On the outer fringes of the new light that has landed in Pittsburgh, in the person of Mario Lemieux, it is just possible to perceive Eddie Johnston, a bulky and now almost faceless fellow who made most of what is happening happen. And what is happening, as any hockey fan knows, is that the once-hilarious Pittsburgh Penguins are a playoff team for the first time since 1982. And not just a playoff team, but one that eliminated the New York Rangers in a four-game sweep before taking on the chew’em-up Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals.
Lashing the Rangers,
Pittsburgh moved a good deal farther along the overlong playoff trail than the defending champion Edmonton Oilers, who succumbed in seven games to the inspired play of their former teammate Wayne Gretzky and his Los Angeles Kings.
Right away, though, the Kings suffered a severe relapse in Calgary and dropped two games to the home-town Flames before returning to California to resume the series.
In whipping the Rangers, Pittsburgh was into heady stuff. Since the Penguins became part of an expanded National Hockey League in 1967, they have missed the playoffs 12 times, a mighty imposing piece of impotence in a 21-team league that plods through 840 games from October to April in order to finger a mere five also-rans.
Eddie Johnston was at the helm of the past five Pittsburgh disasters, a man with a pair of Stanley Cup rings to remind him of older glories.
As the Penguins’ general manager, Johnston sought to re-create the sort of success-
ful combination in Pittsburgh that he had known almost 20 years ago in Boston when he played goal for the Bruins and earned those rings. Finally, through perception and persistence, he made it last year. Still, his reward was a trifle disconcerting: he was fired. Well, not precisely fired. He was demoted to assistant general manager and now, instead of watching his fulfilled achievement in NHL rinks, he scouts the boondocks, looking for prospects.
In Eddie’s early years in Boston, the Bruins couldn’t lick their lips. He reached the Bruin cage in 1962, a comparatively old rookie of 27
who had fended off pucks in such minor-league outposts as Shawinigan, Winnipeg, Hull, Edmonton and Spokane. The Bruins were last in the six-team NHL the year he got there and they remained that way until 1966, when they skyrocketed to fifth.
But then the earth turned. In the autumn of 1966, the 18-year-old child prodigy from Parry Sound, Ont., Robert Gordon Orr, arrived from the Oshawa Generals, and a year later the explosive Phil Esposito was acquired by the Bruins in a trade with Chicago. This may have been one of the dumbest deals the Blackhawks ever made, for with the acquisition of Esposito and the emergence of Orr, Boston took off. Over the next eight seasons, the Bruins revolutionized the offensive side of hockey. Orr became the first defenceman to win the NHL scoring title, a player with sure instincts, instant acceleration, a quick, whistling slapshot and a driving spirit. Esposito became renowned as the game’s foremost garbage collector. He would park his elbows and knees and ample bulk in front of the net, use them to fend off worrisome defencemen and deftly steer deflections and reroute rebounds past goalkeepers.
All right. From the other end of the rink, Eddie Johnston observed the magic of this pair and, a decade or so later, by now holding down the rebuilding chair in Pittsburgh (terrible teams are always said to be rebuilding), he thought he detected another Esposito in a ponderous adolescent performing all sorts of scoring feats for the Laval Voisins in the Quebec junior league.
This, of course, was Mario Lemieux, the sixfoot, four-inch, 210-lb. 23-year-old who was last season’s NHL scoring champion and Hart Trophy winner. From such achievements it can be concluded that anyone who missed Lemieux would have missed Marilyn Monroe. But, in truth, Lemieux was of questionable quality as a youth. There were those who watched him in the 1984 Memorial Cup junior championships at Kitchener, Ont., who wondered if his reputation had not been built on the fact that he was bigger and stronger than his peers. He had scored a mammoth 133 goals in 70 games for the Voisins, but that was at 18 against beardless youths.
In Kitchener, Lemieux exuded an indifference bordering on boredom. He played like a guy who would not recognize his own goaltender if he met him in the shower. He coasted in great wide circles when he didn’t have the puck.
He resembled the QE2 docking. Indeed, a reporter encountering Billy Taylor, who was then a scout for the Penguins, wondered if Eddie Johnston had not grossly overrated Lemieux.
“Eddie likes him,” Billy replied uneasily. “I mean, ah, Eddie likes him, you know? And the kid’s record is terrific.”
That’s what it always got back to, his record. So other, richer teams that could afford to be patient hounded Johnston, seeking to swap seasoned veterans for Pittsburgh’s draft pick (last overall in the standings in 1984, the Penguins had first pick in the draft of juniors that summer). But Johnston stayed steadfast against their blandishments.
“I’d spent a lot of time scouting him myself,” Johnston says now. “So he didn’t back-check, so what? He had the puck all the time, didn’t he? I talked to his folks, nice quiet people. I was brought up right near them in Montreal, in StHenri in the West End, they call it. I liked the kid. I decided he was a franchise player so I told everybody no.”
Lemieux got 43 goals that first season and he just keeps getting better. He got 48 goals the second year, 54 the third, 70 the fourth and a resounding 85 this year.
Even so, the Penguins were a long time winning, and Johnston, remembering his Boston days, pined for someone like Bobby Orr to share the load. The team was sixth, fifth and fifth in its six-team division during Lemieux’s first three seasons and, though its point totals were improving, it was not a contender.
The break came for Johnston when Paul Coffey, Edmonton’s all-star defenceman, and Glen Sather, the stone-faced Oiler leader, could not reach agreement on Coffey’s economic value in the annual Oiler sashay to the Stanley Cup. Through the early weeks of the 19871988 season, Coffey declined to report, and Sather refused to yield. None of this was lost on Eddie Johnston, who remembered Orr’s impact.
Coffey is no Orr (who is?) but he packs a wallop nonetheless. Orr could take charge of a game, turn it around, change the tempo. Coffey doesn’t have that much impact, but he is an eyeful, whirling out of his own end with the puck, relieving the pressure, leading a charge. “I’ve never seen a guy who can skate like that,” the smooth little New York Islanders centre Pat LaFontaine said in some awe last winter.
“I needed that type of player,” Eddie Johnston says in retrospect. “Getting him was hard grinding. I was on the phone to Sather for weeks trying to put together a deal that would satisfy him. How many calls? Oh, 100, maybe; maybe more. I called every day for three weeks near the end, sometimes 20 calls a day as the situation kept changing.”
And then finally the deal was made. On Nov. 24, 1987, Eddie’s ordeal ended. Even so, it took Coffey a while to mesh into the machine. The Penguins were last in their division again, but coming on strong at the end.
By then, though, Eddie Johnston was going. In the universal delicate phrasing of such matters, the owner, Edward J. DeBartolo, decided to make a change. Eddie was moved down the hall to make way for Tony Esposito, Phil’s brother. How’s that for irony?
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