On the occasion of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority formalizing their 10-year lease extension for the WBS Penguins, I felt it timely and noteworthy to take a look back at the first 20 years of WBS Penguins hockey and pick out 20 of my own personal favorite memories. This is by no means a comprehensive Top-20 listing of the greatest moments in team history; it’s merely a list of 20 of my own, favorite memories. Some games and moments will be obvious selections, some less so.
This post will contain the first 10 of those memories, with the second 10 coming shortly after.
January 15, 2001: John Slaney (2001 AHL All-Star Game: Canada 11, Planet USA 10)
Easily the best player on those early, early WBS teams was defender John Slaney. During WBS’s inaugural season in 1999-2000, Slaney led WBS in goals with 30 in just 49 games — still the record for tallies by a defender in a season and standing as the team record for goals in a season until Chris Minard broke it with 34 in 2008-09.
Slaney was on his way to another standout season in 2000-2001, scoring 12 goals and assisting on 38 others for 50 points in 40 games, when WBS fans got their first taste of the order of things on January 14, 2001. That was the day Slaney was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers by the Pittsburgh Penguins in order to reacquire forward Kevin Stevens.
Stevens would end up playing out the rest of the 2001 season, and then the 2001-2002 season, before retiring as an active player. Slaney would continue to play inside the Philadelphia organization through the 2006-07 season, winning two Eddie Shore awards as the outstanding defender in the AHL (2000-01, 2001-02), winning the Calder Cup with the Phantoms in 2005, and ending his AHL career as the all-time leader in goals (166), assists (353), and points (519). Slaney was inducted into the AHL’s Hall of Fame in 2014, and the WBS Penguins Hall of Fame on January 30, 2016. For the 2018-19 season, Slaney served as an assistant coach to the Tucson Roadrunners.
But for the All-Star Game held in Wilkes-Barre, Slaney made the choice to continue to wear a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton jersey and represent the Penguins franchise. For that choice, and in recognition of his time with the organization, the sellout crowd at the then-First Union Arena at Casey Plaza gave Slaney a one-minute standing ovation once Mike Emrick, master of ceremonies for the game, introduced him (6:00 minute mark).
It was a show of appreciation and support I had not seen for anyone before or since, and it was entirely deserved for the eventual MVP of the 2001 AHL All-Star Game.
February 24, 2001: Never, Ever Give Up (St. Johns Maple Leafs 7 @ WBS Penguins 7)
What? A random regular season tie in 2001 made my list of 20 memories over 20 years?
Yes, it did, because it taught me a lot of things about sports and life.
A lot of the little details of this game are lost to time, but what I do remember of this game is the St. Johns Maple Leafs leading 7-3 after two periods and a majority of the fans leaving. I stuck around, not willing to leave, because at the time I didn’t yet have season tickets, and any chance I got to go to the arena for hockey, I took. WBS ended up turning that 7-3 deficit back to a 7-7 tie after regulation, and the five minutes of overtime produced no other goals, so the game ended in a 7-7 draw.
But the determination of the Penguins to bring that game back to a 7-7 draw taught me at a very early time of my fandom to never give up on a game; that anything can happen once the clock starts ticking down...and usually does.
March 17, 2002: The St. Patricks Day Massacre (Syracuse Crunch 4 @ WBS 0)
No list of memories concerning the WBS Penguins would be complete if it omitted the most infamous game in our history: the St. Patricks Day Massacre.
Even though I’d like to forget it.
This game, an eventual 4-0 loss to Syracuse in the most forgettable of our seasons, gives us the team record for penalty minutes in a game (162) and the AHL record for most penalty minutes in a game by one player (64, Steve Parsons).
The longest sequence of fights is shown below, but for a more complete picture of the game, the WBS Penguins compiled this retrospective in 2017.
April 25, 2004: The Invasion (2004 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 1 Game 7: WBS 3 @ Bridgeport Sound Tigers 2 OT)
The WBS Penguins finished in third place in the then-East Division in 2003-04 with a 34-28-10-8 (W-L-T-OTL) record, giving them a Round 1 matchup against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Bridgeport controlled the opening of the series, winning three of the first four games. The Sound Tigers had a chance to close out the Penguins at home in Game 5, and like the the first two games of the series in Bridgeport, the game went to overtime. Unlike the first two games, the Sound Tigers could not get the deciding goal in overtime, as Tomas Surovy scored to give WBS a 2-1 victory and a Game 6 back home. The Penguins dominated Game 6 at the Mohegan Sun Arena, getting a 5-0 shutout to force a Game 7 back in Bridgeport.
In a scene not seen in WBS history, thousands of fans from NEPA made the three-hour drive to Bridgeport for Game 7 to severely outnumber the home Sound Tigers’ fans. For the fifth time in the series (setting the league record that has only been matched twice since), Game 7 would also go to overtime, culminating in one of several iconic images of WBS history to come out of the 2004 playoffs.
That’s speedster Konstantin Koltsov with his second goal of the game to finish off the Sound Tigers, completing only the 11th 3-1 comeback in league history to that time. It sent WBS through to Round 2, where the memories would only continue to build.
May 7, 2004: “The Goalie from Finland Who Got Finnished” (2004 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 2 Game 3: Philadelphia Phantoms 0 @ WBS 3)
Waiting for WBS in Round 2 were their bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Phantoms. WBS rode the momentum of its 3-1 comeback to a split of the first two games in Philadelphia, but the iconic image from this series comes from Game 3.
Having just wrapped up a tidy 3-0 shutout victory in Game 3, the rivals came together for some extracurricular fights, as often happened in that time between rivals. The noise in the arena reached a crescendo, as Philadelphia goaltender Antero Niittymaki approached the WBS net, occupied by current Pittsburgh goaltender development coach Andy Chiodo.
The Game 3 post-game fighting, intended to spark the Phantoms (I think), didn’t exactly work, as WBS again shutout the Phantoms in Game 4, 2-0. After dropping Game 5 in Philly 4-2 (a game I attended, and a loss that absolutely did not faze the visiting WBS fans at all, as several said, “We’ll get them at home” as we left the building that night), WBS won Game 6 3-1 to advance to the conference final.
May 29, 2004: The Tip (2004 Calder Cup Playoffs, Eastern Conference Finals Game 7: WBS 2 @ Hartford Wolf Pack 1 OT)
The conference final with Hartford followed an absurd bit of scheduling, as WBS (the lower seed) hosted the first two games, Hartford the next three, WBS the sixth, and Hartford the final game. WBS split the two home games to start, then took two of three from Hartford to bring the potential clinching Game 6 back to Mohegan Sun Arena, which they dropped 4-1.
Back in those days (and even today), television coverage for the WBS Penguins was spotty. Games were only carried by a channel on the old Adelphia cable system, which was only available in certain areas of the NEPA market. For Game 7, it was arranged for Adelphia cable to carry Game 7, with the video feed provided by the local Hartford television crew and the radio call of broadcaster Tom Grace and guest analyst Phil Bourque overlaid on top of it.
And so it was then that I found myself at a cousin’s house to watch the fateful Game 7, since my home cable provider was not Adelphia. For the ninth time in the 2004 playoffs, the game went to overtime, and for the second time in that year’s playoffs, the Penguins stole Game 7 on the road.
That’s defender Ryan Whitney throwing the puck on net, and AHL All-Star Matt Murley tipping it home just before he charged off the ice, winning the Eastern Conference for the Penguins for the first time and sending them to the Calder Cup Final for the second time (WBS had won the Western Conference in 2001 for their first visit).
By the time the playoffs were over, WBS would play 11 overtime games, setting an AHL record that still stands to this day.
June 6, 2004: The Trophy (2004 Calder Cup Finals Game 4: Milwaukee Admirals 7 @ WBS 2)
Having played 20 games, with nine of them going to overtime, the Penguins had virtually nothing left for the Calder Cup Final, and they got handily swept by the Milwaukee Admirals. I include the final game on my list of memories because that game marks the only time I have seen a league trophy presentation in person...and the first time my local hockey team would play on my birthday.
April 25, 2005: Living Nearly After Midnight (2005 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 1 Game 3: Binghamton Senators 2 @ WBS 3, 3 OT)
One year to the day after the WBS faithful invaded Bridgeport, WBS found itself back in the playoffs. This was the lockout season, leading to Pittsburgh stalwart Marc-Andre Fleury playing in his only full professional season for WBS, posting a 26-19-4 record with a 2.52 goals against average. Once in the playoffs, WBS lined up against the Binghamton Senators, loaded with Ottawa’s talent on the way to scoring a league-leading 276 goals in the regular season and taking a 2-0 lead after the first two games in Binghamton. Game 3 was contested on a Monday night, with an uncommon 7:30 p.m. local start. By the time it was over, at around 11:58 p.m. ET, WBS had played its longest game in history and finished it off in style thanks to a back-door tally by Colby Armstrong.
WBS would ride the momentum of that win to take the next three from the shell-shocked Senators 2-0 in Game 4 in WBS, 3-2 in Binghamton in Game 5, then 2-1 in WBS in Game 6 to advance.
May 13, 2005: The Collapse, Version 1 (2005 Calder Cup Playoffs, Round 2 Game 5: WBS 4 @ Philadelphia Phantoms 7)
Once again in Round 2, WBS ran into the Philadelphia Phantoms, bolstered by a stud duo of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who had been added to the Phantoms on amateur contracts for that year’s playoffs. The Phantoms ran roughshod in the first two games, winning by identical 4-1 scores in Philadelphia. WBS countered in Game 3 with a 3-1 win, but Philly stole Game 4 5-3 to return to the City of Brotherly Love with a chance to close out the series.
For about 45 minutes, WBS fans had visions of the prior season’s 3-1 comeback in its heads, as the Penguins build a 4-1 lead early in the third. But it all collapsed from there, as the Phantoms proceeded to score six goals in the final 12 minutes of the final frame to unceremoniously dump the Penguins from the playoffs on their way to the Calder Cup in 2005. The Phantoms that season won 11-straight home games, setting the AHL record that still stands. On the other hand, by general press consent, coach Michel Therrien was at his angriest and scariest, threatening the jobs of the Penguins in the offseason after their collapse.
December 15, 2005: The Coach’s Promotion, Version 1 (Michel Therrien Promoted to Pittsburgh After Franchise Record 21-1-2-1 Start)
On the occasion of Michel Therrien and Mike Yeo being hired as assistant coaches for the Philadelphia Flyers, it seems timely and relevant to look back at a piece of Therrien’s history. Therrien was the WBS Penguins coach during all six of the above memories spanning 2004 and 2005, joining the Penguins organization after just over three seasons behind the Montreal Canadiens bench.
Therrien’s WBS teams went a combined 94-46-10-17-8 (W-L-T-OTL-SOL) in his two seasons, including the very best start in franchise history with only one regulation loss in the first 26 games of the 2005-06 season, before Pittsburgh had seen enough of a floundering parent squad and promoted the WBS coach for the first of three times over the course of the first 20 years. The second coach to be promoted from WBS to Pittsburgh was, of course, Dan Bylsma, who went 35-16-1-2 in his 54 games behind the WBS bench in 2008-09 before being called to Pittsburgh to supercharge those Penguins to their third Stanley Cup.
The third coach...well, we’ll get to him in Part 2.