- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

PITTSBURGH — For some of the Pittsburgh Penguins like Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, success has been all they have known in their short NHL careers.

There are others like Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney who know this rise from conference doormats to conference champs in two seasons began before that. They also know all of the hockey-themed euphoria in this city — the 66 straight sellouts, the thousands of people watching playoff games outside Mellon Arena and the growing waiting list for season tickets — almost never happened.

“I remember the one summer myself and Ryan Malone calling each other a bunch of times and just saying from what the media was telling us, we were pretty sure we were going to Kansas City,” Orpik said. “We talked about getting our stuff [at the arena] and getting ready to move our stuff out of storage. Obviously with the support we have here, it is a good thing we stayed.”

Since the Penguins last won the Stanley Cup in 1992, their opponent in Game 1 of the finals tonight, the Detroit Red Wings, captured hockey’s greatest prize three times and have become the NHL’s model franchise.

The Penguins, one of the league’s original expansion teams in 1967, have been anything but. There was the embarrassment of bankruptcy. Twice it has appeared the club would leave town only to be saved in the final hour.

The momentum created by the return of the franchise’s greatest player (and owner) Mario Lemieux from retirement during the 2001-02 season faded away after three consecutive last-place finishes in the Atlantic Division and a work stoppage wiped out another year.

“A couple of us were talking about how we remember those down days,” Whitney said. “We remember those days when we kept saying we were going to be great and were going to be in the Stanley Cup Finals, and we were going to win Stanley Cups. It is nice to finally be there. Well, we’re not there yet, but we are close.”

Years of losing yielded high draft picks, and a stroke of luck in the summer of 2005 were central to the team’s rebuilding. Players like Whitney, Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury make up an enviable young group, but winning the draft lottery three summers ago for the right to select the kid hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky changed everything.

Adding Sidney Crosby and a bushel of veterans right after the lockout didn’t buy instant success for the Penguins, and 2005-06 ended with a fourth straight last-place finish.

“I never thought this [was possible], but at the same time I knew we were going in the right direction,” defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. “Even though we didn’t make the playoffs toward the end of the [2005-06] season we started playing better.”

The franchise switched coaches during that season and general managers after it. Malkin joined the team from Russia and won the Calder Trophy last season. Ray Shero selected Jordan Staal with the second pick in the 2006 draft as one of his first moves as general manager. Staal was a Calder finalist last year.

Still, the battle for financing a new arena to replace the outdated Igloo dragged on longer than expected. As the team began to turn the corner and make a run to the playoffs last year, the speculation about the team moving to Kansas City or Hamilton, Ont., continued.

BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie tried to buy the team but backed off. Lemieux’s ownership group reached a deal with Isle of Capri Casinos to fund an arena if it was awarded the city’s pending casino license, but it went to another company.

“That situation was so far out of control we would almost joke around about it,” Orpik said. “It was something we couldn’t be overly concerned with — especially us that were young. We didn’t have houses yet, so we’re used to moving around a lot. It was one of those things if we moved, we moved. [Malone] obviously has a lot stronger connection to the area than I do.”

Indeed Malone, whose father was a longtime scout for the team, grew up in the city with this team. Had the Penguins left town, he, more than any of the players, would have felt the impact.

“It would have been tough to leave such a good hockey town with the support we were receiving at the time,” Malone said. “For some reason, people were dragging their feet, but they finally got the rink deal done. It would have been crazy to think at the end of this year we would be going somewhere else.”

Despite the tumult, Pittsburgh hockey has a bright future. The team is four wins away from reaching the sport’s pinnacle, and the franchise is blessed with a young group of players drawing comparisons to the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s.

Across the street from Mellon, there is a pile of rubble from a recently imploded building. In that very spot, construction soon will begin on a new arena, which the Penguins hope will open in time for the 2010-11 season and improve revenues enough to help retain much of their precocious nucleus.

Given the new economic landscape of the post-lockout NHL, keeping everyone together for an Edmonton-esque run will likely prove impossible.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us. But it’s a good challenge in the fact that’s based upon having some very good talent here. It’s something that we’re prepared for,” Shero said. “I think we have a great thing going. I think we’re set up long-term. But that will take care of itself after the season. That’s when we’re going to start addressing it.”

One thing is for certain, the franchise has come a long way in two years.

“I look back when I was hired in May of [2006], maybe even halfway through our first year, I just moved into our house,” Shero said. “I’ve told the story where my wife didn’t go about buying drapes and curtains, not certain if we were going to be here for the second year, whether the team was going to be sold or moved. [There was] a lot of uncertainty.”

PENGUINS TIMELINE

June 1, 1992 — Pittsburgh sweeps the Chicago Blackhawks to capture a second straight Stanley Cup.

Jan. 12, 1993 Mario Lemieux announces he has Hodgkin’s disease.

May 14, 1993 — Despite Lemieux’s return to spark an NHL-record 17-game winning streak near the end of the regular season, the New York Islanders win Game 7 of the Patrick Division finals in overtime in one of the biggest series upsets in league history.

June 1, 1996 — The Florida Panthers upset the Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in a year when Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr became only the second set of teammates to top 60 goals.

April 6, 1997 Lemieux announces he will retire at the end of the season.

Sept. 3, 1999 Lemieux’s ownership group officially takes control of the team, ending rumors of a possible move after the franchise’s second time in bankruptcy.

Dec. 27, 2000 Lemieux returns to the ice after a 44-month retirement, scores 76 points in 43 games and leads the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the New Jersey Devils.

July 11, 2001 — Jagr is traded to the Washington Capitals.

June 10, 2004 Lemieux hints at the possibility of the team leaving Pittsburgh without a new arena at his charity golf tournament.

July 22, 2005 — Pittsburgh wins the “Sidney Crosby lottery” and select him eight days later.

Jan. 19, 2006 Lemieux announces the team is for sale.

Jan. 24, 2006 Lemieux announces his second retirement.

March 13, 2007 — Financing for a new arena across the street from Mellon Arena is announced, and Lemieux says the team is no longer for sale.

June 14, 2007 — After winning the scoring title and helping the Penguins to the playoffs for the first time in six years, Crosby wins both league MVP honors.

May 18, 2008 — Pittsburgh defeats Philadelphia in five games to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 16 years.