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What the Pittsburgh Penguins had become —
on the ice, a juggernaut poised to complete
a rags-to-riches championship run, and off the ice, a cherished component of the fabric of their community
— was personified on the night they didn’t win the Cup.
The date was June 9, 2016. The Penguins were
preparing to host Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final
against the San Jose Sharks.
They were leading the series, three games
to one, and they were one win away from
celebrating the first won-in-the-city-of-Pittsburgh championship since Bill Mazeroski took the
Yankees’ Ralph Terry “dahn-tahn” in the bottom
of the ninth in October 1960.
After a strong second period, the Penguins rattle opposing goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defeat the New York Rangers, 4-1, on March 3, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
The Penguins, as had been their habit since their final seasons playing in Mellon Arena, had set up a giant video screen outside the lower entrance to their home arena, then called Consol Energy Center, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place.
The idea, as always, was to accommodate fans wishing to participate in the experience but unable to get a ticket. The response in this instance had been overwhelming, however, and face-off was still a couple of hours away.
“I was looking out my office window, and I saw there were people all across Washington Place,” Penguins CEO and President David Morehouse recalls. “I grabbed Travis [Williams, the team’s COO] and said, ‘We gotta go out and take a look at this.’
“It was about 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m. We went out there with James [Santilli, the Penguins’ vice president of marketing] and there were people all the way up to Centre Avenue.
“I said, ‘What’s your overflow plan?’ They said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘People are going to keep coming. You have to have a plan.’
“James said, ‘We have a screen on call that can get here within half an hour.’ Travis said, ‘I’ll call the Mayor’s Office and see if we can get Market Square.’ They reacted quickly, no bureaucracy — it was, ‘What can we do?’ And by 6:30 p.m., that screen was in place in Market Square.”
The Sharks ended up winning Game 5, 4-2.
The championship celebration had to wait until the Pens’ 3-1 victory in Game 6 in San Jose.
But the Penguins estimated that more than 20,000 people had shown up outside of what is now PPG Paints Arena (and another 15,000 or so at Market Square) just to be a part of what might have taken place during and after Game 5.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Penguins clinch the series by defeating the New York Rangers, 6-3, on April 23, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.
“I had never seen the city like that,” Captain Sidney Crosby says in “Pittsburgh is Home: The Story of the Penguins,” the team’s 50th anniversary video. “It was so hard to keep your emotions in check for that game.”
It was a scene that went beyond memorable. It was unforgettable.
“Your first goal sticks out,” Crosby continues in the video. “Those overtime wins in the playoffs, they stick out. But that one thing I think I’ll remember is that Game 5 and driving in for that game.
“You’ve been in different situations before, and it’s like, ‘OK, it’s just another game, it’s just another game.’ To see that is something. Yeah, I’ll always remember that scene.”
It’s one of the reasons the Penguins are the recipients of Pittsburgh’s Magazine’s 2016 Pittsburghers of the Year award — an honor the team accepts with deference to the people that, according to Morehouse, made such a designation possible.
“It’s the fans that are the Pittsburghers of the Year, not the team,” Morehouse says. “We are who our fans are, and our fans are some of the greatest fans in the world.
“Pittsburgh sports fans have a depth and an enthusiasm that other cities don’t have. That’s not just qualitative; when we did research a few years ago when we were thinking of moving, we had a small market. But this market performs like a bigger market for us, for the Steelers and for the Pirates.
“That plays out in those kind of examples.”
The example Game 5 became, for instance, was not without its concerns.
“We had to implement an immediate public safety plan, and we really didn’t have the personnel [readily available] to deploy at the second site,” says Mayor Bill Peduto, whose passions include hockey as well as politics. City officials responded by redeploying police from other zones.
“I remember sitting in my seat at the game thinking how great it would be if the Pens were able to win the Cup and I actually got to see it [in person],” the mayor recalled. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, my God, if they win the Cup there’s no way those people are going to want to stay outside [of the arena] — and there’s no way we’re going to be able to hold a perimeter’ [and keep fans from entering the arena site]. I thought, ‘It’s going to be like a Grateful Dead concert.’
“For the final period I sat in hope and fear ... Where would they all have gone,” Peduto says he wondered at the time. “After a disappointing loss, they went home. After a win? It’s anybody’s guess.
The Penguins win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on May 30, 2016 at Consol Energy Center after Nick Bonino’s goal late in the third period breaks a 2-2 tie with the San Jose Sharks.
“It was a big challenge for the Department of Public Safety and the Bureau of Police, and they were already stretched thin. They had protocols in place to secure the South Side, Lawrenceville, Downtown [and the North Side] — operations that had been prepared for days in case the Pens would win to keep the city safe. Then you had a variable thrown in, adding [20,000] people, that really stretched it.
“I went and met with the public safety director before the game began at the command center [at the arena] just to see if he was OK and if the operations of all public safety bureaus were being implemented. I could see the stress of that audible being called.”
What ultimately resulted was a confirmation rather than a celebration. Not that Head Coach Mike Sullivan needed any more convincing by then.
“The fan support is overwhelming,” he maintains. “And what I’ve really grown to appreciate is, for a smaller city, Pittsburgh is a major-league sports town. The support that the fans offer to the pro sports teams in this city is second to none.
“When you look back at the Stanley Cup run that we had and how excited people got about the run, there was a buzz in the city. During that time I couldn’t go to a restaurant or a grocery store without somebody coming up and saying, ‘Good luck, the team looks great.’ People were genuinely, sincerely excited about what we could potentially accomplish.”
That the Penguins were ultimately able to accomplish what they did speaks to the ability of the team and the organization to persevere, to dig deep when things looked bleak, and to roll up their sleeves and go to work when tough jobs had to be done — traits Pittsburghers have always appreciated. Those qualities began to resonate with the Penguins shortly after Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston in December 2015.
But the march of the Penguins and the growth of Pittsburgh’s championship collection dates back to June 6, 2014 — the date General Manager Jim Rutherford was hired.
“I remember the discussions we had,” Morehouse says. “Everything we talked about in those interviews, he implemented — and within two years he won a Stanley Cup. It’s an extraordinary job of following a strategy.
“What he said in those meetings was: ‘First of all, the playoffs are different from the regular season, and you need a different kind of team. Second, young people bring more than just their ability. Every day at the rink is the best day of their lives, and that can have an impact on your veterans, especially veterans that have pressure all the time. And then you need some veteran leadership around your veteran leaders. You need to take some of the burden away from your superstars.’