While the 2019-20 NHL season remains on hold am going to spend my Tuesday’s sharing random stories or pieces of hockey memorabilia that I own. This is story time with Gretz.
Was never much of an autograph collector growing up because I was never really in a position to actually collect autographs. Despite that, there is still one piece of hockey merchandise from my teenage years that is hanging in my basement bar that has several of autographs on it.
Very random autographs.
From nearly an entire Pittsburgh Penguins roster. It just so happens to be one of the worst rosters in the history of the franchise — the 2001-02 Pittsburgh Penguins.
This was the first of the Penguins’ rebuilding years in the pre-Sidney Crosby era. This was the season after Jaromir Jagr was traded, the year before Robert Lang left in free agency, and two years before Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka were eventually traded. It would mark the end of the team’s decade-plus run of playoff appearances and kick off the all-out rebuild.
Outside of the top five or six players on the roster, this was a team made up almost entirely of random players that you may have forgotten.
They are not forgotten here.
Or on this jersey.
Where did I gather all of these?
Well, the 2001-02 season was my senior year of high school, and while I was not a particularly big autograph seeker I had two friends (one of them being the aforementioned Corey from the Mario Lemieux face-off goal post) that were.
We would student rush games. My mom, who worked for National City bank at the time, would get us discounted tickets. It was probably the season that I went to my most games ever until I became a sports writer and started going to all of them. It did not matter that the team stunk and was just beginning to rebuild. It was fun.
After the games they would know exactly where to hang out to meet players, and they almost always signed stuff. So after every game we would sit there, probably for more than an hour at a time, while they collected autographs.
Finally, I decided I was going to get something signed, too. My jersey. I think Andrew Ference, then a second-year player that was coming off of a promising rookie playoff run the year before, was the first player to sign his name on it.
The most prominent signatures on there: Alexei Kovalev (very bottom signature), Jan Hrdina, and Johan Hedberg.
I recall Kovalev being the coolest player out of them all. He just looked like an NHL superstar, then after signing things for at least 20 minutes, hopped into the most expensive looking car I had ever seen and sped off.
Hedberg was by far the nicest and friendliest player and just seemed genuinely enthusiastic that people wanted to talk to him.
Then the random names started to flow.
— Ville Nieminen, a very easy signature to identify in the top left corner of the yellow section. He had been acquired that season from the Colorado Avalanche for Darius Kasparaitis.
— Rick Berry, perhaps the greatest example of a “remember that guy?” player in Penguins history, was also acquired in that trade and his signature is also on there.
— The signatures of Jeff Toms, Shean Donovan, and Toby Petersen are on there. As are defensemen Hans Jonnson and Michal Roszival.
— I think my favorite story from this jersey might be Randy Robitaille.
He actually put up respectable numbers in this season with the Penguins (30 points in 40 games in the early 2000s NHL was no joke offensively) and he was one of the last players out of the building one night. There were still a few random people hanging around and he was happy to sign for us.
As he was signing something for the guy next to us, the guy just blurted out loud “HEY ARE YOU RELATED TO LUC?!”
Robitaille stopped mid signature, stared daggers through the guy, and just sternly said “No,” as he probably did every single time he was asked that question. The fire in his voice was chilling. Also kind of hilarious.
— Ian Moran’s Nsync frosted tips were quite a sight to behold up close and in person.
— The biggest names on this team that did not sign it include Mario Lemieux, Aleksey Morozov, Lang, and Straka. Tough break on those.
There are definitely some interesting names on here instead. This is probably the only jersey in existence that has this combination of signatures.