Monday, March 26, 2012

Fond memories: Fisher, retired voice of Penn State, goes back a long way with Pirates

He met Honus Wagner and saw Babe Ruth hit his last home runs

By Lou Prato
The Altoona Mirror
March 18, 2012

Fran Fisher, Penn State football's radio announcer, gazes at Beaver Stadium from the Press Box. (Collegian Photo / Timothy Gyves)

STATE COLLEGE - Two of the most memorable days in the history of the Pittsburgh Pirates at Forbes Field were on October 13, 1960 when Bill Mazeroski hit his dramatic game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the 1960 World Series and on May 25, 1935 when the legendary Babe Ruth hit the last three home runs of his career.

There is at least one dedicated Pirate fan in the region who not only witnessed those immortal home runs in the now extinct Oakland ballpark, but he also met the equally legendary Honus Wagner during Pirate batting practice when Wagner was an honorary coach around 1930.

The fan may not be as famous as those three Hall of Famers, but he is also well known in his own right. After all, Fran Fisher was "The Voice of Penn State football" for nearly 40 years.

"I was raised as a Pirate fan by my dad," Fisher, now 88, said as he gears up for another Pirates' season. "My father, Homer, was a devout Pirate fan, and the company he worked for was a box holder at Forbes Field, and he used to take me to games. I met Honus Wagner, and it came about in an unusual way."

The Fisher family then lived in Dormont, and Homer Fisher had became a friend of pitcher Wilbur Cooper, the best Pirate pitcher of his era (1912-1926) and a teammate of Wagner's until Wagner's retirement in 1917.

Homer was a pioneer in the building and constructing of the Memorial Park concept - cemeteries without tombstones - and as sales manager of a local company, he hired Cooper to sell cemetery plots after Cooper retired.

Cooper, who is still the Pirates' winningest pitcher in history with a 216-178 record, invited Homer and his young son to watch a Pirate batting practice.

"I think I was around 6 or 7," Fisher said, "and Wilbur Cooper suggested to my father that since I had become such a fan, it might be enjoyable to me and my father if he would take me to the Pirate dugout before the game to watch batting practice and maybe get some autographs. Wilbur arranged that, and we went to a game and sat right next to the water cooler, as Wilbur had suggested, because when the players finished batting practice, they always wanted a drink of water.

"We got there very early and prior to the start of batting practice, this old, bowlegged guy comes waddling over to the dugout and tousled my head like a guy would do with a youngster. When he walked away, my dad said, 'Do you know who that is?' and I said no, and he told me it was Honus Wagner.

"He was an honorary coach then ... as a PR thing. I've read recently that the Pirates hired him as an official coach in 1933, and reportedly he helped players with their batting and fielding, pitched a little batting practice and did some other little things. But was really still there for public relations, and he did that until he died [in 1955]."

In 1935, Fran Fisher had another brush with greatness. Homer and his son were sitting a couple of rows behind the Pirates' dugout along the first-base line for the final game of a three-game series against the Boston Braves. Along with most of the 10,000 other fans that Saturday afternoon, the Fishers were there to see Babe Ruth, who had been traded by the New York Yankees to the Braves in February. By that time, the Fisher family had moved to Greensburg, where Homer had created and owned the new Westmoreland County Memorial Park.

Everyone in baseball, including the fans, knew the great home run king was close to the end of his playing career. His skills had deteriorated, and he could hardly do anything but hit and trot slowly around the field.

Ruth was batting just .157 in 20 games, and had hit just his third home run of the season in the Braves' previous game at Chicago when Boston opened a three-game series with the Pirates on May 23. The Braves were in last place with an 8-18 record and the Pirates in fifth at 16-17. Forbes Field could seat up to 41,000, but attendance at each of the three games was estimated at about 10,000.

Fisher was 12 at the time, and he witnessed history.

"I remember he hit one into the lower deck, dropped it right over the right field screen, hit the second one into the second deck, and then hit his third one over the roof and clear out of the ball park, the first of only four guys in history to hit one clear out of Forbes Field," Fisher said with excitement still in his voice after what he had witnessed 77 years ago. "Those were his final home runs - 712, 713 and 714. He played just five games after that until he retired completely."

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Dupuis shows his winning touch again

By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 26, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins' Pascal Dupuis celebrates his second period goal with teammate Sidney Crosby during an NHL hockey game against the New Jersey Devils in Pittsburgh Sunday, March 25, 2012. (AP)

Pascal Dupuis slid in quite nicely Sunday night as the No. 2 star between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Penguins' 5-2 win against the New Jersey Devils.

Three of a kind, you know?

"C'mon, you're pushing it now," Dupuis said, grinning. "You're really pushing it."

Not as much as you might think.

OK, so the woman who took part in the Penguins' scoreboard version of "Wheel of Fortune" early in the game couldn't come up with "Dupuis" even though she was spotted "Super Duper Pascal ... "

To most other Penguins fans, though, Dupuis is becoming something of a household name.

"I'm not going to lie to you, this is mentally fun," Dupuis said. "I've never come close to a streak like this."

Dupuis scored the winning goal against the Devils late in the second period, cruising down the slot, taking a pass from Crosby and burying the wrist shot. It was his eighth winning goal of the season. To put that in perspective, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who has an NHL-best 52 goals, has 10 winners. Malkin has nine winners among his 46 goals.

"Eight game-winning goals are a career, let alone one season," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

The goal stretched Dupuis' point-scoring streak to 10 games (8 goals, 5 assists). A little perspective again: That matches Jordan Staal for the Penguins' longest streak of the season. Only five players in the league have longer streaks, led by Carolina's Eric Staal and the New York Islanders' John Tavares with 12.

The goal also extended Dupuis' career single-season-best total to 23. An assist later on a Crosby goal gave him 50 points for the first time. It's a remarkable total because he generally gets almost no power-play time. The Penguins are 20-1-1 when he scores a goal and 34-5-1 when he has a point.

Dupuis has to be the Penguins' MVP, right?

Don't be silly.

I'm talking most versatile player.

The man can play on anywhere from the first to the fourth line.

"Hopefully, not too much of the fourth," Dupuis said, grinning again.

Dupuis played on Crosby's line with Chris Kunitz in the 2010-11 season before Crosby was hurt and helped Crosby produce a staggering 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games. This season, Dupuis has spent much of his time on Jordan Staal's line with Steve Sullivan. With Sullivan out with an injury Sunday night, Dupuis played mostly with Crosby and Tyler Kennedy.

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Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

Highlights: Penguins 5, Devils 2

Highlights: Senators 8, Penguins 4

Friday, March 23, 2012

Evgeni Malkin shows goals to pal Alexander Radulov

By Josh Cooper
The Nashville Tennessean
March 23, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 22: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by his teammates on the bench after scoring against the Nashville Predators in the third period during the game on March 22, 2012 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Cheers of “MVP” filled Consol Energy Center on Thursday evening. And forward Evgeni Malkin obliged the announced crowd of 18,579 with another superb performance.

Malkin, the NHL’s scoring leader, had two goals for the Penguins in a 5-1 victory over the Predators — clinching a playoff berth for Pittsburgh — on two blasts from the circles. One knuckled in on Pekka Rinne; the other was a hard shot that found the small opening on the corner.

“He was dynamite,” Predators Coach Barry Trotz said. “If I had to vote today, there is no question he would be MVP for me. I saw him once up close, and he was great.”

With forward Sidney Crosby missing all but 13 games this season with a concussion, Malkin has needed to provide offense for Pittsburgh. After Thursday’s game, Malkin had 95 points in 66 games.

“He’s one of the better players in the world, and he teed it up a few times tonight and put it in,” Rinne said. “I have to be better, but you have to respect that guy’s skill, too.”

Malkin might have had some extra motivation. He and Predators forward Alexander Radulov — who played his first game in the NHL since 2008 — are good friends. The two conversed both before and after the game in the basement of the arena.

Radulov and Malkin were both drafted in 2004. Malkin was the second pick and Radulov was the 15th selection. Malkin has won the Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy.

“He’s unbelievable. What do you want me to say? He’s one of the best in the NHL right now, so, (good) for him,” Radulov said. “When they won the Stanley Cup, he was playing the same. He was playing the best.”

Fluke goals: For a team that prides itself on defense, the Predators have given up goals early and often in the past two games.

In their loss to the Penguins, some of those goals were fluky. In addition to Malkin’s first score, Chris Kuntiz’s goal bounced off Shea Weber’s skate.

Nashville has allowed 11 goals in its past two games.

“We’re just not committed enough defensively,” Weber said. “I think we’re too worried about scoring goals. We need to figure out that our main priority is playing defense. We’re talented enough to score goals. Right now we’re thinking offense first and not defense.”

Gaustad out: Forward Paul Gaustad (upper body) is targeting Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets as a return date. Gaustad said he could have played Thursday, but the coaching staff thought it was better to rest him.

“We made the decision to make sure everything was 100 percent,” Gaustad said. “I’m looking at Saturday. I would like to help out right now. But long term going toward the playoffs it would be the best decision to stay off the ice tonight.”

New city: When Steve Sullivan signed with the Penguins last summer, his family came with him.

Sullivan has four young children, so the decision to move the family from Nashville — a place they called home since 2004, when he was traded to the Predators — didn’t come lightly. After he retires, however, Sullivan plans to move back to Nashville.

Still, the family is enjoying its time here.

“The transition has been pretty seamless,” said Sullivan, who had an assist in 13:56 of ice time Thursday. “They’ve been huge troopers. My kid, the oldest one, is getting older. He had some roots in Nashville and having to make that transition wasn’t easy, but they’re happy now, and I’m proud of how they’ve been able to adjust.”

Reach Josh Cooper

at 615-726-8917


Highlights: Penguins 5, Predators 1

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Crosby Show plain insane

Thursday, March 22, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 20: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck against the Winnipeg Jets during the game at Consol Energy Center on March 20, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

If this Crosby kid ever gets his timing down, look out.

Are you watching this?

Are you watching this?

I ask twice because it's easy to take Sidney Crosby's magnificence for granted. He returns after missing several months, and it's like, "Of course he's lapping the field in points per game. That's what he does."

Nobody does this.

Check that. Mario Lemieux did this, and then some. He made the most remarkable comeback in sports history. Returned from 3.5 years of retirement, at age 35, and immediately became the most prolific point producer in the NHL.

You won't see that again.

But if you blink — or spend even a nanosecond worrying about Crosby's career-long 11-game goal drought — you might miss something special.

Like a behind-the-back pass that triggers a tic-tac-toe goal.

Or a 50-foot backhand saucer pass that lands on a teammate's tape.

Or a cross-ice bullet from one knee that winds up in Evgeni Malkin's wheelhouse for a one-time goal.

Crosby has nine points in four games since he returned to the lineup, 21 points in 12 games overall. That averages to 1.75 points per game, easily tops in the NHL and better than the torrid pace he carried last season, when he was headed for the league's first 130-point season since 1995-96. (Lemieux had 161 that year.)

This is ridiculous. You could freeze Crosby in a cryogenics lab for 20 years, pull him out and drop him into a game, and he'd put up three assists.

Remember, he missed training camp. He has missed so many months of competitive hockey. It takes a fellow player to truly appreciate what the man is doing.

"I missed training camp, too, so I can put it into perspective," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Training camp is where you get all your timing back, get your good conditioning out of the way for the rest of the season. When you miss that, you don't have a lot of time in-season to play catch up."

Crosby's perfectionism is at work here, as well. Teammates could see he was capable of inflicting damage weeks before his latest return. He was ready. But he wasn't Sid-ready.

Wasn't ready to dominate.

"I think, even three weeks before he came back, we were saying, 'Geez, he looks great. Why isn't he playing?' " Orpik said, laughing. "That's Sid. He's such a perfectionist. I think if he came back too early and wasn't at the level he's used to, it would drive him crazy."

Here's the scary part: Crosby isn't at the level he's used to. Finishing will be the last part of his game to come together. And it will come together, perhaps starting tonight against Nashville.

It's just a matter of time. Crosby's minutes will go up — he hasn't cracked the 20-minute mark since his return — and his touch will come back.

"It takes time to get that anticipation and reaction back," Crosby said after Tuesday's game. "That's the difference sometimes. You have to go to those (scoring) areas and trust your instincts and hopefully get the bounces."

Martin Brodeur robbed Crosby with a blind, blade save last weekend. A Winnipeg defenseman cleared a Crosby shot just before it crossed the goal line Tuesday.

"Obviously, I love to score, so I want to take advantage of the chances I get," Crosby said. "But there's not a lot I would change at this point, really."

No, things at this point are pretty good. Fantastic, actually. How fun is it to see the band back together? The way the Penguins whipped the puck around Tuesday, "Sweet Georgia Brown" would have been appropriate background music.

Crosby and Malkin are beginning to make beautiful music together on the power play. Penguins television analyst Bob Errey put it well after the game Tuesday, saying this might be the closest we ever come to seeing Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky on the same team.

Anyone in his right mind would label a healthy Penguins team the bet to win it all. I asked winger Pascal Dupuis if the players welcome the favorite's role.

"Yeah, why not?" he said. "The way we feel, we're confident in ourselves right now. If people want to say that about us, perfect."

Dupuis winked and added, "They're maybe a little scared of us."

They should be.

Sid's back.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ward's exit speech redefines tear-jerker

Well, I hope you're happy; you made him cry.

That's you, Steelers Nation, you fans from Pittsburgh to Pittston to Paris to Piracicaba, Brazil, and everywhere else in The Constellation of the Towel. You were the reason Hines Ward came back to Steelers headquarters Tuesday for one last real wet weep.

That Ward got released by the franchise he loved Feb. 29 surprised few, and that he quickly retreated from his stated intention to play further and chose instead to retire as a Steeler surprised perhaps some, but that he melted into a persistent lacrimation within minutes of his moment surprised no one.

Someone in the Steelers organization has the official results, but linebacker James Harrison, seated behind me at the noon news conference, called the first secretion at 2:26 of Ward's last official act.
Ward somehow got through an additional 25 minutes.

Harrison sat with former Ward teammates Jerome Bettis, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, and said unashamedly "we're doing an over/under on tears."

You think they were kidding?

Harrison seem like a kidder?

Ward cried early and often, late and often, pretty much doing the whole thing in a heavy mist, and, for anyone not terribly familiar with No. 86, it was as completely genuine as it was target specific:

"The one thing I love more than football," he gulped. "Steelers Nation and the fans."

Ward said he couldn't imagine playing for another team, which actually might have been the only way he could have played for another team, imagining it. The pounding snowstorm of outrageous free-agent cash that blanketed the NFL's receiving corps this month left Ward's sidewalk as dry and sunny as this new Pittsburgh spring.

I was hoping this presser was staged so that Ward could announce he was running for governor, which wouldn't be the first trail blazed for him by Lynn Swann. Though Swann could counsel Ward on any political aspirations, there's no confirmation Hines has any, at least not beyond the sometimes nonsensical politics of who winds up in Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Related: "Hines Ward's Last Down" -

Highlights: Penguins 8, Jets 4

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pens can still beat themselves

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
March 19, 2012

Philadelphia Flyers' Scott Hartnell (19) scores the game-wining goal past Pittsburgh Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and Sidney Crosby with 0.9 seconds left in overtime of yesterday's game in Philadelphia. (AP)

The Penguins ran roughshod over Boston, the New York Rangers and New Jersey by identical 5-2 scores. An opposing coach analyzing video of those games will feel like an army general watching an alien invasion. Options are very limited and mostly ineffective.

In other words: Dead meat.

But Sunday's 3-2 overtime loss at Philadelphia provides a reminder that the Penguins can still beat themselves.

The Penguins were victimized by a hot goalie and a hot shooter, two staples of springtime heartbreak. Ilya Bryzgalov made 38 saves and Scott Hartnell scored twice to give the Flyers the extra point.

The Penguins also got hurt by laissez-faire refereeing that caught them retaliating, not the Flyers infracting. They had better get used to that. NHL referees have put their whistles away. For keeps, I bet.

But the Penguins mostly committed hockey hara-kiri. They lost their cool at inopportune times. Ultimately, it cost them.

Zbynek Michalek got a penalty for slashing Philadelphia's Claude Giroux while he was on the bench. Giroux's a wonderful player. But he's no threat on the bench. The Flyers used that power play to score just 31 seconds into the third period, cutting Pittsburgh's lead to 2-1.

Evgeni Malkin took a hooking penalty behind Philadelphia's goal line just two minutes later. The Flyers have many wonderful players. But none is a threat 200 feet away. The momentum stayed with the Flyers and they tied the score 18 seconds after Malkin's penalty expired.

Malkin took an unnecessary elbowing infraction before regulation time expired, putting an exclamation point on a not-too-bright third period. The Flyers didn't capitalize. But, after being outshot 27-10 over two periods, they had seized the game's ebb and flow and were worthy winners by the time Hartnell netted in overtime's final second.

Malkin was targeted by the Flyers, often after the whistle. He had better get used to that. It's part and parcel of being an MVP candidate.

Malkin scored a marvelous goal. He has scored in every game since Sidney Crosby's return. Malkin seems disinterested in taking a back seat. Good.

But Malkin needs to channel his emotion better than he did Sunday. The same could be said of his teammates. You want to stick up for yourselves, but the Penguins engaged too often. That suited the Flyers just fine.

The loss is no big deal. Not yet. In a race where the distance between the top seed and the fifth seed is just three points, though, it's easy to imagine Sunday's result impacting the Penguins negatively.

But the Penguins had just won 11 straight. Sooner or later, you lose. I'm sure the dressing room empathizes, though, when I ask, "Why to them?"

The Penguins were indomitable at Manhattan and Newark. Carved two good teams into edible individual servings. Crosby's return makes the Penguins impossible to check. Every winger is a potential goal-scorer.

That includes Matt Cooke. Playing mostly with Crosby, Cooke had two goals against the Rangers and two more against the Devils to tie his career high of 16. Cooke is one of hockey's feel-good stories, though you might not read it at He has minimized his evil side, in the process proving that he's a pretty good hockey player.

If Cooke reaches 20 goals, maybe NHL dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan should grant Cooke a mulligan on a head shot. One more, for old times' sake.

The Penguins are dangerous. Crosby looks great, but isn't near what he can be. If they protect his head, and use theirs, greatness is possible.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9)

Highlights: Flyers 3, Penguins 2 (OT)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cooke steals spotlight from Crosby

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
March 16, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 15: Sidney Crosby #87 (2nd R) of the Pittsburgh Penguins watches the puck go into the goal scored by Matt Cooke #24 (R) against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- And the No. 1 star in the Penguins' emphatic 5-2 win against the New York Rangers Thursday night ...

Matt Cooke.

Las Vegas wouldn't have given odds on that.

"I feel bad I stole the spotlight from Sid," Cooke said.

His partially toothless smile said it all.

Sidney Crosby was back. The Penguins were complete as a team. Their winning streak is at 10 games, tied for the NHL's longest this season. And they -- not the Rangers -- look like the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

"It was a lot of fun," Crosby said of his return to the lineup and those of defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin. "I don't think anyone really wants to talk too much about it. We just want to go with it. But it was awesome to have everyone together."

Crosby, playing for the first time since Nov. 5 after missing 40 games with concussion-like symptoms, had just one assist, much less production than in his first comeback Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders when he had two goals and two assists. But in some ways, this performance was better. For one thing, the level of competition was much higher. Despite the loss, the Rangers remain four points ahead of the Penguins in the Eastern Conference. For another, Crosby did a better job of controlling his emotions. There was no X-rated scream of joy that made his mother blush like there was after he scored his first goal against the Islanders.

"I just tried to calm myself a little better," Crosby said. "I didn't want to get caught up trying to do too much."

Cooke started the game on Crosby's line and had two goals, but it won't be enough to keep him there. "I hope I get more chances," Cooke said, although he knows better. "He creates so much out there and is so much fun to play with." Just say it was great for Cooke while it lasted.

Before the end of the first period, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had Crosby skating between Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis. Later, Crosby got some work on the wing for the first time since his rookie year -- with Sullivan on Jordan Staal's line. This was a night to celebrate the team's message-sending third consecutive win against the Rangers, but it also wasn't too early to start tinkering to find the best spot for Crosby with the playoffs fewer than four weeks away. "I would like to keep seeing Jordan Staal with him," Bylsma said, adding it will happen again at times in the games Saturday at New Jersey and Sunday at Philadelphia.

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Pittsburgh Penguins star center Sidney Crosby is clearly back on his game against NY Rangers at Garden

Rangers pass up shot at Sid the Kid, division lead shrinks

By Filip Bondy
The Daily News
March 16, 2012

Penguins star Sidney Crosby - with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury - looks to be back on his game after being on ice for three Pittsburgh goals and getting an assist Thursday at the Garden. (Robert Sabo/New York Daily News)

Two minutes into the game, Sidney Crosby climbed over the boards and into the mayhem. The Garden fans jeered with great enthusiasm, many wishing him the worst. Crosby cycled a bit, centered a line with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, and helped create a chance when the puck pin-balled past Marty Biron for a goal credited to Cooke.

Crosby won faceoffs, manned the point on power plays and looked moderately dangerous. In the third period, he assisted on the clinching fourth goal by Chris Kunitz. Mostly, he stayed out of trouble, out of the corners, and the Rangers treated him downright daintily. They took no cheap shots at the young star, set no Saints-like bounty on his brain.

There was an occasion midway through the second period when Ryan McDonagh had him lined up on a backcheck and might have let Crosby really have it, hard. McDonagh passed on the opportunity, to the crowd’s disappointment. Crosby slipped down to the ice only once, on a mild collision in the third period, and Pittsburgh went on to a clean, demoralizing 5-2 victory.

“It’s not that I was trying to avoid (contact),” Crosby said, “But I wasn’t quick to initiate it like last time, when I tried to test myself more than I needed to.”

Crosby didn’t think the Rangers took mercy on him. “Were they trying to do anything extra? No,” he said. “But I don’t think they passed on anything. I don’t think there was a lot of opportunities.”

And so the Rangers acted like perfect gentlemen on their way to a third straight defeat to Pittsburgh.
For this, they ought to be both congratulated and pitied, because they really were completely outclassed. The Pens are riding a 10-game winning streak, closing in on first place in the Atlantic Division/Eastern Conference — which would dump the Rangers to an undeservedly low fourth seed in the playoffs. Pittsburgh is four points back with a game in hand, and now this fleet powerhouse has Crosby lurking about, working off rust.

His cobwebs, too, are clearing. Having survived the first test Thursday night, Crosby moves gingerly into spring. Ambushes await. The NHL, we know, can eat its young for breakfast. The sport is swift and gorgeous, but the fighting and the hits to the head have exacted a stiff toll. We’ve seen that with the likes of Eric Lindros, who suffered eight concussions and slowly faded to gray. Now we’re getting a similar, sick feeling about Crosby, who is only 24 and should be entering his most productive decade.

Crosby had been out for 40 games since December with the lingering effects of a concussion he first suffered back in January of 2011.

“You have to play the same way, whether you’d gone through this before or you didn’t,” he said. “The more you hesitate in the game, the more chance you have of really getting hit.”

Two years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, Crosby scored the winning overtime goal from a tough angle and with considerable inspiration, to capture the gold medal for Canada against Team USA. There were no concussions or malicious hits to wreck everything. The Olympics are a different game, devoid of the nonsense.

The garbage in the NHL could easily be stopped, but the league demands its red meat. Concussions are treated with far more respect once they occur. They are not being prevented effectively, however.

“The game’s in a really good place,” commissioner Gary Bettman said at the general managers’ meeting this week. “It gave us an opportunity to do what we always do — self-evaluate — but do it in a way where there was no immediate pressing issue.”

NHL players are still suffering concussions at the rate of nearly 100 per season, and yet this somehow was not considered “a pressing issue” by Bettman.

As for Crosby, his synapses finally were firing properly against the Rangers. He played 16 minutes without incident, without getting hit by a nasty blow. The Penguins won, and so did hockey. The Rangers took one for the team.

Highlights: Penguins 5, Rangers 2

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rangers face Crosby in return to Penguins tonight

By Larry Brooks
New York Post
March 15, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby tries to pass from behind the goal which is defended by New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the first period of their NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York November 29, 2011. (REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

It has been a long time since the hockey world’s focus zeroed in on Madison Square Garden, maybe not since Wayne Gretzky’s Great Goodbye on April 13, 1999.

But that’s where the sport’s spotlight will be aimed tonight, when the Rangers and Penguins meet in a showdown that will feature a playoff atmosphere and the return of the world’s most celebrated hockey player.

The Rangers have the best record in the conference. The Penguins, with a nine-game winning streak, are second-best by six points with a game in hand at the top of the homestretch, but that’s the secondary storyline to Sidney Crosby’s dramatic return, as far as everyone who doesn’t have blueblood running through his or her veins is concerned.

No. 87 is back again, back after being sidelined since Dec. 5 with post-concussion symptoms, back after missing 101 of the Penguins’ last 109 regular-season games dating to Jan. 6, 2011, in the aftermath of a concussion he sustained by taking blows in successive matches from David Steckel and Victor Hedman.

Crosby will be the center of attention while centering Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy in this second 2011-12 comeback, the first becoming an eight-game, 12-point (2-10) cameo that commenced at home on Nov. 21 when the Islanders played the part of the Washington Generals and watched Sid The Kid unfurl a two-goal, two-assist bag of tricks before it ended following a rugged game against the Bruins.

There was a Nov. 29 match at the Garden in the mix, a 4-3 Rangers victory during which Crosby collected a pair of assists while getting 20:36 of ice on 23 shifts. The Penguins have outplayed the Rangers decisively in their past three meetings without Crosby, carrying the play each time while winning the last two.

If the Penguins win tonight, the road to the conference title likely will travel through Pittsburgh, where the Rangers will play their penultimate match of the season on April 5.

If the Blueshirts prevail over the Sidsanity that is sure to turn the Garden into a rock concert, the Rangers will take a huge step in securing the top spot in the conference they have led since Dec. 30.

That is their mission.

“I’m happy Sid is back because he’s a great person, and I’m happy for him that he’s feeling well enough to play,” said Rangers center Mike Rupp, who was Crosby’s teammate the previous two seasons. “But am I happy he’s coming back right now? Well, I know that it sets up a great challenge for us, and I know that we’ve responded to challenges all season.

“We haven’t been at our best against them the last couple of times we’ve played. For some reason we’ve been a little hesitant against them and they’ve taken it to us, so we have to change that by being aggressive against them the way we are against everybody else.”

Crosby isn’t everybody else. Even on a team with Evgeni Malkin (and Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, who might also return to the lineup tonight), Crosby isn’t anyone else.

The Rangers understand that, but they also understand that they are not at the Garden tonight as walk-on extras, but as conference leaders.

“Everyone’s eyes are going to be on that guy, but we can’t get caught up in the hype,” Marc Staal said. “He’s a great player, but nobody is going to back off.

“We’re going to be aggressive against him. We’re going to play our game.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sidney Crosby comeback could be big miscue

Even Don Cherry believes game's greatest talent should wait until next season

By Cam Cole
Vancouver Sun
March 14, 2012

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby works out prior to the Penguins regular morning skate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 4, 2012. (JASON COHN , REUTERS)

Don Cherry said something sensible the other night. Hey, it happens.

It wasn't even the actor playing him in the TV movie, but the real Grapes.

What he said on Coach's Corner about Sidney Crosby's impending return from his latest bout of neck/concussion issues was that if he were the Penguins, he would shut him down for the rest of the season.

Start him off fresh next fall, when everyone's on equal footing.

He said that bringing Crosby back now, when he's at practice speed and the rest of the league is battle-hardened - not merely in regular-season shape but basically in playoff mode - is just asking for another injury.

Give him credit. This, from a guy who was old school before the school was, who has made a personal fortune selling headshot-porn to concussion fans, and who never saw a darned thing wrong with the number of brain-trauma notches on Scott Stevens' shoulder pads.

"Suck it up, kid," has been Cherry's stock-in-trade. "Tape an Aspirin to it."

But on this issue, Grapes feels what most of the rest of us feel: queasiness, worry, fear for the future of the game's best player. That feeling is going to be with us for a while.

When Crosby skates onto the ice of Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers on Thursday night, will there be a single viewer not wondering what's going to happen the first time he gets rocked by a bodycheck, let alone one that even accidentally strays near his noggin?

After a robust skate Tuesday with his teammates, in which he took practice-level contact, Crosby admitted: "You're not going to get hit to the extent that you would in a game. But you've got to test that as best you can."

He will have missed a nice, round 40 games and 100 days this time, since colliding with Boston's David Krejci on Dec. 5.

That was his eighth game back after missing 10½ months with post-concussion syndrome from hits in successive games by Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman in the first four days of January, 2011.

Crosby looked as good as new in his comeback game on Nov. 21, like a man freed from shackles, scoring two goals and two assists in a joyful 5-0 victory over the New York Islanders. He had seven more points, all assists, in his next four games, while giving and taking jabs and punches and just generally looking eager to re-engage in every aspect of the game.

But even before the Krejci hit - a mild-looking, glancing elbow - sent him back to the darkness, his game had begun to fade. When he left for the injured reserve list this time, he was eventually diagnosed with a "soft-tissue" neck injury (first thought to be a stress fracture) that may have contributed to his dizziness and disorientation.

So, he's had eight games in 14½ months now, and he's coming back to a league in full stride, in a road game against the East's top team, with a Penguins squad that has been humming along in superb form - 21-4-1 in its past 26 games, on a run of nine straight wins - without any help from Crosby.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, unwilling to tinker with a winning formula and doubtless wary of the effect his 24yearold captain's return might have on the team's potential Hart Trophy nominee, Evgeny Malkin, plans to start Crosby on the third line between Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, the reformed concussion donor.

But Crosby will certainly see some power-play time as well, perhaps initially on the point. He will play three games in four nights if there are no setbacks - in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia - before his first home game, next Tuesday against Winnipeg.

That's a pretty rude reintroduction to the game, although "rude" is relative: the Penguins don't have to leave their time zone for the remainder of their 14 games.

"I'm going to try to pace myself a bit, especially with the schedule," Crosby said Tuesday.

"It's going to be [work] enough getting back into it."

"He'll need some games and I think that was a goal for him, to come back this season and not in the second and third game of the playoffs," said Pens GM Ray Shero.

"He wanted to come back as soon as he could to get into the swing of playing hockey games again ... It's a great step for him and our hockey team. He's been trying to get back for a while now."

Ridiculous as it may seem, the issue of just how hard he's been trying has percolated in the background for weeks now. First came a story suggesting that certain unnamed teammates thought he was fine and couldn't understand why he wasn't already playing. Others have surmised that Crosby was so angry at the NHL for doing nothing to punish Steckel and Hedman for the head blows that caused his concussion, he's been in no hurry to return as the league's poster-boy, as if all was forgiven. More likely, though, he and the Penguins have just been ultracautious, waiting until he was absolutely symptom-free to risk him in a playoff-like environment.

In theory, Crosby's return and that of defenceman Kris Letang, also from a concussion, ought to be a palpable boost to a team that's already so hot, a run to the Presidents' Trophy may be in the cards.

If they were both in the lineup Thursday, it would be only the second time all season the Penguins have been able to ice their 'A' team. How long it stays together is another story.

Could Crosby avoid unnecessary contact, and would he be the same player if he did? What of the opposition? Does anybody seriously doubt that each team he will face has at least one player willing to test the soundness of his skull?

Maybe that's why "wait 'til next year" sounded like the better alternative. Not because it would be safer, although Cherry might be right about that. But because it would delay the moment of truth - the moment when Sidney Crosby gets run over, as he surely will, and the audience holds its breath.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Malkin’s Hart pounds loudest

Monday, March 12, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 11: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins handles the puck in front of Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins during the game at Consol Energy Center on March 11, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

It's almost obscene how spoiled we've become with extraterrestrial-level hockey in our city. Anyone at Consol Energy Center on Sunday who was disappointed by the delayed return of the best player in the world had to settle instead for watching, you know, the best player in the world. But only after walking past a shiny new statue of the best player who ever lived.

Refunds, anyone?

And that's to say nothing of the main attraction on this matinee, the Penguins' 5-2 demolition of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, yet another sign that there shouldn't be many challengers to the local club later this spring.

These Penguins really are that good, that deep, that skilled, that tough and that together. They've won nine in a row and, remarkable as it sounds, they're about to get that much better with the imminent return of Sidney Crosby.

But let's hope no one loses sight of who got them this far, least of all the voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association who select the Hart Trophy winner.

Put it down in indelible ink: Evgeni Malkin for MVP.

Right, Geno?

"Oh, I don't know," Malkin said after his three-assist output put him back atop the NHL scoring race. "I'm not really thinking about it."

Come on, just a little?

"A little bit, maybe, of course," he conceded with a sheepish smile. "I see the signs up there when I warm up. People are asking me to sign pictures with 'MVP.' But I'm just focusing on the games."

Only 14 of those remain for the Penguins, and I can't see any way Malkin doesn't claim his first Hart after it's done.

Yes, his 84 points are just two more than Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos.

Yes, Stamkos' 48 goals are 10 more than Malkin

Yes, the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist has shined in goal, the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux has been a playmaking machine, and the Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson has been a dynamo on defense.

I don't care about any of it.

None of them matches up, and here are numbers to support the case:

• Malkin ranks No. 1 in the NHL at 1.37 points per game, weighing that he missed eight games in October while returning from major knee surgery.

• Malkin scores when it counts. Fifteen of his 38 goals have come in the third period or overtime. Three were game-winners, two others tying goals that led to OT wins.

• Malkin scores against the opponents that count. In 13 games against the Eastern Conference's top four teams, including the Bruins, he has eight goals and seven assists.

• This doesn't count in official stats, but Malkin is 8 for 11 in shootout attempts, his 72.7 percent rate trailing only the New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk. Stamkos is 0 for 3. The Penguins are 9-3 in shootouts, the Lightning 2-3.

Laugh off that last one if you will, but shootouts are part of the game now. They result in real points in the standings. The Lightning are 11th in the East, seven points out of the playoff picture.

Let me remind: The stated criteria for the Hart is that it goes to "the player adjudged most valuable to his team." Team is a key word there, and it's taken seriously. Voters haven't given the Hart to a player whose team missed the playoffs since Mario Lemieux in 1988.

Stamkos' case is nearly closed.

A stronger team case can be made for Lundqvist, whose Rangers are atop the East. But giving the Hart to a goaltender is tantamount to giving Major League Baseball's MVP to a pitcher. It rarely happens, just three times in the past 50 NHL seasons. Voters long have felt the Vezina is sufficient for goaltenders, barring truly great exceptions, and that's a view I've always shared. Dominik Hasek, for example, won the Hart twice when almost single-handedly carrying the Buffalo Sabres. He earned it.

Lundqvist doesn't belong in that category, not statistically — he leads the league only with his eight shutouts — and not in importance to his team. The Rangers' tight system under John Tortorella limits opponents to 28.4 shots per game, seventh-fewest in the NHL. And they're not exactly starved for offense, ranking 11th.

But forget all that.

Just open your eyes and watch Malkin dominate.

Better yet, listen to Pascal Dupuis' assessment of the situation, almost as elegant as his breakaway goal yesterday: "To me, it's simple. Geno's hands down the best player right now. Remember last year when Billy Guerin said that Sid was assaulting the league? Right now Geno is just ... in a different class. He's doing it all. It's not like he's sitting on the outside for those one-timers. He goes to the net. He makes it back on defense. He does everything. He's the best."

No need to overthink this.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Day of the Dock

By Dan Epstein
Big Hair and Plastic Grass
March 11, 2012

Dock Ellis would have been 67 today. The man died way too young, felled by cirrhosis of the liver in December 2008, but there's no question he lived his own life to the fullest and — despite his erratic behavior during his playing days — made a positive difference in a lot of other people's lives, both on and off the field.

Yes, he pitched a no-hitter on LSD (one of the most amazing feats in the history of sports, when you think about it), wore curlers in his hair in the bullpen, and once tried to bean the entire Reds lineup — to name the three things he's probably best known for — but Dock was no mere flake or fuck-up; there was an intense competitive streak and a pure cosmic embrace of existence lying behind so much of what he did. Dock's life was a huge inspiration to me, both as a writer and a person; I never had the opportunity to meet or interview him, but I tried to do him justice with this tribute I penned on my other blog, La Vie En Robe, in early 2009.

One of the interesting things that I wasn't really able to fit into Big Hair & Plastic Grass was Dock's relationship with Billy Martin. When the Pirates traded Dock to the Yankees in December '75 (pretty much as a throw-in on the deal that brought Ken Brett and Willie Randolph to New York in exchange for Doc Medich), most folks figured it was only a matter of time before the legendarily erratic hurler would clash with the legendarily volatile Yankee manager, but the two got on famously. Martin recognized and respected Dock's competitive fire, while Dock recognized and respected Martin's managerial savvy; Billy kept the New York press off Dock's back, and Dock responded by going 17-8 with a 3.19 ERA in 32 starts, despite only fanning 65 batters (as opposed to the 76 that he walked).

I spoke at length about Dock's time in pinstripes last month for No No: The Dockumentary, the forthcoming documentary on Dock's life and career; hopefully it'll make the final cut. But even if it doesn't, I've seen some of the other interviews and footage these guys have assembled for the project, and I can't wait to watch the whole thing. Dock may not have had Hall of Fame numbers, but he was definitely a Hall of Fame character, and someone infinitely worthy of an in-depth filmic salute.

He's also worthy of a truly awesome musical salute — and while I know some of you out there dig Todd Snider's "America's Favorite Pastime" and The S.F. Seals' "Dock Ellis," I don't think either song comes close to capturing his funky, firey spirit. To my mind, the perfect Dock Ellis tribute would involve hard-grooving Latin percussion (he grew up in LA, remember), some bad-ass wah-wah pedal action, and a screaming Eddie Hazel guitar lead, not to mention some lyrical bon mots from Dock himself, a la "We gonna get down. We gonna do the do. I'm going to hit these motherfuckers!"

Ah well, a man can dream, can't he? Until that comes to pass, I'm just gonna rock "Shaft" by Isaac Hayes, and sing "Dock!" in the chorus. He was a complicated man, after all... Rest in peace, Dock; you are truly missed in this country of baseball.

- Dan Epstein is an award-winning journalist who lives in Southern California. His first book, 20th Century Pop Culture, was published by Carlton Books in 1999. His latest book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s, was published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press in May 2010. He does his best writing in his bathrobe.

Highlights: Penguins 5, Bruins 2

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Le Magnifique: Statue immortalizes Mario's greatness

By Alan Robinson - Correspondent
March 7, 2012

PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux truly is a larger-than-life figure -- always able to accomplish the seemingly unachievable feat, capture the unwinnable title, score the impossible goal.

Now, a player whose hockey career is unrivaled for the scope of his accomplishments on and off the ice has been immortalized in a statue that captures both the competitiveness and perseverance that made him special.

A 10 1/4-foot bronze statue that depicts Lemieux splitting through two defensemen to score a breakaway goal in a Dec. 20, 1988 game against the Islanders was unveiled Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, literally across the street from the arena known as The Igloo where the picture-perfect goal was scored.

"When they have a statue like this in your honor, it's something special for myself, my family and, of course, the fans who have followed my career," Lemieux said.

Lemieux confessed during a sun-splashed March day where the temperature fittingly neared 66 degrees that he did not remember the goal Penguins announcer Mike Lange said will be photographed "a billion times" by generations of hockey fans.

Lemieux fought through defensemen Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton, who collided as soon as Lemieux evaded them, to beat goaltender Kelly Hrudey with a wrist shot in a game Pittsburgh won 5-3.

Lemieux can be forgiven for the lapse of memory as he reflected on a career in which he was constantly dealt medical obstacles -- debilitating back pain, cancer and an end-of-career heart problem -- but still played at a level reached by only a few others in NHL history.

"I saw pictures while they were building it," Lemieux said of the 4,700-pound statue. "It's pretty impressive to see it up close."

Only 11 days following that now-immortalized goal, Lemieux played perhaps the most memorable of his 915 regular-season games, scoring five goals five different ways -- even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty net -- against the Devils.

The statue is called Le Magnifique, or The Magnificent, and it took Penguins executives, civic leaders and his own friends years to convince Lemieux to allow it to be created by bronze sculptor Bruce Wolfe of Berkeley, Calif. The design and construction required 15 months, followed by a week-long trip to Pittsburgh on a flatbed truck.

"He said he didn't want it five times, so (Penguins co-owner) Ron Burkle finally told him we were going to do it anyway," said David Morehouse, the Penguins CEO and president.

Morehouse said a Sports Illustrated photo depicting the goal was chosen as the model for the statue because it captured how Lemieux overcame every obstacle in his path to achieve greatness.

"We considered a number of options, including one of Mario hoisting the Stanley Cup as a player, and one of him carrying the puck in full flight, but we decided this was the ultimate representation of what he did and what he was," Morehouse said. "On the ice, Mario powered his way past defensemen to score incredible goals. Off the ice, he overcame and broke through so many challenges."

Those on hand for the half-hour unveiling ceremony included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, who flew overnight from Paris, and numerous former Lemieux teammates, including Bryan Trottier, Luc Robitaille and Pierre Larouche, as well as Lemieux's family -- including his mother, Pierrette; brothers Richard and Alain; wife Nathalie and their four children, Lauren, Stephanie, Austin and Alexa.

"It's a testament to him as a person and as much a testament to his commitment to Pittsburgh. ... It's just great to be here and to honor somebody as terrific as Mario," Bettman said in a post-ceremony interview with Root Sports.

Lemieux, during remarks in which he was constantly interrupted by thousands of cheering fans, recalled his first trip to Pittsburgh after being drafted No. 1 in 1984 and how he couldn't have envisioned becoming so tied to a city other than his native Montreal.

"He didn't save hockey in Pittsburgh once, he saved it three times," Morehouse said.

Lemieux lifted up a poor-drawing, couldn't-be-worse franchise in the 1980s and, with his talent and determination, carried what once was the NHL's worst team to two Stanley Cups and a record-setting 17-game winning streak in 1993.

As an active player Lemieux was rivaled only by Wayne Gretzky, scoring 690 goals and accumulating 1,033 assists for 1,723 points during a career interrupted by layoffs resulting from an early-in-his-career back injury, a 1993 bout with cancer and a 3 ½-year retirement.

Even while never truly healthy in any season past age 25, when his back problems worsened to the point they caused him to sit out more than half of the Penguins' 1990-91 championship season, Lemieux won six Art Ross Trophies and three Hart Trophies.

"I missed tons of games, tons of seasons over the years, and it would have been nice to see how points I could have gotten if I had played 1,500 games," Lemieux said. "Who knows where I would have ended up."
When he made his remarkable comeback in December 2000, Lemieux did so as the first and only owner-player in major American pro sports history, having bought the team, along with his partners, during a U.S. Bankruptcy Court sale the year before.

After he retired for the final time in January 2006 following a brief bout with a heart problem, he helped keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh again by spearheading the negotiations that led to the construction of Consol Energy Center. And in 2009, Lemieux lifted the Stanley Cup again, this time as an owner.

Lemieux becomes the only Pittsburgh athlete other than baseball Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski of the Pirates to be portrayed in a statue. No Steelers player has been so recognized, although there is a statue of founder Art Rooney Sr. outside Heinz Field.

Numerous civic leaders, including Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said Lemieux has become so engrained in Pittsburgh -- his charitable foundation is one of the most generous and active in the city -- that it is only fitting that Lemieux now has a statue honoring him.

"It's why I decided to stay here; I love the people here," Lemieux said. "They give me my space -- I can go anywhere in town and people will say hello and respect my privacy, which is important to me. That's why I love living here."

Lemieux is greatly responsible for hockey's widespread popularity in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have sold out every home game for more than five years. When Lemieux arrived in town, there were only six ice rinks in the vicinity; now there are 36. And more than 10,000 amateurs play the sport, some at such a high level that four Pittsburgh-area players were among the top 65 picks in the NHL Draft last spring.

"He played for the team, he bought the team, he owns the team, he IS the team," said Lange, the Penguins announcer and the ceremony host.


By Bob McKenzie
March 7, 2012

So, Rich Pilon, how does it feel to be immortalized in the bronze Mario Lemieux statue unveiled today in Pittsburgh, with Le Magnifique splitting the New York Islander defence pairing of Pilon and Jeff Norton for all eternity?

"To tell you the truth, it's very cool," Pilon told TSN, just minutes after the statue was unveiled in Pittsburgh. "I have no problem with it. If you're going to get beat on a play and it's there for everyone to see forever, it might as well be Mario. He did that to a lot of defencemen."

Pilon wasn't aware he was part of the statue until he got a text shortly after 12 noon today from his old buddy and former teammate Dean Chynoweth.

"I remember the play pretty well," Pilon said. "I have the photo, actually. Someone I know had a hockey calendar with that photo (taken by Sports Illustrated's Paul Bereswill) and they sent to me. It's right up there on my office wall. So I remember the play well. Mario scored a lot of his big goals against the Islanders.

"That was my rookie season (Dec. 20, 1988). No shame in a rookie getting beaten like that by Mario. It was a privilege just to play in the NHL and against players like Mario."

The Penguins say they chose that particular image as the basis for the statue because "it was a metaphor for everything Lemieux accomplished in his career and his life, breaking through defenders, overcoming obstacles, turning back challenges."

Pilon certainly recovered from that Lemieux goal. He went on to play 631 regular season games over 14 NHL seasons, mostly with the Islanders but also the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues.

The 43-year-old is now living in Saskatoon with his wife and two children. He notes he's been sober for seven years and life is good, working with Cameco, the uranium mining company.

"I'm doing a project called Dream and Believe," Pilon said. "It's aimed at kids eight to 14 years old in northern Saskatchewan communities and we're using hockey to help them stay away from (substance abuse). So I'm at a good place right now and doing well."

And that's even with Mario beating him and Norton for all eternity.

Mario's monument fitting

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Those who had always wanted to see Mario Lemieux perform with the arena roof open got their wish Wednesday afternoon.

There he was, literally 10 feet tall, splitting the New York Islanders' defense on his way to a mind-blowing goal. It wasn't happening real-time, of course, but rather on a mammoth statue unveiled outside Consol Energy Center on the day of the Penguins' 66th game of the season.

The old Igloo provided a symbolic backdrop, half-open (half-mutilated, actually) and featuring the giant credit-card ad on the ceiling that reads, "Carry The Pens Tradition."

Some will complain that no one other than Le Magnifique himself should have appeared on the statue, let alone a couple of New York Islanders (Rich Pilon and Jeff Norton). Others will wonder why Norton's rear end is displayed so prominently.

Easy, people.

The butt, er, bust reflects not only a classic Mario move but also what he was all about: sheer dominance. Men who played against him share tales of his ridiculous height, reach, vision, skill and power the way others swap tales of UFO sightings.

Basically, Lemieux embarrassed people for a living.

His monument needed a couple of props.

Team president David Morehouse explained that the play — from a Dec. 20, 1988, game — portrayed Lemieux's brilliance on the ice and determination off it.

Let's stay with the on-ice Lemieux, because I fear the new generation of Penguins fans only know him as the regal-looking man in the suit. To me, this day was about celebrating Lemieux the player.

Everybody has a Mario Moment. Mine was his goal against Philly's Garth Snow in the 1997 playoffs. It came late in Game 4, just when it looked as if Lemieux might leave the sport without delivering a parting gift on home ice.

We should have known better. Sprung in on now-Islanders GM Snow, he scored and raised his hands — palms up — to the heavens, as if to thank the Hockey Gods for his wondrous powers. The roof nearly blew off, 15 years before its time.

With that in mind, other Mario Moments ...

>> Penguins television analyst Bob Errey — who assisted on the statue goal — hearkened back to No. 66 carving up the Minnesota North Stars on his legendary goal in the '91 Cup Final:

"I was on the bench," Errey said. "I looked at Trots (Bryan Trottier) and said, 'Oh my God.' "

>> Penguins coach Dan Bylsma recalled a game in which himself, Ray Ferraro and Eddie Olczyk were assigned to "mirror" Lemieux at the old L.A. Forum. They're lucky they didn't wind up on a statue.

"I believe before 30 minutes were up, we were minus-3," Bylsma said. "That experiment didn't go so well."

>> Penguins broadcaster Paul Steigerwald, the man who picked up Mario at the airport upon the latter's arrival in 1984, went way back:

"First shot, first goal, first game, that's what I remember," Steigerwald said of the undressing of Raymond Bourque. "I was watching it on the USA Network, in (ex-Penguins coach) Lou Angotti's living room with my dad."

>> Sidney Crosby picked Mario's comeback game in 2000. He was home watching with his family.

"I remember the anticipation," Crosby said.

>> Regina Kealey, who has been working the dining rooms at Penguins games since 1986, shared Crosby's choice.

"Dec. 27, 2000," she said. "I was plating up pies in the kitchen when some reporter asked what the day meant. I said, 'It's like bringing home a new baby.' "

>> Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque chose Lemieux's short-handed goal against the Bruins in the 1992 playoffs (Raymond Bourque naked again).

"I was in the penalty box, and I remember the attendant -- who had a Bruins jacket on — giving me a little fist pound," Bourque said. "If (then Bruins-GM) Harry Sinden had seen it, that guy would have been fired on the spot."

>> Mike "Doc" Emrick, in town to call last night's game, remembered Lemieux coming back from cancer treatments to play a game in Philadelphia.

"He took a commercial flight, arrived late afternoon and skated onto Spectrum ice," Emrick said. "The fans who would (later) boo Sid and booed Mario, saluted Mario with a nice ovation. He had a goal, I remember. That told me as much about him as anything."

>> One of Mario's two older brothers, ex-Penguin Alain Lemieux, picked a random game against the Rangers, one of many Mario played when nobody thought he would.

"He called me that day and said, 'There's no way I'm playing; the back's not good,'" Alain Lemieux recalled. "Well, I turn on the TV that night, and he's sitting on the bench."

One can't help but wonder what Mario might have done if his body hadn't been wracked with injury and illness.

"It would have been nice," he said, "to see how many points I could have gotten playing 1,500 games (as opposed to 915)."

Going by his career points-per-game average of 1.89, he would have finished with precisely 2,824 points, only 33 behind Wayne Gretzky.

In other words, Mario might have set himself up to become most prolific point producer in hockey history. He'll have to settle for being the most physically dominant -- a dominance depicted expertly on a 4,700-pound monument that deserves praise, not nitpicking.

Highlights: Penguins 3, Maple Leafs 2

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Crosby's return monumental

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

They'll unveil Mario Lemieux's statue Wednesday, staged just outside Consol Energy Center and fittingly facing what's left of the Civic Arena. If you haven't seen those model pics leaked on social media, the sculpture will offer an electric action pose of No. 66 slicing through a defense pairing in his glorious prime, old Cooper helmet and all.

It's rare to sculpt extra characters in an individual monument, but this will work magnificently.

If we're lucky, someday the Penguins will carve one for Sidney Crosby, too. And his supporting cast won't be a conditioning coach and a battery of concussion experts.

The captain took another sizable stride toward that end Tuesday, as the hockey world heard around noon, by being cleared for contact in practices. He took a couple of bumps from teammates in a light optional at Consol, he'll take a few more Wednesday, and he wasn't ruling out a return as soon as Sunday.

It probably won't be that quick, from what I heard, but who's complaining, right?

"I don't want to get ahead of anything, but it's a good step," Crosby said, still gasping a bit after the latest in a series of breathless workouts. "Hopefully, I can keep the momentum and get out there soon. That's what I'm shooting for."

It's great news, an applause line no more how often it's heard.

But let's make this clear, too: Crosby's return isn't optional if the Penguins expect to raise the Stanley Cup.

It's an absolute must.

Yes, somehow, against the odds, it's been another terrific run for this team without Crosby and other key contributors. They'll go for their 40th win — and seventh in a row — Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Evgeni Malkin has pulled off the impossible in replacing the best player in the world with the best player in the world. Marc-Andre Fleury has been so good that we're taking his nightly gems for granted. And Dan Bylsma and his staff, as was the case last year, have done a fine job of maintaining the focus.

But playoffs are unkind to teams with glaring shortcomings, and these Penguins, to me, look eminently vulnerable without Crosby.

The "Firing Line" of Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz has gotten some support from other lines, notably from a burgeoning Jordan Staal. But those three still generate the bulk of the offense and, in the playoffs, they'd face checking lines unlike anything they're seeing now if there's no solid secondary threat. That might even come in the form of a shadow aimed solely at Malkin, as the Sabres tried last month in Buffalo with Paul Gaustad.

Crosby changes that.

Moreover, the great unspoken over the past month is that Neal, while still highly visible, has just three goals in the past 16 games. It's hardly a fluke, either. He has 84 career goals before the All-Star break, 19 after. And you might recall his two goals in two months after arriving last season.

Crosby can change that, too, if his return peels away any pressure that might be piling up on Neal.

Overall, Crosby's return transforms a weakness to a towering strength, especially if Bylsma and staff assemble the second line suggested in this space last week with Staal shifted to Crosby's left wing and Pascal Dupuis flanking his right. Just like that, all those clear-cut matchups become a muddle.

Think about it: Is any opposing coach bold enough to assign his checkers to someone other than Crosby?

Or confident enough in his job security?

No one with the Penguins is forecasting how lines might look after Crosby's return, but you're probably free to discern that Crosby has no interest in poaching from the Malkin trio based on his reply to my question about that unit's effectiveness: "They've been unbelievable. When you look at their line, they really do have a perfect mix of guys there to create stuff every shift. They really carry the load."

It also would help, obviously, to have Kris Letang back, and there was encouraging word on his concussion front Tuesday with Bylsma disclosing that he's already doing light exercises.

That's terrific, too, but I wouldn't place Letang's return in the same paramount category as Crosby's. The Penguins' ability to defend as a team is predicated far more on the system than any individual, even a star. And Crosby's presence will more than make up for any offense lost.

Crosby changes everything.

And that should have the rest of the NHL petrified.