The mid-1990s were a golden era in Pittsburgh Penguins hockey. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr were in their prime, the team had earned two Stanley Cups, and the triangle Penguins jersey was shiny and new. Many players came and went during those years, but one that is often overlooked is Rusty Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald had an impressive collegiate career and, given time, his NHL career would have been just as impressive. However, a persistent knee injury and subsequent early retirement put a question mark on what his professional career could have yielded. Let’s fire up the time machine and take a look back at his short, but well-traveled career.
Fitzgerald was born on October 4, 1972, and was part of the 1991 NHL draft class. Pittsburgh selected the center at 38th overall in the second round. After being drafted by the Penguins, Fitzgerald continued his development on the University of Minnesota-Duluth roster from 1991 through 1995. While on their roster, he averaged over 34 games per season. In his sophomore year, Fitzgerald recorded 24 goals and 23 assists for a collegiate high of 47 points. The following year, he earned 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists), and he scored a total of 60 goals throughout his college career. This consistent point production earned him a call-up to the Penguins in the 1994-95 season.
However, he struggled to produce at the same level once in the NHL. He only suited up for four games in the 1994-95 season and scored only one goal. His plus/minus rating was marginally better at +2, proving that he was still creating opportunities on the ice, despite the lack of follow-through. Despite the lack of results, the Penguins added him to their roster for five games of the 1994-95 playoffs. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald failed to record a point, logged four penalty minutes, and had a -1 rating by the end of the playoffs.
After his college career ended at the conclusion of the 1994-95 season, Fitzgerald signed with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL. (Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of the team; the IHL folded in 2001 due to financial woes and the AHL replaced them as the affiliate league for the NHL.) After his abysmal production with the Penguins, Fitzgerald fared much better with the Lumberjacks. In the 1995-96 season, he earned 36 points through 17 goals and 19 assists and a career-high of 90 penalty minutes.
Fitzgerald was known to drop the gloves on the ice, and his PIM totals remained high throughout the rest of his career. On December 15, 1995, he took Myles O’Connor of the Houston Aeros for a spin:
Fitzgerald played one more season with the Penguins from 1995-96. Through 21 games, he recorded just one goal and two assists. His plus/minus was close to a personal record at +7. However, Fitzgerald sustained a knee injury during training camp in October 1996 and missed the entirety of the 1996-97 season. He was absent for most of the 1997-98 season as well, and only recorded only eight points upon his return to the Cleveland Lumberjacks at the end of the schedule.
Fitzgerald signed with the Quad City Mallards of the UHL (another minor league subsumed in the rise of the AHL) for the 1998-99 season. Fitzgerald recorded career highs in assists (25) and points (54) that season. He averaged just over 1.01 points per game and finished the season with a career-high +12 rating.
After two seasons with Quad City, Fitzgerald signed with the Manitoba Moose of the IHL for two seasons. In 2001, he was the recipient of the John Cullen Award, awarded to the player “deemed to have been a key contributor to his team, while overcoming injury, illness, or other personal setbacks.” Knee trouble had continued to plague Fitzgerald through his career, but he refused to let the lingering injury affect his work ethic, and his drive was recognized with the John Cullen Award (previously known as the Comeback Player of the Year Award). He played in a record 77 games for Manitoba in the 2000-01 season and produced 30 goals.
After that, Fitzgerald took his talents abroad and played with the Iserlohn Roosters (2001-02) and the Frankfurt Lions (2002-03). However, his numbers began to decline in 2001, and he officially retired from professional hockey at the end of the 2002-03 season.
While Rusty Fitzgerald’s career was cut short by a lingering injury, his production on the ice was consistently impressive (despite the injury-induced dips). Had he been able to transfer his minor-league production to the NHL, he most likely would have earned a permanent spot on the Penguins’ roster. It takes a village to make a successful hockey team, and even a player such as Fitzgerald, who recorded minimal points, proved useful during his short call-ups to the Penguins. His impressive numbers at the collegiate and minor-league level will always leave fans wondering just what his NHL career would have looked like had it not been plagued by injuries.