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Jim O’Brien: It ain’t over till it’s over

April 23, 2012

O’Brien: It ain’t over till it’s over

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

It was possible.  I did not give up hope for the Penguins after they lost the first three games in their best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers.

         If you have covered sports as long as I have, for more than 55 years, you have seen some strange things occur in sports.  You know the history.

         It was 37 years ago – on April 26, 1975 – that I witnessed one of the greatest comebacks in National Hockey League history when the New York Islanders beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 in the seventh game of the second round of the playoffs.

         The Islanders lost the first three games of that series, but they never quit competing.  The Islanders were in only their third season in the NHL and had never won a regular season game during that span against the Penguins at the Civic Arena.  They were 0-for-Pittsburgh before the series got underway.

         At the 14:42 mark in the third period, Eddie Westfall, the Islanders’ captain who had played for two Stanley Cup winners with the Boston Bruins, took a pass from defenseman Bert Marshall and scored on a high backhand shot past Penguins’ goalie Gary Inness. 

         I was covering the Islanders for The New York Post.  I was still a fan of all the Pittsburgh sports teams, and continued to root for them from afar, but I was happy that the Islanders won the series. It makes sense for you to root for the team where you live.

         That’s why I was pleased to read last week that Larry Fitzgerald, the former Pitt wide receiver who is the face of the Arizona Cardinals, told a Pittsburgh reporter that he’d be rooting for the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

         “I still root for the Pirates most of the time,” offered Fitzgerald, “but now I’m an Arizona guy.”

         The 1975 New York Islanders moved on to play the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round of the playoffs.  The Islanders lost the first three games of that series as well, and then, amazingly enough, came back to win the next three, forcing a seventh game again. 

         This time they lost the seventh game, but they remain the only team ever to be down three games to none to rally and force a seventh game twice.  Five years later, the Islanders got even with the Flyers by defeating them in the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to win the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups.

         I covered the Islanders in their first season – 1972-1973 – when they won only 12 games the entire season.  I believe I was the first sportswriter in New York to refer to the team as “the Islanders.”  The team had not yet announced its nickname when I suggested “Islanders” in a column in The New York Post.

         I had moved from Miami to New York in 1970 and bought a home on Long Island because I knew I was going to be covering the New York Nets of the American Basketball League.  I lived about five miles from the Nassau Coliseum and would cover both the Nets and the Islanders there.

         I was also five miles from the only 24-hour Western Union office on Long Island and that was critical.  I had to drive there late at night too many evenings to have them transmit my copy to the Manhattan office of The New York Post.

         Bill Torrey was the general manager of the Islanders and was responsible for putting the team together that would eventually win four consecutive Stanley Cups.  I knew him from his days as “Bowtie Billy” when he headed the Hornets’ organization in Pittsburgh.

         Even after he left Pittsburgh, Torrey continued to book the Harlem Globetrotters for an annual holiday season game at the Civic Arena.   The Globetrotters still come to Pittsburgh every Christmas.

         I became friends with Bert Marshall who, at 31, fed the puck to Westfall for that game-winner in the seventh game in Pittsburgh.  Marshall had played for the Pittsburgh Hornets in the American Hockey League.  He had lived upstairs of the Pleasure Bar in Bloomfield for a brief spell when he first joined the Hornets.

         I knew Spotty LeDonne, a huge fan of the Hornets, who had found Marshall and so many of the Hornets a place to stay when they first came to Pittsburgh. The players didn’t make much money in those days, and often slept in spare rooms at the homes of hockey fans. I played tennis with Marshall and several of the Penguins at a tennis club near my home on Long Island.

         Gerry Hart, Bob Nystrom, Garry Howatt, Lorne Henning were some of the Penguins who liked to play tennis with us at the Baldwin (N.Y.) Tennis Club.  My best friend, attorney Bill Hodges, himself a season ticket holder of the Islanders, often joined us on the courts.

         The teams the Penguins play are always viewed as the enemy, and fans at the Civic Arena and now the Consol Energy Center like to boo them.  They say they hate this guy and that guy.

         All I can tell you is that the Islanders that beat the Penguins in that 1975 series were some of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.

         The same can be said, of course, for Sidney Crosby and I hate to hear fans on the road booing him and questioning his courage.  I didn’t care for fans booing Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe and great players like that when they skated at the Civic Arena.  Only someone with a short memory would boo Jaromir Jagr.

         (By the way, how come the Penguins never dumped Jagr or slammed Max Talbot into the boards in any of the six games?  Maybe I missed that…) 

         I have covered teams in every major sport and hockey players were always among my favorites. They were down-to-earth guys and pleasant company for the most part.

         The Islanders and the Nets both conducted free clinics for the kids in my neighborhood on Saturday afternoons in the cul-de-sac where I lived.  It was a different era.

         The Islanders weren’t even supposed to get as far as the second round of the playoffs in 1975.  They started off with a best-of-three series against the rival New York Rangers who were heavily favored to win.  The Islanders won the third and decisive game at Madison Square Garden in what Torrey said was “the most important victory” in the team’s three-year history.

         After the Islanders lost the first three games to Pittsburgh, Coach Al Arbour benched goalie Billy Smith in favor of Glenn “Chico” Resch.  Resch was a delightful guy, much easier to deal with than the somber Smith, and he said he had a lot of help from the goal posts to prevent the Penguins from scoring too many goals.  For the record, Smith is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

         I don’t understand why fans in all sports leave the building or the ballpark early whenever their team is trailing.  Are they only fans as long as their team wins the game?

         I covered the New York Mets when Yogi Berra became the manager and it was Berra who is supposed to have said “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

         When I talked to Eddie Johnston, the former coach and general manager of the Penguins, after the Penguins had lost the first three games to the Flyers in this year’s playoff, he said, “You gotta win four!”  Johnston was still hopeful the Penguins could pull it off.

         Fans in Philadelphia booed and left the building midway through the third period in the fourth game that the Penguins won by 10-3.  They gave a Bronx cheer whenever one of their goalies brushed aside a slow floater in front of the net.  Hey, how often are you going to see 13 goals scored in a game?

         I want to see how my team is going to handle adversity.  I want to see if they keep trying, or if they simply quit? 

         I have always said that you never know what you are going to see when you attend a sports event, or watch one on television.

         You might see something you have never seen before.

         This past weekend provided perfect examples of what I mean.

         I saw Phil Humber, a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, face the final three batters from the Seattle Mariners to complete a perfect game on Saturday.  It was the first no-hitter of this season. Humber had undergone Tommy John surgery – shoulder surgery – seven years earlier and bounced around the major leagues most of his career.  He didn’t become a full-time starter until last season.

         I had been watching the Yankees against the Red Sox when coverage shifted to Seattle for the bottom of the ninth inning.

         The Red Sox were ahead 9-0 when coverage shifted to Seattle.  When the coverage returned to Boston the Red Sox were ahead by 9-5.  The Yankees scored seven runs in both the sixth and seventh innings and won the game 15-9.

         I have never witnessed a baseball game in my life that turned around like this one.  I never saw a game in which a team scored seven runs in each of consecutive innings.  Some guys batted three times in the same inning.

         It was the fifth straight loss for the Red Sox.  I have never cared for Bobby Valentine, the new manager of the Red Sox, so I was glad to see his team lose.  I thought the Red Sox made a big mistake when they fired Terry Francona at the end of last season.

         I love to watch games when the Red Sox and Yankees are playing each other. I have a good friend, Rich Corson, who loves baseball, but he only watches National League games.  I don’t understand that.  It doesn’t get any better in baseball than the Yankees against the Red Sox, especially at Fenway Park.

         The Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi was interviewed during the game, when his team trailed by 9-0 and he was asked how he’d feel if he was managing the team that was ahead 9-0.

         He said that he knew that strange things have happened at Fenway Park, and with that Green Monster wall in short left field, runs could be scored in a hurry.  He was right about that.

         On Sunday I watched an NBA game featuring Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder taking on Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staple Center in Los Angeles.

         The Thunder led by as many as 17 points and seemed to have the game in the bag when Bryant led a comeback.  The Lakers won the game in double overtime.  This was a game that was truly not over until it was over.

          Now I have to find another team to root for in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and a team to root for in the NBA playoffs.

          Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien has a series of “Pittsburgh Proud” books available at his website  He can be found on Facebook.

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