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Savran: First Cup run most memorable

Saturday, September 01, 2001

Depending on your definition of "perfect," I suppose there is no such thing as a perfect hockey team. As long as there's a bad play, a goal against or a loss, that would fall short of the strict definition of the word.

So, the 1991 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were not a perfect team. In fact, for the first three-quarters of that season, they were anything but. But using a more liberal definition, by season's end, they were as close to perfect as you could get.

Consider that team's makeup: current and sure-shot future Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux, Bryan Trottier, Joey Mullen and Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, and Paul Coffey. That's downright 1970's Steelers-esque. The Penguins should have won.

There were so many others who might fall short of Hall of Fame status, but who nonetheless were premiere players, considered at the time among the very best at their respective positions: Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi, Tom Barrasso and Ulf Samuelsson, who is officially described as a defenseman but whose contributions in gray areas were indescribable.

Also consider management: Scotty Bowman, in the Hall of Fame; Craig Patrick, on the doorstep; and Bob Johnson, who's credentials have earned him immortality in various Hall of Fames throughout North America.

Why, in Mike Lange, the Penguins even had a Hall of Fame announcer!

But for all the performers and performances, this aggregation had a remarkable chemistry, an irreplaceable ingredient found only in this sport. The brawling Oakland A's of the early 1970's, who had one common enemy -- themselves -- would not have won three consecutive Stanley Cups, as they did three World Series.

This Penguins team had a commonality, connecting with a public that truly appreciates grime on the back of a collar. Neither Troy Loney nor Bob Errey nor Phil Bourque, muckers and grinders all, were any less a hero than Lemieux and Coffey.

And to this day, they maintain their celebrity and are revered for their contributions, held up as an appreciated example of what it takes to win.

The club's reunion this week was a reminder of what was a special group at a special time.

Perhaps because that Cup was so unexpected, coming from a franchise whose only expectation was not to have any.

Most of these players had participated in the playoffs but once. Because of that, the entire community had no idea what to expect or how to react to an extended playoff run.

To have an extended playoff run, you first had to qualify for the postseason.

That's where Badger Bob came in.

He not only guided the team through the minefield that are the Stanley Cup playoffs, he served as a tour guide for all, including the media.

For 25 years, the beginning of the playoffs generally signaled the end of the hockey season in Pittsburgh, so reporters didn't quite know what to expect in 1991. With the quid pro quo perhaps being positive coverage, we followed the lead of hockey's Pied Piper. At the time it seemed like an equitable trade. Outside the precepts of journalism I suppose, but the ride was so exhilarating, maybe we didn't notice. Or didn't want to.

Everyone was invited to come along. I've always believed that's why there was a mob at the airport the night the Cup was claimed. And at Point State Park a few days later. And why -- for what had been considered a cult sport up until then -- that championship had such a profound effect on this town and still does. The memories, quite rightly, first belong to the players. But they didn't at all mind sharing them with the outsiders. That's what made it, and keeps it, so special. The night they won it in Minneapolis, I remember saying to John Steigerwald, "Even if they win it again [which, of course, they did a year later] it'll never be as good as this."

The first time is always best.

Times have changed.

Unless you're the Detroit Red Wings, NHL economics won't allow a team 30 percent of its roster serving as a Hall of Fame holding tank.

In fact, the Penguins today appear to be in the process of not just constructing a different team, but a different type of team, one no longer built on a star system, as has been the case since Mario arrived in 1984.

The New Jersey Devils may prove to be the model, where instead of getting 40 or 50 goals from two or three players, you get 25 goals from eight players. A more systematic approach to the game played by interchangeable parts who not only have similar skills but similar pay stubs as well.

That's not to say these Penguins can't or won't win a Stanley Cup that way. There are still stars here. But even if the current or a future team should go the distance, it's hard to imagine they would be remembered as fondly as the 1991 champions, who drank from a Cup filled with fantasy.

Stan Savran is the host of sports talk show from 8 to 9 p.m.weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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