Newborn Penguins, Waddling in Very Winning Ways

cupajoe.jpegA non-startling confession: I haven’t been in that many professional sports team locker rooms — fewer than 10, including visits during this landmark season of blogger access courtesy of owner Ted Leonsis — and so perhaps what I’m about to report is couched in the naivete of limited exposure, as well as my personal encroachment upon middle-aged-ness. But the astounding youth abundantly on display in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ vistor’s locker last night in no way seems to comport with the long-established protocols for success in the National Hockey League. It’s one thing to have a few kids on a big league roster that’s targeting a healthy run through the postseason; it’s quite another to have a half dozen of them be the centerpiece of a team’s pretensions of contention.
In this league as I’ve come to know it, kids like these should be feasted upon night after night by the cunning experience and physical prowess of their more seasoned opponents.
You know how bars occasionally have ’80s nights by which we can reacquaint with schlocky one-hit pop wonders? Every day in the Pens’ room is ’80s night, cause that’s when so many of them were born.
Here is what I saw as I entered: to my immediate right a seated Marc Andre Fleury, born in 1984, entirely unpadded and sweat-soaked, speaking in heavy French-Canadian-accented clips of conspicuous modesty, bearing a very boyish frame and an even more boyish visage. I really thought he could have been mistaken for a first-year netminder in Canadian Major Juniors. In the immediacy of the moment, it wasn’t possible for me to stare at Fleury and see a world-traveling professional athlete. Instead, as the hour neared 10:00, I wondered at the youth’s not having parents around to enforce an appropriate curfew.
Immediately across from Fleury sat Sidney Crosby, born in 1987. A good deal of ink has been spilled the past two years on Crosby’s living with Penguins’ owner Mario Lemieux. When you stand in close quarters with him and realize he’s too young to have acne, that domestic arrangement storyline garners a fresh line of thought: Crosby is simply billeting in America as many young hockey players do all across Canada, because he arrived in the big league before his beard stubble.
His billet family just happens to be a little famous.
In the midst of a post-game media melee, with microphones and recorders forming an impenetrable cocoon around him, Sidney Crosby is poised and polished but not over-produced by PR pros to the point of rote cliche. Make no mistake — he is well insulated and guarded by the Pens’ PR team: he and he alone in the room is accorded time and space with which to undress and get his gear together and perhaps collect his thoughts. It is a situation that is well controlled. But once he’s ready and the camera lights alight and the recorder tape rolls, Sidney Crosby patiently listens to the entirety of all inquiries directed his way, deliberates a bit, and then articulates thoughtfully.
I wanted to know the extent to which all these young Penguins were familiar with the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry that has, alas, become dormant come springtime.
“We were all made aware of it,” Crosby told me. “I’m personally aware of the playoff series, the battles that they had with each other. There’s a lot of history there.”
Is a regular season game with the Caps a different, somewhat special game for them? Here I heard a bit of the boy seated before me.
“Maybe a bit more. When you have that big following of your own fans, you can’t help but be motivated. We didn’t play up to our standards those first few shifts, but as the game went on, it was fun scoring goals and hearing that many people.”
Earlier, up in the press box with my bloggerbrother Gustafsson and Off Wing’s Eric McErlain, we discussed the obvious — that the Penguins this spring are where the Caps want to be in a year or so — but also the less obvious: that their remarkable turnaround in one year’s time from draft lottery drab to conference champion contender was aided by a remarkable infusion of game-breaking talent in short order. It’s one thing to strike it big with Evgeni Malkin (born in 1986), but quite another to have Jordan Staal (born in ’88) and his 29 goals come aboard at the same time. At the age of eighteen. Such dramatic talent infusions are almost always spread out over years.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sergei Gonchar, who by virtue of turning 33 in two weeks likely is nicknamed Gramps in this room. I didn’t have a question for him at the time, but an hour later, already home, I chided myself for not soliciting his thoughts on Alexander Semin. Gonchar has been in this league long enough to have seen an awful lot of special talent emerge from his homeland, and late last night I wished that I’d asked him where he’d slot Semin in its hierarchy.
There were one or two well known players older even than Gonchar in the room, Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi most particularly, brought in to help out the kids. But even they appear younger than their years in this room. Winning a lot probably has something to do with it.

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2 Responses to Newborn Penguins, Waddling in Very Winning Ways

  1. VT Caps Fan says:

    I hate them

  2. TG says:

    Scary to think, but their window to win may only be for the next two years. After that point, the salary cap will come into play, and I’m sure someone will offer a max contract to Crosby, and Malkin, and Staal, and they can’t pay ’em all. Wonder if/how the Caps will avoid that problem.

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