If you’re one of the lucky Pens faithful who has tickets to the 2010-11 season opener, chances are that you’ll spend your entire morning & afternoon of October 7 not even thinking about it.
You’ll head downtown early; pay some ridiculous amount to park in a garage and then hike three or four blocks to the Consol, reminding yourself not to walk up that Centre Ave. hill. You’ll wait for that choir of angels in your head to start harmonizing as you walk through the doors and head up the escalators, head on a swivel, taking in the new home. A quick stop by the concession stand to grab a beer and a kielbasa grinder or a tray of nachos, and then you’ll make your way down to your seats. As you settle in to watch warm-ups, you won’t be thinking about it.
After a minute or so, you’ll see it, skating circles in the visitors’ end.
Bill Guerin, there in that godforsaken white, orange and black. And maybe your heart sinks when you see it, just enough to take a noticeable amount of enjoyment out of the moment, maybe just enough to piss you off. Now you’ve got to root against the guy.
Granted, it’s not a done deal yet. As of this writing, Bill Guerin had only agreed to a tryout offer with the Philadelphia Flyers. There’s a chance that he doesn’t make the team, given his age and the way his game has slowed down. He may not be a great fit for Laviolette’s system.
But with players already in town and camp just a few days away, there couldn’t have been a more fitting capper to a surreal offseason. Yes, players come and go all the time. Yes, it’s a business and yes, you’re always supposed to root for the laundry. But there are some instances where it’s just tougher to see some guys go. It’s even tougher to see them come back with another team and you have to teach yourself to root against them.
Marty Straka was one of those guys. Darius Kasparaitis. Gary Roberts was one of those guys. Scuds. The USS Hal Gill.
Hockey is a game driven by players who are willing to play and embrace roles that often require them to put their egos in check. These are guys who may be just a couple of years removed from being among the most prolific goal scorers on their teams at some higher level of hockey. Now they find themselves playing 10-12 minutes a night, laying down to block a 95-mph slapshot from the point or blasting some opposing forward through the boards on a forecheck.
No team that wins a Cup does so without these types of players, players who are more effort than talent on most nights. It’s the failed prospect returned home, humbled by a free agent tryout that may be his last chance to stick. It’s the defenseman who put his own safety – and sometimes his own goalie’s sanity – on the line night after night to become one of the most intimidating open-ice hitters in the modern era. It’s the self-made player who redefined the concept of a shutdown defenseman.
The scoreboard didn’t always reflect it as often, but guys like Roberts, Sykora, Scuderi, Gill and Guerin became as much the fabric of these recent Pens teams for the fans as the marquee players did. Malkin’s backhand goal against Carolina is remembered just as fondly by Pens fans as Scuderi diving in front of the crease in Game Six of the Cup Finals to block a shot and preserve a chance at a Game Seven.
A year after Gary Roberts sent a message in Game One against Ottawa by abusing Wade Redden a minute in, Brooks Oprik delivered much of the same to Marian Hossa early on in the Cup Finals, lighting Hossa up at center ice. Watch Orpik’s play the last two postseasons; think he wasn’t taking notes from Roberts?
You can add Guerin to the list now.
Long past his prime, he was acquired for the equivalent of a bag of hockey pucks – a draft pick conditional on how far the Pens went in the playoffs in that spring of 2009. Talk about good return on your investment. He delivered immediately with 12 points in 17 regular season games. A guy who had never scored more than 11 points in a playoff year and carried a reputation as a postseason choker went on to score a career-high 15 points in 24 playoff games. His seven goals – one of which an overtime winner in the opening round series against the Flyers - proved instrumental to a playoff run that culminated in his second Stanley Cup.
Even moreso with Guerin were the images. From the day he arrived, he seemed to become the crazy uncle of the locker room. He played to the fans and the fans reciprocated. He brought his family along and they instantly fit right in. He was the first guy to whom Crosby handed the Cup. And in the locker room after Game Seven, Guerin joined Crosby mid-interview with Stan Savran, not saying a word, but just watching…this stupid, proud look on his face that said Crosby might as well have been Guerin’s own kid. These were followed the images of the celebrations - hanging out of the second-floor windows at Mario’s on the South Side, the speech at the parade, posing with the Cup in the beer store and, of course, the epic fist-bump leaning out of the SUV with the Cup.
You know all the reasons why some of these guys can’t stick around. It made perfect sense to not bring Guerin back – this is a team that needed to get younger and quicker. There was talk from people closer to the locker room that maybe some complacency crept in with this team last year. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. We wouldn’t know. But with so many older free agents on the way out and the young core finalized for the next three years with the Letang extension, it was perfect timing to hand the keys to that core for good.
But this isn’t so much about Guerin leaving. It’s about him potentially coming back as everything we’ve been taught and conditioned to hate. And the hate will still be there, as well it should in any sort of rivalry. Just maybe not quite so much when it comes to Guerin.
Godspeed, Uncle Billy, and thanks for the memories.
Just keep your head up.