As Thursday and Thanksgiving approaches, it's a time to give thanks for the things we have in life—in the work place, at school, at home, and in the world of sports.
Being a Penguin fan since I first set foot in the 'Burgh in 1999, I've seen good times, dreadful times, and then back to the top once more.
From the moment Sidney Crosby was drafted in 2005, Penguin fans have had a lot of reasons to be hopeful for the future. And finally this past June, all of those fantasies became reality.
As you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner and watch the 2009 Stanley Cup Champions DVD, here are a few things that I am most thankful for.
I Am Grateful for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Coach Todd Reirden
He might not be a household name by any means, but that doesn't mean his efforts are not appreciated. As the head coach of the Baby Penguins, he has one of the most difficult jobs in professional hockey.
He not only has to help prospects in the organization become better hockey players, but he must help them in a way so that they may succeed at the NHL level. At the same time, he receives phone calls on a weekly basis from Dan Bylsma, saying that the Penguins need another player off his roster.
While the technology for cloning human beings hasn't been perfected, you wouldn't know it. Reirden and Bylsma are carbon copies of each other, at least in terms of a playbook. Reirden has the Baby Penguins playing the very same system as Bylsma's senior Penguins, giving guys like Derek Engelland, Ben Lovejoy, and company the ability to step right in at an NHL-level.
Thank you, Coach Reirden.
I Am Grateful for All-Star Coverage
The Penguins team boasts two all-time greats in the field of media coverage. Of course, that refers to Post-Gazette writer Dave Molinari and radio broadcaster Mike Lange.
Molinari, only recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, has provided Penguin fans with superb analysis for nearly 30 years now. From the best of times to the worst, Molinari has always been there with spot-on writing that keeps the fans in touch with the Penguins, while giving usually terrific opinions as well.
Lange is a one-of-a-kind announcer that most teams in the league would give anything for. By now, Penguin fans can rattle off dozens of his trademarked phrases, ranging from "He beats Kolzig like a rented mule! " to "He's smilin' like a butcher's dog! " His commentary is loved so much that many fans will mute the television so they can listen to Mike Lange on radio.
Thank you, Dave Molinari and Mike Lange.
Wait. Those are the Penguins' three fiercest rivals today. How does that work?
Without passionate, talented, and hated rivals, what good is the game? Nearly every one of the most memorable games in the last several years, from a Penguins perspective, have come while playing against one of these three teams.
Many fans will say the Capitals-Penguins clash last year was the best playoff series in a decade. While mostly every Penguin has a healthy dislike for the Red Rockers, we must respect them as well because when the two teams meet, there is a unmatched buzz around the arena.
The Philadelphia Flyers are the Penguins' oldest rival, being from just across the state. And now the two teams have met in the playoffs each of the past two years. Would "shh" mean anything to you if it wasn't for the implications and rivalry between the teams?
And to Detroit, the Western opponent that we seem to only see when the stakes are as high as they can be: Best of three this June?
Thank you, arch-rivals.
I Am Grateful for Sidney Crosby's Anticipation
When you think about Captain Crosby, you think of his passing skills, his leadership, his finishing around the net, or his ability to make things happen on the ice. But his anticipation is perhaps most important.
It's the first order of business for a center, but often the most overlooked aspect of the game. Crosby has turned himself from inept in the circle to one of the best faceoff men in the game. He currently leads the NHL by a large margin with 294 faceoffs won. Quite honestly, the man in second place, Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins, isn't even a close second.
His ability to win draws on a consistent basis has done wonders for the Penguins. It allows his teammates to keep possession in the offensive zone on a power play, clear the puck on a penalty kill, or allows the running a set play with only a few seconds left on the clock.
While finding a centerman is easy, finding one that can excel in the circle while being a dominant player all over the ice is very rare indeed.
Thank you, Sidney Crosby's anticipation.
I Am Grateful for a Healthy Sergei Gonchar
From an outsider's perspective, Crosby and Malkin are the two diesel engines that make the Penguins go.
This is true. But it could also be said, that if there is one player the Penguins can least afford to lose, it's Sergei Gonchar.
Gonchar is most known for his ability to run the power play. He can shoot the puck with a great deal of velocity from the point, but also do it very accurately at the same time. Aided by his tremendous lateral movement, he can find any opening between the blue line and the cage.
But his position is "defenseman." And from a defensive standpoint, his skills also greatly assist Marc-Andre Fleury in net.
He blocks shots, hits, and has the endurance to play 25-26 minutes a night if needed. You can't even count how many times he has relieved an opposing player of the puck with his fast stick work.
Thank you, Sergei Gonchar.
I Am Grateful for the "Trib Tron"
For those of you who don't know what the "Trib Tron" is, it's a giant screen TV placed on the lawn outside of Mellon Arena for playoff games. The big screen allows thousands of fans who couldn't get tickets to the game the ability to still experience a hockey atmosphere, watching the game around many other fans.
During the Stanley Cup finals, an estimated 12,000 fans showed up with folding chairs, blankets, coolers, and plenty of black and gold attire. All of this just to sit outside the arena and enjoy the game with friends. Well, strangers too.
While watching the TV costs absolutely nothing, it has helped build the Penguins' fan base among young school-age fans who may or may not have a previous hockey background.
Thank you, Penguins' marketing department.
I Am Grateful for Ray Shero's Sixth Sense
Penguins General Manager Ray Shero has a sixth sense. Every year, it never fails. He makes the exact move that the team needs to succeed.
Bringing in Marian Hossa in 2008. Making the coaching change to go with Dan Bylsma over Michel Therrien. Dropping Ryan Whitney. Adding fourth-liners Craig Adams and Mike Rupp.
Thanks to Shero, the Penguins have also done a superior job in the draft. It's not just the first round picks like Crosby, Malkin and Staal. But so many other players in the NHL now and the depth in the AHL are all due to Shero.
A true master at getting the most out of second, third, and fourth round picks, his mission to add depth to the franchise has already put wind to the sails.
He has the Midas Touch.
But when legendary GM Craig Patrick was relieved in 2006 in favor of Shero, fans didn't know exactly what to expect. Now, the motto has become I.R.W.T. (In Ray We Trust). While managing the cap, he has managed to keep the core of the Penguins intact for a long time to come.
Thank you, Ray Shero.
And Most Importantly, I Am Grateful for Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle
When Mario Lemieux walked away from the game of hockey as one of the all-time greatest players in history, he set an incredibly high bar of standardslol—not only for future stars in the Penguins organization, but for himself in any of his post-playing endeavors.
But as gaudy as his numbers were, his accomplishments as the owner of the Penguins might even best them. In the short time since purchasing the team, he has transformed it from one of the worst teams in sports to a contender for the present and future.
When Penguin fans show up at the Igloo, they now can look across the street at the new home in 2010, the Consol Energy Center. If it wasn't for Mario, that property would not be under construction. And if the new Hill District palace wasn't to be, the Penguins would now be winning championships as the Kansas City Scouts. But you didn't need me to tell you that.
Words don't do what Lemieux and Burkle have done for this franchise justice.
Thank you very much, Mario and Ron.