There are two numbers in Mellon Arena that stand out about the crowd, be it in the rafters or along the upper levels:
The first one hardly requires an explanation, but the second is a unique story that surrounds the franchise and stands as a symbol of a team's loyalty to its players.
Today we'll look at the story of the former Pittsburgh Penguin Michael Briere.
Michael Briere's career in Pittsburgh can easily be categorized into the "what could have been" collection of sports stories that end in injury or tragedy. He played only one season with the Penguins from 1969-70, but expressed so much devotion to the team's management that some believed he'd lock up with Steel Town for the remainder of his career.
Briere was drafted in the third round by the Penguins in the 1969 draft. But given the minimal amount of teams in the league at the time, his third round pick actual nominates him for 26th overall.
Even more flattering than the fact Pitt landed him in the third round was the comparisons to legendary players such as Bobby Clarke and Phil Esposito. Briere was also a huge component in the Penguins' first ever playoff series victory over the now defunct Oakland Seals.
My personal recollection of this particular playoff run, as I was not even born yet to recall it first-hand, is marked by a book titled "Gary Unger and the Battling Blues." It's a story about the St. Louis Blues, but as is the case with any hockey book I read, I always look for a tie to Pitt. In this case, St. Louis and Gary Unger eliminated the Penguins in the Conference Finals and left the team short by just two wins from would have been their first ever Finals appearance.
In either case, Briere was named Rookie of the Year for the Penguins that season; the season that ultimately proved to be his first and last.
During the offseason, Briere was driving through Quebec and lost control of the car. He was ejected from the Cougar and sustained head injuries that would later give him a 50-50 chance of survival and no doubt end his hockey career. After spending 11 months in a coma, Briere passed away on April 13, 1971 at the age of 21.
Maybe it was irony that tied his age to the number on the back of his jersey. At least some would prefer to dismiss the notion of it being oddly prophetic. Whatever the case may be, no one on the Pittsburgh squad wore the number again. From 1971 all the way up until the number's retirement in 2001, Briere remained the only player the wear the number.
Perhaps a guy like Briere would have made himself a legacy in the confines of Civic Arena/Mellon. There's a good chance that Lemieux would've played alongside Briere during his rookie year in 1984, which would have been the tail end of what had the potential of being a legendary career for Briere.
Briere's story is a prime example of the tragedy that can sometimes find its unwelcome place in sports. Now when you glance towards the rafters, you'll know there's just as much a story behind number 21 as there is 66.