Ranking the 5 Most Beloved Players in Pittsburgh Penguins History
While the Pittsburgh Penguins have had more than their share of great players in their history, there are precious few who have ever garnered such devotion from Steel City fans to be considered beloved.
Some earned that status due to skill while others won fans over with their grit and determination, but all of them created such a strong following by how they played the game that they still have a special place in the collective heart of the Steel City.
As the Pens and their fans look ahead to a new season and new heroes, let's take a look at the five most beloved players to ever wear a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey.
Since every list has to start somewhere, here are three former Penguins who just missed the cut:
Ulf Samuelsson—Acquired by the Penguins from one the Hartford Whalers in one of the most infamous trades in NHL history, Samuelsson provided the grit and toughness that the team needed to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the early 1990s.
Known for his controversial hit on Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins in the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs, Samuelsson, was a force to be reckoned with and actually scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal against the Minnesota North Stars.
As one of only two Penguins to register 100 points and 250 penalty minutes in the same season (Kevin Stevens being the other one), Tocchet possessed a rare combination of skill and grit and, now as an assistant coach with the team, will try to bring that same edge to this group of Pens.
Darius Kasparaitis—In a city known for its love of big hits and tough players, Kasparaitis, a longtime Penguins tormentor with the New York Islanders, quickly become a fan favorite with his take-no-prisoners style of play after he was acquired in a trade for Bryan Smolinski in 1996.
Willing to take on anybody at any time despite his 5'11" frame, his devastating hit on the 6'5" Eric Lindros and his series-clinching overtime goal against the Buffalo Sabres in the 2001 Stanley Cup playoffs remain legendary moments in Penguins history.
Had this list been compiled 20 years ago, Jaromir Jagr would have undoubtedly made it, but he burned a lot of bridges in a city known for them and, in doing so, forever tarnished his Penguin legacy.
Having burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1990, Jagr, whose first name ironically can be rearranged to spell "Mario Jr," became the heir apparent to Lemieux and the face of the franchise when "Super Mario" retired.
Never one to share the limelight, Jagr forced a trade after Lemieux returned during the 2000-01 season and promptly vowed to prove to the Pens that they made a mistake in dealing him to the Washington Capitals.
After three-year stints with the Capitals and the New York Rangers, Jagr spent three years in the KHL before returning to the NHL and a possible homecoming in Pittsburgh in the summer of 2011.
However, Jagr's demands forced the Pens to pull their offer and, to drive the final nail into his legacy's coffin, signed with Pens' hated cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, who would go on to oust the Pens in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
After signing with the Dallas Stars in the offseason, Jagr was traded to the Boston Bruins and, to add insult to injury, would again have a hand in ending the Pens' season as they were swept by the Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
Now a member of the New Jersey Devils and still an impact player even at age 42, Jagr certainly belongs on any list of the greatest players in franchise history, but you won't find on him on this list of the most beloved players.
5. Mark Recchi
As rare as it is for a player to have two separate stints with the same franchise, it's even rarer to find one who had three, but that just shows the attachment that Mark Recchi has seemed to have to the Penguins and their fans.
Known affectionately as the "Recching Ball" due to his stocky build and slashing style of play, Recchi was instrumental in leading the Pens to their first Stanley Cup in 1991 and led the team in scoring during the regular season.
Traded the following season to the Philadelphia Flyers, Recchi would spend the next 15 seasons with the Flyers and Montreal Canadiens before returning to the Pens as a free agent before the 2005-06 season.
The next season, Recchi would return to the Pens for a third time and spent two productive seasons before once again before moving on and eventually retiring in 2011 after helping the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup.
4. Joe Mullen
It's not often that a player is so beloved in a town that fans come to think of him as a hometown player, but that's what happened to U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Joe Mullen.
Acquired in a trade from the Calgary Flames for just a second-round draft pick in 1990, Joe Mullen was thought to be on the downside of his career due to persistent neck problems, but he proved that he could still find the back of the net, which he did 30 or more times in three of his five seasons with the Pens.
Dubbed "Slippery Rock Joe" by legendary announcer Mike Lange for his amazing ability to take hits and maintain control of the puck, Mullen was a native of New York City but soon became identified with Slippery Rock University in Western Pennsylvania.
Known for his distinctive neck roll and his willingness to go to the high-traffic areas, Mullen looked and played like a linebacker on the ice and was the first American-born player to reach the 500-goal and 1,000-point plateau.
3. Martin Straka
Although he may be the smallest player on this list, Martin Straka played the game with as much heart and determination as any other player in Penguins history.
Drafted by the Pens in the first round of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, Straka would reach the 30-goal plateau in his first full season in Pittsburgh but was traded away in 1995.
After bouncing around the league, Straka returned to the Pens in 1997 and would amass 346 points in 403 games over the next seven seasons, and his series clinching goal in overtime against the Washington Capitals in the 2001 Stanley Cup playoffs remains one of the biggest goals in franchise history.
In contrast with his legendary linemate and fellow Czech Jaromir Jagr, Straka was a tireless worker, an excellent two-way player and was always willing to do the little things necessary to win, which earned him a special place in the hearts of Pens fans.
2. Ron Francis
Had he played for almost any other NHL team during his prime, Ron Francis would have been the best player on the roster and the face of the franchise.
As it was, Francis had the dubious distinction of playing in the shadows of two of the greatest players in history in Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, but, to his credit, he was willing to take a back seat for the sake of the team.
Averaging better than a point per game during his eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Francis was the jack-of-all-trades who matched up against the opponent's top line, took important faceoffs, manned the point on the power play and was the team's top penalty killer.
Winner of the Selke Trophy in 1995 as the NHL's top defensive forward and the Lady Byng Trophy in 1995 and 1998 as the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship and a high level of play, Francis was a steadying influence for the Pens through the good times and the bad and personified what a captain should be.
1. Mario Lemieux
There are few players in sports who have become as identified with a city and a franchise as Mario Lemieux is with Pittsburgh and the Penguins.
As the franchise leader in seasons, games, goals, assists, points and points per game, Lemieux, who the great Bobby Orr once called "the most talented player I've ever seen," rewrote the record books not only for the Pens but for the NHL as well.
Having saved the franchise once as a player by leading the Pens to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, Lemieux would once again ride to the rescue in the late 1990s and lifted the team out of bankruptcy and kept it in the Steel City.
With the addition of another Stanley Cup banner in 2009 and the completion of the Consol Energy Center in 2010, the Penguins' future in Pittsburgh is seemingly secure and Pens fans have yet another reason to be grateful for Mario Lemieux.