Over the course of their storied 50-year-history, the Penguins have iced all sorts of hockey teams. From the sublime to the hapless…and worse.
They’ve literally come in all shapes and sizes. Different colors, too. Until January 1980, the team sported Columbia blue, navy blue and white.
Thus, I decided to break with the present and write about my favorite Penguins team. No, it’s not one of the Stanley Cup winners, although they rank high on my list. Nor is it the 2007-08 crew that made it to the Finals, only to fall to Detroit. Or the hallowed ’92-93 juggernaut, still regarded by many as the finest in franchise history.
My favorite Penguins team? The provocative, yet ultimately star-crossed 1974-75 squad. Given that it finished third in the old Norris Division with a comparatively modest 89 points, you might ask why.
I’ll gladly tell you.
First, a little background. The Pens waddled through their first six years of existence much like their South Pole namesake. They’d made the playoffs twice, narrowly missed twice and finished well out of range on two other occasions. Hardly a harbinger of their present lofty status among the NHL’s elite.
By the 1973-74 season, the club had already burned through two ownership groups. Three if you count the league, which took over operation of the flightless waterfowl during the 1970-71 campaign.
Sellouts at the old Civic Arena, or “Igloo” as it was known? Rare as Morgan silver dollars.
On the ice, a moderately talented group had nosedived to the bottom of the West Division standings, ahead of only the truly awful (and soon-to-be extinct) California Golden Seals.
Alarmed by his team’s fading fortunes—on the ice and at the gate—owner Tad Potter axed long-time general manager Jack Riley in January of 1974 and promoted his assistant, Jack Button.
Button moved boldly. During his first week on the job he gave the team a massive overhaul, swapping mainstays Greg Polis, Bryan “Bugsy” Watson and goalie Jim Rutherford (our present GM) for tough guys Steve Durbano, Bob “Battleship” Kelly and giant defenseman Ron Stackhouse. A short time later he replaced mild-mannered coach Ken Schinkel with fiery Marc Boileau.
Sporting a brand-new attitude, the team finished a respectable 14-10-4 over the final two months of the season.
Button continued to wheel and deal. Given the green light by Potter and his Penguins Partners to improve the team and spare no expense, he acquired pricey former 50-goal man Vic Hadfield from the Rangers and young sniper Rick Kehoe from Toronto during the summer. At the Amateur Draft he struck gold, landing preternatural 18-year-old Pierre Larouche with the eighth overall pick.
A year younger than “Lucky Pierre” and hungry to cheer for a winner, I couldn’t wait for the start of the season.
For once, the Penguins didn’t disappoint.
Dashing and electric, the team boasted nine 20 goal-scorers. It racked up six goals or more 20 times, including an astounding 12-goal eruption against the expansion Washington Capitals on March 15.
Dubbed the Century Line for its near triple-digit goal production—the first line featured all-time Penguin greats Syl Apps, Lowell MacDonald and Jean Pronovost. Early practitioners of the swirling European style, the trio tallied 94 goals—including a team-high 43 by Pronovost.
The second line of Hadfield, Kehoe and veteran center Ron Schock was nearly as deadly, striking 86 times.
Talk about depth. The third unit, with the cocky, precocious Larouche centering for Kelly and hot shot Chuck Arnason, lit the lamp 84 times. Thirty-one by Pierre.
Between the pipes, second-year goalie Gary Inness emerged as a pleasant surprise. The defense featured Stackhouse, who shattered club scoring records for rearguards with 15 goals and 60 points, and stay-at-home All-Star Dave Burrows. Veterans Bob Paradise and Barry Wilkins enjoyed career seasons while providing steadiness and toughness.
They were bolstered by a pair of aggressive rookies. Colin Campbell, a feisty fireplug, led the team in penalty minutes and won many a battle by flipping larger opponents onto their back. Granite tough Dennis Owchar, master of the shoulder check, was one of the hardest hitters in franchise history. I still recall sticks and gloves flying from the force of his hits.
Ah, the memories.
The tingle I’d feel when organist Vince Lascheid piped out Anchors Aweigh, alerting friend and foe to the fearsome presence of Kelly, the top fighter of his day. Stackhouse collecting a record-tying six assists to fuel an 8-2 rout of the hated Flyers.
Save the Pens. Win A Date with Pierre. Let’s go Pron-o-vost.
Campbell streaking in on a breakaway and beating St. Louis goalie Eddie Johnston (yes, our beloved EJ) to propel us into the second round of the playoffs. Going up three-love against the Islanders.
Then it all fell apart. Foiled by obscure Isles goalie Glenn “Chico” Resch and the goalposts, an offensive dynamo suddenly couldn’t buy a goal. We lost four straight, including a 1-0 heartbreaker in Game 7.
I was crestfallen. But there was always next year.
Who knew Potter and his associates were teetering on the financial edge?
With sledgehammer force, the blows fell swift and sure. The IRS padlocked the team’s office. Equibank sued for unpaid loans. Reeling from the fiscal one-two punch and loss of anticipated revenues, the Pens entered into receivership. Effectively declaring bankruptcy.
A team filled with promise…halted in its tracks.
Al Savill rescued the Pens a month later. For that we owe him and fellow investors Otto Frenzel and Wren Blair a deep debt of gratitude. But the long decline had begun.
Blair replaced Button at the helm and slashed the farm system to trim costs, severing the lifeline to the future. Younger players were dealt for veterans.
The club seemed to age overnight.
It took years—and a brilliant young talent named Mario—for the Pens to fully recover.