Rick Buker, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die”
First, can you tell us about the new book – what inspired you to write the book and how you went about researching it?
I’d be glad to! “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” focuses on the top 100 players, personalities, and events that helped shape Penguins history. The book features bios on superstars like Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, as well as stories about each of Cup runs and key events such as “the Save” and “the Trade.” It’s also packed with anecdotes about some of the team’s more colorful players such as Steve Durbano and Bryan Watson. And, I sprinkled in some to-do’s, like learning how to skate and calling into the Mark Madden Show.
Inspiration-wise, all the credit goes to Triumph Books, who published my first book, “Total Penguins: The Definitive Encyclopedia of the Pittsburgh Penguins” last fall. They suggested the “100 Pens” format and I eagerly agreed to do it.
Since I’d already written “Total Penguins,” I had lots of raw material for the new book. While “100 Pens” still required plenty of work, for the most part I was able to reshape what I already knew and fill in the blanks with material from online sources like “Sports Illustrated Vault” and “PittsburghHockey.Net,” which is a great web site.
What were some of the most surprising things you found in researching the book?
I think the most surprising thing I learned involved Bill LeCaine, who was one of the Pens’ first free-agent signings. A friend of mine, John Bigler, recalled that a Native American had played for the team back in the late 1960s. So I did some digging and discovered it was LeCaine. Turns out, he’s a distant relative of the famous Lakota Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull, who fought at the battle of Little Big Horn!
Where can readers purchase the book?
A: “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” is available online at sites like Triumphbooks.com, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, and at bookstores like Barnes and Noble. I believe Wal-Mart also carries it. My first book, “Total Penguins,” also can be purchased online, and may still be available at bookstores.
Tell us about the website as well–its origins and focus….
PenguinPoop.com started out a few years ago when two long-time Pittsburgh Penguins fans wanted to voice their dislike of how things were working out under Penguins coach Michel Therrien. Since then PenguinPoop has primarily focused on the opinions of seven or eight contributors whose backgrounds range from hockey players, referees, long-time fans and season-ticket holders. One of our writers has been a Pittsburgh Penguins Season Ticket Holder for 37 years! Coming up this January we will be going into our fourth year.
Besides the drafting of Crosby, what were some of the key elements in the Penguins’ turnaround after the Lemieux years?
There’s no doubt Sid is the cornerstone for our current Penguins. And you can’t overlook Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin. However, former GM Craig Patrick deserves a ton of credit for helping to turn the team around. Starting in the early 2000s, he drafted brilliantly. In addition to picking superstars like Crosby, Fleury and Malkin, he added the likes of Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, Kris Letang, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Max Talbot, and Ryan Whitney through the draft. Ray Shero has done a great job of working off the foundation Patrick laid with some savvy trades and free-agent signings. And Mario Lemieux has done a remarkable job as owner.
Under his stewardship, the team built a new arena and is on firm financial ground for perhaps the first time in franchise history.
Before Lemieux, there were also lean years. What other catalysts inspired the turnaround for the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup winning season?
Obviously, Lemieux was the key. Former coach and GM Eddie Johnston once said there would be no hockey in Pittsburgh if it wasn’t for Mario. Johnston also had a big hand in the turnaround. Along with No. 66, he drafted good young players like Doug Bodger, Rob Brown, Craig Simpson, and Zarley Zalapski. Simpson was used as the centerpiece in a deal to acquire Paul Coffey. A superb offensive defenseman, Coffey helped Lemieux get the most out of his burgeoning talents by opening up the ice with his speed and passing. Although his contributions generally are overlooked, Tony Esposito drafted Mark Recchi and traded for Tom Barrasso, giving the team a stud between the pipes.
Craig Patrick was masterful during his first full season at the helm. In addition to hiring Cup-winning coaches Scotty Bowman and “Badger Bob” Johnson, he acquired future Hall of Famers Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, and Bryan Trottier and drafted Jaromir Jagr. But the man behind the scenes, owner Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., also deserves recognition. He absorbed enormous losses–some $25 million by his own reckoning–but stayed the course long enough to see his ugly ducklings transform into Stanley Cup champions.
What did prior management do wrong, do you think, that caused the team to struggle for so many years?
I think finances (or a lack of) played a huge role in the team’s early struggles. The Penguins were sold to Detroit banker Donald Parsons after their very first season. Less than three years later the league had to assume control of the franchise. The next ownership group–led by Tad Potter–built a darn good hockey team but were forced into receivership following a disastrous loss to the Islanders in the 1975 playoffs.
When Al Savill purchased the club from Potter, he basically eliminated the farm system to save money. GM Baz Bastien had little choice but to trade draft choices for veterans in order to keep the team marginally competitive. This led to a total collapse, which–ironically–put the team in a position to draft Mario Lemieux. So in a backhanded way, things worked out pretty well!
Who were some of the most interesting characters across the various Penguins teams, in your opinion, and what made them so?
For starters, Bryan “Bugsy” Watson was a real character. During a road trip to Los Angeles back in the early 1970s, he hijacked a Marriott courtesy bus on a dare (with teammates and hotel guests aboard) and took it for a joy ride. In the late 1970s, Brian “Spinner” Spencer built his own version of a Hummer from the frame of an old Army convoy truck. But for my money the team’s all-time character was Steve Durbano. A swashbuckling defenseman back in the 1970s, “Demolition Durby” made the Hanson Brothers of “Slap Shot” fame look like choir boys. He’d fight anyone, anytime, anywhere, for any reason.
One night while playing in the WHA he tore off Bobby Hull’s toupee. During one of his final games he famously mooned the Madison Square Garden crowd (hockey pants on, of course) after igniting a bench-clearing brawl.
Who are unsung heroes over the course of the Penguins’ history that deserve more recognition, in your opinion, and why?
The Pens have had plenty of players who didn’t get the recognition they deserved. Ken Schinkel and Ron Schock were diligent, productive skaters for the early Penguins, but were overshadowed by the likes of Syl Apps, Pierre Larouche, and Jean Pronovost. Dave Burrows was a superb stay-at-home defenseman–perhaps the finest of his era–but he didn’t get much ink because he didn’t put up big offensive numbers.
I thought Ron Stackhouse was vastly underrated (and unappreciated), mostly because he was a big guy who didn’t play an especially physical game. However, I think Ron Francis is the most underrated player in Penguins history. Francis may seem like a strange choice given that he’s a Hall of Famer. But he did so many things well. Ronnie was a marvelous playmaker, a terrific defensive player and face-off man, and he scored important goals. When Mario was hurt, he stepped up and became captain. Francis was a true stabilizing influence and great team guy.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I count myself lucky to be a Penguins fan. We’ve been blessed with not one, but four once-in-a-generation players (Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, and Malkin) over the span of two decades! And we’ve been treated to some of the finest hockey and most memorable plays (“the Goal” and “the Save”) ever witnessed. How very fortunate we are to root for such a great team!