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Joe Starkey

October 12, 2011

Joe Starkey, Tales From the Pittsburgh Penguins (August 12,  2011):

First, what made you decide to write on this subject and include the past as well as present team stories?

Well, my former colleague at the Trib, Mike Prisuta, gave me the opportunity and passed along the project from a publishing company in Chicago. Their whole theme was to do ‘greatest tales’ books on teams and players.

How were able to research those older Penguins teams to uncover the  stories as you did – who were you able to speak with and how much fun was it to connect with those older players?

It was incredibly fun.

I already had tons of numbers from covering the team, but Cindy Himes at the Penguins connected with me a lot more of the old-time players and people like Paul Steigerwald, Bob Grove and Tom McMillan — with their encyclopedic knowledge of team history — gave me tales to pursue and people to connect with.

How was the game different then – how has it changed, and has it  done so for the better, do you think?

So many things are different. I remember looking at one of the old photos and seeing the glass was only a few feet high. People could and would stand to reach over it.

No helmets, obviously, and less equipment, which actually prevented a lot of the gutless, idiotic plays you see nowadays. More equipment means more courage.

Also, as players will tell you, they protected each other back then. Of course, they also had bench-clearing brawls.

The biggest difference of all, as in any sport, is the size and speed and strength of players. Just no comparison. The size of goalie equipment, too, is a joke nowadays. You look at old-time goalies, they practically look naked in the net.

Their masks were much cooler then, too. I miss end to end rushes and slap shots off the rush. But overall, the game is better because of the skill and speed. Simply put, more players are good.

The Penguins came such a long way from sad sack team to contender – what happened organizationally to make this happen?

It started, of course, with Mario Lemieux, and Eddie Johnston’s willingness to go to great lengths to secure that pick (nice way of saying Penguins tanked it for top pick). EJ then would not be tempted by any trade offer for top pick.

Later came Paul Coffey, which was the kind of trade that made people say, wow, if the Penguins can get a guy like that, anything is possible. Then, of course, Craig Patrick came along and brought in Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman, and suddenly the Penguins had one of the most respected management teams in the game.

Who were a few of the more memorable characters on those older teams –what made them so – any examples?

Eddie Shack stands out. Just a complete nut. Commandeered the Zamboni for a few rides. Crazy end-to-end rushes captured fans’ imagination. Bryan “Buggsy” Watson took the team’s hotel shuttle for a ride one time, kicking the driver out of his seat, and Andy Brown was the last goalie to play without a mask.

What would surprise fans most about the early days and about the success the Penguins finally realized?

One thing that surprised me in researching was that George Steinbrenner almost became owner of the team at one point early on. That would have been interesting.

Also, the NHL at one point seized control of the franchise. There were financial issues from the get-go.

Oh, and by the way, there were financial issues with the company that published the book, too. It went bankrupt and folded!! How ironic is that? Is ironic the right word there? I don’t even know where the book can be found at the moment. Probably on Craig’s List or something, or at somebody’s garage sale.

If you could put a finger on it, what did those Penguins teams of old “do wrong” in their inability to win on the ice and win over fans?

Couldn’t beat the Islanders, for one thing.

You wonder how things might have been different if they hadn’t blown  the 3-0 lead in 75.

The constant trading of first-round draft picks was probably the biggest mistake. Eddie Johnston ended that habit, emphatically.

Besides the obvious players like Lemieux, Jagr….who were some of the more memorable players for you on these recent teams that didn’t share as much of  the limelight, and what made them so?

Hans Jonsson wore blue socks every day. Darius Kasparaitis was probably my favorite player to cover. Just a warrior and a naturally funny guy. Never forget him playing with a torn ACL. Also the way he hit people (like Lindros).

Brad Werenka was an interesting person. I remember him constantly reading on the team plane (he went on to become a lawyer). Jiri Slegr wearing literally pounds of jewelry around his neck. Kip Miller played the guitar fairly well. Robbie Brown was a great guy. I remember my first trip with the team being a bit uncomfortable walking onto the team bus — especially when I got the stare from Barrasso — because there were no seats up front. I wound up in the back, next to Brown, and he couldn’t have been nicer.

This offseason, the Penguins lost a couple of their “heart and soul” guys in Rupp and Talbot. How damaging are those losses to the locker room >>> > chemistry and to the team’s “grit”? Who replaces those personalities?

Always hard to tell how losing certain players will affect chemistry.

I don’t think much if Crosby and Malkin come back and play well! I think the chemistry was excellent before Rupp got here and will continue to be so. He contributed, for sure, but I wish he’d playedmore in Game 7 vs. Tampa.

Talbot’s contributions won’t be forgotten. But I think the team will be fine if its top-end talent comes through.No shortage of grit when you look at who could be on the third and fourth lines.

The Penguins have become one of the most community-oriented franchises in sports. Do you think this is in part to secure their place with a fan-base that  they had lost much of years ago (to the point of almost having to relocate)?

I just think they’re really good at reaching out in creative ways, like having Sid show up at somebody’s house with tickets. That kind of thing. They’re smart people. But I also think winning is the best fanattraction of all.

Any plans for a new book?

None at the moment, but I’m open to suggestions!

Any last thoughts for readers?

Should be a fascinating training camp, especially day 1. If No. 87 is cleared for contact and ready to go, I can imagine very good things for this team.


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