Billy the Kid
Bill Guerin turns 39 next month, during his 18th season in the NHL. Playing at his age is no easy task, although when you play with kids, you can't help but feel like one as well.
On this mid-August afternoon, Bill Guerin is a busy man. In two days the veteran will get his day with the Stanley Cup for the second time in his career. "It’s incredible…it’s like organizing your own wedding again," he says. At least 250 friends and family will be at his Long Island home for the celebration, which comes after Guerin’s children get their own party with 200 of their friends earlier in the day. One can’t blame Bill for going all out; 14 years is a long time to wait for Cup No. 2. "The last time I won the Cup, it only had the top part; they hadn’t added the bottom yet," says Guerin, jokingly referring to the growth of the Stanley Cup, which was about 8 inches high in 1892 and stands almost 3 feet tall today.
Guerin was a 25-year-old winger for the New Jersey Devils when he won that first Cup in 1995. That was the starting point for a career that would eventually lead to more than 800 NHL points, a World Cup Championship in 1996, a silver medal with Team USA at the 2002 Winter Games and now a second Stanley Cup championship.
At 38, that second championship was a perfect way to close the book on a very impressive career, though Guerin is far from finished. "Going out a winner is great, and I hope I can still do that. But I still feel I have a lot to offer; I still feel good, and I still have fun playing the game," he says. "The one thing I hear consistently from former teammates and players that I know is play as long as you can, because once it’s done it’s done. You can’t get it back."
Guerin will turn 39 shortly after the 2009-’10 season begins, which will be his 18th in the NHL. Playing at that age is no easy task, although when you play with kids, you can’t help but feel like one as well. As he explains, "Sidney Crosby is my center, and Chris Kunitz is my left winger. They are a lot younger than me, and that pushes me, especially in practice. That keeps me younger and keeps my legs going."
Now Guerin can return the favor by making sure the door is open to younger players like Crosby, who may come knocking for answers on the ice. "As great as he is, there are still things he’s going to learn. There are still things he’s going to go through. We help each other because he sees the game so differently than everybody else."
There were times last season when Guerin and Crosby were not on the same page, occasions for which the Pens can be thankful didn’t happen that often. Your top line can’t always be dialed in, but even when things get bumpy, there’s never reason to worry, as Guerin sees it. "Kunitz is kind of the mediator on the line. Sid and I kind of go at it from time to time, but it’s good. It’s healthy. It’s good communication, and that’s the way it should be."
The Pens will be counting on that communication and hope to benefit from the production that comes from it. "There’s a lot more room for improvement. I think we can push each other a little bit more and be really good on a consistent basis."
In 1996 Guerin and the New Jersey Devils raised their Stanley Cup banner, but instead of defending the title, New Jersey failed to make the playoffs. That’s how fast a team can lose that winning feeling, and it’s something Guerin remembers all too well. "It taught me a couple of things: Last year was last year, and nobody cares…and everybody’s going to be gunning for you. Everybody."
Actually, the Penguins had almost everyone gunning for them last year after going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, so how much worse can it get? Guerin is about to find out, and maybe that makes this year’s team better than the one that just won it all. "I think the expectations are the same, and I think those are [Dan Bylsma’s] as well. Dan’s got a good handle on all the guys and how to get the best out of everybody."
That list will not include defenseman Hal Gill or Rob Scuderi, who now call Montreal and Los Angeles home. Losing players to free agency is nothing new in professional sports, and no one knows that better than Guerin, who has played for eight teams.
However, those losses are magnified on a championship team, because it presents that team with the challenge of winning again without them. That’s where free agents such as Mike Rupp, Jay McKee and Brent Johnson hope to fit in so the Pens can pick up where they left off. "We have to do the best we can by making those guys feel at home right away. It doesn’t just happen…you really have to work at it. It’s not just a guarantee."
There is no guarantee that Guerin’s 18th season in the NHL will end with a third Stanley Cup title, but he likes his chances and who could blame him. Not many teams can say they have a veteran who has done it all and feels as if he can do it again. That’s what the Penguins have in Bill Guerin, and he can’t wait to get back to work. "You can’t win it in September, but your attitude has to be right as you work toward that."
That work will begin shortly after that party on the Island comes to a close.
Dan Potash is FSN Pittsburgh’s "In Game" reporter for the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He has performed those duties exclusively since 2005, but came to FSN in 2000 after spending three years in Charleston, S.C., where he worked as weekend sports anchor/reporter for WCIV-TV (ABC.) Before that, Potash served as weekend anchor/reporter and then sports director at WDTV (CBS) in Bridgeport, W. Va., from 1995 to 1997. Potash grew up in southern California and began his sportscasting career "behind the scenes" as an intern and later as a production assistant for Prime Sports.