Like a boxer who is repeatedly knocked to the canvas only to get up in the final round and win the fight, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the most survival-tested organization in sports. The team was one of six granted a spot in the NHL in 1967 as part of the doubling of the league from six teams to twelve. Other new franchises included state rivals Philadelphia, St. Louis, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Minnesota.
Yet, in each of the three distinct periods of the Penguins, the team faced the very real threat of relocation, such was the sorry state of its on-ice performance and off-ice finances. The first chapter in the team’s history started in 1967 and continued to 1983. The Penguins missed the playoffs in eight of those seventeen seasons and did little damage in the years they did qualify.
The lowest point came in 1975, when the Penguins, ahead in the quarter-finals against the Islanders, having won the first three games of the best-of-seven, lost the next four and were eliminated, the first time a team had blown a 3–0 lead since 1942.
At the same time, the team declared bankruptcy, when creditors lined up demanding to be repaid on their investment. It seemed almost certain that the Pens would move to Denver. However, another group of investors stepped in and saved the day, keeping the Pens in Pittsburgh.
The next low point came in 1983–84 when the Penguins had a record of 16–58–6, their 38 points putting them dead last in the league. They were averaging fewer than seven thousand fans a game and again were in financial difficulty, but finishing last, which they later admitted they did intentionally, entitled them to the first overall draft choice in June 1984.
They selected Mario Lemieux, but even this simple announcement turned into an embarrassing moment.
The whole hockey world knew well in advance that Lemieux was in a class by himself, but in the days leading up to the draft his agent and the team’s general manager, Eddie Johnston, couldn’t agree on a contract. So, when Lemieux’s name was called on draft day at the Montreal Forum, Mario remained in his seat, neither shaking the GM’s hand nor coming to the stage for the traditional donning of the team sweater.
Soon enough, though, Lemieux signed with the Penguins, changing the course of the franchise – though not right away. As the team was slowly constructed around their star player, it missed the playoffs for the next five of six seasons.
Lemieux developed into the game’s greatest player not named Gretzky, and the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1991 and ’92. But by 1997, Lemieux was fed up with the league’s refusal to crack down on defensive tactics such as hooking, holding, and interference, and he retired. Much of his salary had been in the form of deferred payments, and soon after he hung up his skates, the team went into bankruptcy again, Lemieux’s millions seemingly lost. He decided to buy the team using this money as equity, both saving the team, again, and recouping his money (sort of).
In order to maximize his investment, as it were, he returned to the ice and played successfully for several more years. All along, he had one interest off-ice – to build a new arena.
Nicknamed The Igloo, the Civic Auditorium and Mellon Arena was old and without luxury boxes, had few revenue streams beyond ticket sales, and would be the ruin of the team if it wasn’t replaced. Years of frustration forced Lemieux to put the team up for sale early in the 2005–06 season, this despite the fact the team had just won the right to draft Sidney Crosby. Research In Motion’s co-CEO, billionaire Jim Balsillie, bought the team, but as soon as Balsillie made it clear his intention was to move the Penguins, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stepped in and disallowed the sale.
Eventually, Lemieux got the City of Pittsburgh on board for a new facility. He retired because of heart palpitations in early 2006, and Crosby became the focus of the franchise, taking the team to a Cup win in 2009. The Consol Energy Center opened soon after, and the Penguins are now a thriving franchise in a league awash with financially unstable teams.
Although the Washington Capitals have never had the financial troubles of the Penguins, they, too, have had a history clearly divided. Washington was granted a team in 1974, along with Kansas City (the ill-fated Scouts), which promptly went out and had the worst season in the history of sports, the Caps winning only eight of eighty games in the first year, scoring just 181 goals and surrendering 446. They won only one of forty road games, losing a record thirty-seven in a row. They missed the playoffs each of their first eight years in the league, but in 1982 the team turned a corner when incoming GM David Poile engineered a blockbuster deal with Montreal that got them Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, and Craig Laughlin.
The Caps then made the playoffs for fourteen straight years but never went far until 1998, when they made their first and only trip to the Stanley Cup finals. They were swept in four games by the vastly superior Detroit Red Wings, and a year later Ted Leonsis took control of the team. A more aggressive owner, Leonsis made a huge splash in 2001 when he lured Jaromir Jagr away from the Penguins, signing the scoring champion and MVP to a seven-year contract worth $77 million, the largest in league history.
While it was a noble attempt to bring success and celebrity to the team, the results were disastrous, and Jagr was traded three years later. Undaunted, Leonsis later signed Alex Ovechkin, to the new biggest contract in NHL history, midway through the 2007–08 season, a thirteen-year deal worth $124 million. Ovechkin had been selected by the Caps first overall at the 2004 Entry Draft and after only two and a half years established himself as one of the most dynamic goalscorers in the game. Ovechkin has proved popular, later becoming captain, but he has yet to deliver playoff success. His presence, though, has ensured sellouts at the Verizon Center (formerly the MCI Center) and financial stability for the team, and, in turn, he has been given a contract of value commensurate to his star value.
And so, as the second decade of the twenty-first century unfolds, Pittsburgh and Washington have the two best players in the game on their respective rosters and have created a rivalry around these stars. They are both captains of their teams and have won several individual awards, but so far only Crosby has won the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin still has plenty of time to win his own, as both are only now reaching their prime. The rivalry is young and the Cup old. Who will get there next?
Excerpted from Sid vs. Ovi by Andrew Podnieks. Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Podnieks. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.