I saw this idea on St. Louis Gametime and liked it, so I’m going to blatantly rip it off in the name of #content in these uncertain times. It’s a fun concept that I think everyone can relate to and has a story about, so that makes for some entertaining fodder.
The question is: which random Pittsburgh Penguin player are you fond of? The Pens have been blessed to have a litany of hall of famers and electric talent over the past 35 years from Lemieux to Coffey to Francis and Jagr and now Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and all the rest. Everyone thinks Marty Straka is cool (and he is). We were all tantalized by the skill of Alexei Kovalev or Jake Guentzel, we all know those fan favorites have their own little niche in the lore of franchise history.
But let’s go down a layer into the more obscure. Which player did (or do) you like that still brings back pleasant memories. From today’s team, I’d say Teddy Blueger would be a great answer as the type of under-the-radar fun player to watch and enjoy that fits the bill of what the spirit of this means.
For a lot of these answers, I think it will be a time capsule and flash back to a point of one’s youth or impressionable period as a hockey fan to carry forward some warm feelings towards a player that might just be a blank space or even a somewhat unknown player to another fan. Which, it’s always fun as to which players tend to latch on with a fanbase, especially after all these years.
That’s certainly what happened to me, because the first name that came to mind was Jiri Slegr.
Slegr came to the Penguins in 1997 in a trade from Edmonton for a third round pick after spending the 1996-97 season in Europe. This was really the peak “Prague West” time for the Pens, when their team was littered with tons of Czech players, not so coincidentally due to the pull and desires of superstar Jaromir Jagr. This was when Mario Lemieux had stepped away from the game and Pittsburgh was full on morphing into the image of their newest best player in the game.
Since seemingly time immemorial the Pens always lacked defensive depth. Sure the team had stints of top line players like Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy and Ulf Samuelsson, but beyond those high-end defenders it always felt like their second and third pair defensemen were always anonymous and not all that great players that kept churning through. This was always in sharp contrast to a Pittsburgh team that at least from the 1990’s on was just stacked with elite forward skill that was always pretty deep with strong players beyond the Lemieux/Jagr lines.
Continuing with the trend, the Pens had Darius Kasparaitis and Ian Moran, who were serviceable enough at the top of the lineup, but then almost nothing else of value. So to get Slegr was awesome. He could skate and move the puck well. He had a good shot and scored 11 goals with the Pens in 1999-2000. Other than Kevin Hatcher and the one season of Sergei Zubov, the Pens almost never got a defenseman in double-digit goals from 1994-2000.
And style-wise, Slegr just oozed coolness. He had an omnipresent black turtleneck with the requisite gold chain bouncing around as he buzzed around the ice. He drove fast cars off the ice*. He wore a distinctive number (#71), which would be co-opted to another legend soon enough. But that was still in an era where very few players wore “non-traditional” type of numbers, and the ones who did were often standing out as being a bit more bold and stylish than just the average player of the day.
*There’s great stories of lore, from some Penguins and the Steelers players that when you go to Pittsburgh, you want to drive a truck or an SUV. With the Western PA grit and being known still a blue collar city to want to fit in. Also, for practicality to get around in the gray, slushy, snow and cold winter months it’s just a good idea to have a reliable form of 4x4 transportation. (Troy Polamalu included this mindset as part of his recent facebook message to Pittsburgh fans). Those European Pens’ of this “Prague West” era sure did fly by their own rules though, with several flashy, expensive and sometimes exotic sports cars, as anyone who ever saw the parking lots in Southpointe or the Mellon Arena could attest to!
Within hockey, the Czechs were at their peak at this time, culminating with their shocking upset of the Canadians in the semifinals of the 1998 Nagano Olympics — the first time NHL talent had returned to Olympic competition. The Czechs would go onto win the gold, and the Pittsburgh flair was all over it with six gold medal winning Czechs who would go onto play for the Pens at some point (Josef Beranek, Jagr, Frantisek Kucera, Robert Lang, Slegr and Straka), as well as future Pens’ coach Ivan Hlinka. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and Slegr was a part of that as well.
And all that Olympic level tealent says nothing of young players the team was developing like Josef Melichar, Michal Rozsival, Jan Hrdina and eventually Milan Kraft.
Unfortunately though for Slegr, with the development of defensemen like Melichar, Rozsival, Andrew Ference and additions of other defensemen like Hans Jonsson, Janne Laukkanen and Marc Bergevin to go along with Kasparaitis and Moran, the team eventually outgrew Slegr and traded him away before the really special and fun playoff run in 2001. It was always a bummer to me that Slegr (and Matthew Barnaby!) didn’t get to participate in that magical spring, just as almost a decade later players like Colby Armstrong, Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney and Gary Roberts weren’t still with the Pens when they actually won the Cup in ‘09.
Slegr would bounce around the league a bit, eventually winning the Stanley Cup in 2002 as a bit player with the Detroit Red Wings (where he got his name on the Cup, since his lone playoff game was in the SC Final). Throw in a World Championship in 2005 and Slegr is part of a very special piece of hockey royalty as one of just 29 players who are “Triple Gold” by winning the three top legs in hockey of a Cup, an Olympic gold and a World Championship. Only one other Czech (Jagr) is in that club. Only two other Pens (Jagr and Sidney Crosby, who is the only player to captain all three legs, but I digress) are in there, along with Slegr. That’s keeping good company!
Like so many others, Slegr would continue to play professionally at home in the Czech Republic up until the 2014-15 season at the ripe age of 43 (Jagr isn’t the only ironman!)
But for me, it’s always the Penguin version who could skate well, shoot the puck and carry himself with that certain extra flair. Jiri Slegr, one of my favorite random Penguins over the years.
What is yours?