This was the game the fans had been waiting for and finally it had arrived. The Penguins and Flyers, the “Battle of Pennsylvania,” was finally going to be on the stage everyone wanted. Outside, under the lights, on a national stage in the NHL’s 2017 Stadium Series contest at Heinz Field.
Everything surrounding the game went off without a hitch, the atmosphere was lively, the fan experience was engaging, and the weather could not have been more perfect for the moment. The fans who had waited so long were finally getting the game they wanted and made the most of every moment.
However, the fans weren’t the only ones excited for the game. Earlier in the day I had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Coffey, Eric Lindros, Mike Rupp, and Kevin Weekes to discuss their careers, the league, the rivalry, and much more. Here’s what they had to say.
Paul Coffey and Eric Lindros
“For me this being interstate between two storied franchises, Philadelphia with the two early Cups and Pittsburgh with two in the 90’s and two in the millennium, makes it a great battle,” said Paul Coffey during an interview at Pittsburgh’s SoHo restaurant.
Coffey, a member of the NHL Hall of Fame and considered one of the best defenseman of all time, won four Stanley Cups during his 21 year career and played on both sides of the rivalry as a member of the Penguins from 1987 to 1992 and as member of the Flyers from 1996 to 1998.
“Playing in the 90’s and having to face a team with Ron Francis as a second line center was tough, those were good teams,” said Eric Lindros of playing the Pens during much of his time in Philadelphia.
Lindros, a member of the Hall of Fame in his own right, wore the orange and black for eight seasons and won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 1995. As captain of the Flyers, he led the franchise to the Stanley Cup Final in 1997 where they were defeated by the Red Wings.
“One of the best things I was proud of being a part of the Philadelphia side was when Mario came back from being sick and the ovation he got (in Philadelphia),” said Lindros. “Our fans aren’t always the easiest and for them to give the ovation that they did for as long as they did was great.”
“For me Philadelphia, especially as a visiting player, in the early days when the Spectrum was there was one of the most intimidating places to play,’ stated Coffey when I asked about the two fan bases. “That was the most rocking building going...it just an incredible place to play.”
Coffey was a member of the Penguins in 1989 when the team won in the Spectrum for the first time since 1974, going 0-39-3 in 42 previous games at the fabled arena.
Although playing in the Spectrum could be a daunting task, Lindros made it clear that playing in Pittsburgh was no cake walk itself.
After discussing the rivalry from the view point of two guys who took part in it, the discussion switched over to the game being played that night at Heinz Field.
“I think is great. It’s a great outing, it gives a chance to get a bunch of people together and especially with these two franchises with the interstate battle I think it’s a lot of fun,” said Coffey.
“Rivalries,” said Lindros. “That’s what this is all about. It’s so close that fans can drive in and it gives the teams a chance to test each other at their best.
The conversation then changed over to hockey today versus when Paul and Eric were at the height of their careers.
“For me the game is bigger, faster, and stronger,” said Coffey before Eric jumped it to compliment Paul’s career. “Paul is one of the most gifted and powerful skaters there ever was. If he could play today without the clutching and without the grabbing you would see something you have never seen in today’s game.”
“Growing up everybody wanted to be Bobby Orr,” said Coffey when I asked who he idolized growing up, “but I never I never wanted to be Bobby Orr because I thought no one could ever be like him. I was just a skater and tried to go out and play.”
“The game is way more structured now than it was before,” said Lindros. “You don’t have a freelancer anymore because of how the game is.
“Everybody wants that defenseman like (Erik) Karlsson but they won’t let him play. They all want the guy to play like that but they won’t let him,” said Coffey.
Both Coffey and Lindros stressed that they believe the game is suited for a freelance type player but due to lack of confidence by coaches we are not seeing that type of player in today’s game.
“There’s gotta be confidence in the goalie and you need to have confidence in the other guys on the ice,” said Lindros. “You can rotate as well. Just because your a forward doesn’t mean you just play forward you have to play defense as well. If a defender has a better look then let him take it.”
Wrapping up the interview I asked both guys what they expected from the game and both agreed that the fan experience was going to be great and with the intense rivalry aspect both guys were expecting an intense game to play out inside the stadium.
Mike Rupp and Kevin Weekes
“I think obviously this is an unique experience,” said Mike Rupp about the upcoming game during an interview at the NHL Network van. “A lot of guys on both sides have played in an outdoor game before so they know what’s coming.
Rupp is a former NHL player who spent two seasons in a Penguins uniform and was a member of the team when they hosted the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field. In his two seasons in Pittsburgh, Rupp scored 19 and 17 points respectively, the two best offensive seasons of his career. Rupp won a Stanley Cup in 2003 as a member of the New Jersey Devils and recorded the Stanley Cup winning goal in Game 7 against the Ducks.
“I’ve been in Rangers/Devils and Rangers/Islanders but this one if bigger I think,” said Rupp speaking to the intensity of the Penguins/Flyers rivalry. “I think this is currently the biggest rivalry in the NHL. The best thing for the Penguins recently is Philadelphia hasn’t been good and Columbus hasn’t been good because they drive the Penguins crazy. The Pens would rather see the Capitals in the playoffs.”
When asked if the issues with the Flyers and Blue Jackets was a mental thing for the Pens, Weekes said absolutely.
“I think it’s the style,” said Weekes. “I feel like the Jackets are a rough and tumble team, skilled but still rough, and I think the same thing for the Flyers and it agitates the Pens when they get that way.”
Weekes is a former NHL goaltender who is more than familiar with both the Penguins and Flyers having bounced around to several division rivals over the course of his 11 NHL seasons. Weekes has 105 career wins to his name and is now a lead hockey analyst on the NHL Network.
The conversation moved on to discussion about the two fan bases facing off later in the night and both Rupp and Weekes had plenty of career experience with each side.
Speaking on Pittsburgh, Weekes noted how Pittsburgh fans as a whole celebrate the success of all its teams.
“One thing for Pittsburgh is it’s titletown. The Steelers have won, the Penguins have won four titles and now they can say “this is us,” they’ve had a lot to celebrate with the Steelers are Pens and now they can say “this is how we roll” and they don’t have to play second fiddle to Philadelphia.”
Switching to Philadelphia, Weekes spoke to the intensity of the fan base but also the frustration that comes with it.
“In terms of Philly there is a lot of passion but also a lot of frustration that Pittsburgh doesn’t have right now. The Flyers’ fans want it so much but right now Pittsburgh is two up on them.”
“There is an expectancy from both fan bases,” said Rupp. “Even though the 70’s were a long time ago with the Broad Street Bullies they still want to win every game and they are extremely passionate. I never played for them but I would love to have a fan base like that.”
Pulling from his time in Pittsburgh, Rupp talked about Pittsburgh fans and how their level of expectation has changed over the years.
After discussing the fan bases I moved on to asking about the game later that night and as players what needed to be prepared for since this was a different environment then one inside a closed arena.
Having played in a few outdoor games himself, Mike Rupp was able to give first hand knowledge on what it takes to prepare for a game like this.
“There is different sounds and the depth perception is different but as far as going out and playing you need to simplify. You have to play a simple game and be calculated in the chances you’re going to take. It’s important to get a good start, get a lead, then just take care of the puck.”
Though he never had the opportunity to play in an outdoor game, Kevin Weekes has spoken to a lot of goalies who have and gave his take on what the goalies have to be ready for in an outdoor setting.
Before wrapping up I asked about Sidney Crosby and returning to Heinz Field where he suffered a concussion in 2011 that set off over a year’s worth of health problems for the Penguins’ captain.
“I don’t think he wants to think about it and once he gets out there it will just be hockey but I know he didn’t really want to talk about,” said Rupp who played in that 2011 game with Crosby.
Like Coffey and Lindros earlier, both Rupp and Weekes expected a passionate and intense game on the ice and a rowdy crowd in the stands as two of the best fan bases in hockey came together on a national stage to celebrate one of the best rivalries in hockey.