy parting.

Among those who thought a separation between Dan Rooney and the Steelers would never come are some in his family. It occurs months after Dan and his son successfully -- against considerable odds -- cobbled together a new ownership group of the franchise that involves losing two of his four brothers as partners.

"I'm shocked," said brother Tim Rooney, who is selling all of his shares in the team. "I don't know the time and the element and everything else. I think he may be in Ireland but he'll be in contact with the stadium, that's for sure.

"I think he's going to continue to have a very strong attachment with the Steelers, and I surely hope he does because nobody could possibly do a better job or give better advice."

The family, brother Tim said, is happy for Dan, who will hold the highest political post of anyone in Rooney history.

"I think it's great, you know," Tim Rooney said. "It's wonderful for Dan, and I think he'll do a tremendous job in Ireland. He knows so much about it and spends so much time there. I think he'll be able to accomplish so much over there."

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, seen here watching the Steelers at training camp last summer, was honored by Queen Elizabeth for his for his work toward reconcilation in strife-torn Northern Ireland.

It also is a first for the NFL.

"If approved, it would be a new round for us because we've had land developers and former players and oilmen as owners but we've never had a U.S. ambassador as a club owner," Mr. Browne said.

Where the NFL might miss him most is on the league level. Mr. Rooney has served on most of the important NFL committees, including chairman of the powerful management council executive committee. The Rooney Rule is named after him because he pushed for the rule that mandates interviews for minorities by any NFL team seeking a head coach. He has been a chief adviser to the past three NFL commissioners, Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and now Roger Goodell, who learned he landed the job from Dan Rooney.

"If he's confirmed, he still hopefully would be a trusted adviser to the commissioner, which is a role he has served going back at least to the days of Pete Rozelle," Mr. Browne said from the NFL offices in New York yesterday.

"When one thinks of Dan, one thinks of qualities such as integrity, honesty, trust -- and I'm sure these are some of the same qualities the president saw before he made his announcement."

They are qualities that thrust Mr. Rooney into the middle of the league's labor agreements and disagreements with its players. While Mr. Rooney represented management, the NFL Players Association had a trust in him to the point that former union head Gene Upshaw called Mr. Rooney a friend. Mr. Upshaw died last year and the union named a new executive director last week, DeMaurice Smith. The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in two years and if there is no extension, 2010 will be an uncapped salary year.

Normally, Mr. Rooney would be in the middle of working on a new CBA with the NFL and its union.

"It depends on how much time he'll have," Mr. Browne said. "He had a very good relationship with Gene Upshaw, but also from the management side his impact was felt again in advising the commissioner on labor positions."

Mr. Rooney has been involved in the Steelers daily operations for more than 50 years, since the 1950s, and was handed control of the team by his father in the mid-1960s.

Art Rooney Sr. officially turned over the title of president to Dan in 1975.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on March 18, 2009 at 12:00 am