Pens/Wings: Faces of a rivalry

Let’s tank the season and get the No. 1 draft pick.

That’s a cockamamie plan, right? You’ll hear it every year among delusional fans – never Red Wings fans, because we think logically and never have to worry about finishing dead friggin’ last – but you’ll hear it everywhere in the circle of sports. Los Angeles Clippers fans. Indianapolis Colts fans. Cleveland Cavaliers fans. The list goes on.

Let’s tank the season and get the No. 1 draft pick.

It’s a crazy theory, really. I mean … who wants to lose? And who would go through with such a ridiculous idea? Gutless people, heartless people, cheaters. That’s who.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s who.

Oh, yes, those losers in black and gold started the asinine plan in 1983-84, I kid you not. They’re the proud owners of gutless, heartless, spineless cheating. The Penguins, who were stuck in financial trouble (go figure), developed a mid-season plan to draft up-and-coming superstar Mario Lemieux.

Let’s tank the season and get the No. 1 pick. Lou Angotti, the Pittsburgh coach at the time, admitted to such a plan to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In fact, during a 1984 game against the New York Rangers, with the Penguins leading 3-1, Angotti sat in his office during the first intermission.

Then, someone came barreling through the office, his boss, GM Eddie Johnston.

“What are you doing?” Johnston asked Angotti, according to the Post-Gazette.

The Penguins promptly relinquished five goals and lost 6-3.

History was made. I hope Angotti’s office had a camera, that way the NHL can run another one of those back-in-time commercials. Are you feelin’ me? Just imagine: The No. 66 comes off the boyish-faced Lemieux at the NHL Entry Draft, Johnston backpedals out of Angotti’s office, Angotti backpedals from his office chair, and the Penguins backpedal out of the locker room and onto the ice as the tag-line reads, “What if they had integrity?”

What if. That’s all it is now. What if. Because what those ’83-84 Penguins really did was channel their inner Pete Rose and skew the landscape of the NHL. And for that reason – and many other reasons – I hate the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If there’s no Mario Lemieux, there’s no overshadowing Steve Yzerman, no Penguins Cups, too many losing seasons, a quicker relocation to another city, no Mario Lemieux to save the franchise from dissolving, no Sidney Crosby, no Evgeni Malkin, and, no 2009 Game 7 heartbreak1 for Wings fans.

Hey, this is deep-seeded hatred. We don’t like each other. We’ll tell you Wings fans are the good guys, Penguins fans are the bad guys, because only Penguins fans would torment their toddler into tears2. We don’t agree about anything. Well, there’s one thing we can agree upon: We both hate Marian Hossa3. But that’s as nice as it gets. The rest? Pure hatred. With that, let’s establish a couple ground rules.

Scotty Bowman won one Cup in Pittsburgh, three in Detroit. He is ours.

We won’t rip Lemieux if you won’t rip Yzerman. Cool? Cool.

You’ll always be indebted to us. Here’s why: For years, the Red Wings owned the rights to the AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets. Then came the NHL expansion wave of 1967 and Red Wings owner Bruce Norris voted “yay” to approve of a new franchise: The Pittsburgh Penguins. Thus, the Hornets ceased operations and the Penguins were born as an NHL expansion team. So to summarize: We owned you before the expansion wave, then voted you into the NHL.

Basically, you’ve been our bitch all along.

That’s harsh, but I don’t care. I mean, how do you expect us to like Pittsburgh? Evgeni Malkin4 should’ve been suspended for Game 3 of the 2009 Cup Finals, but instead he was an instrumental factor in Game 3 and rolled to a Conn Smythe. And how do you expect me to like Cindy? Whoops, I mean, Sidney, who failed to properly acknowledge the traditional series-ending handshake in that ugly Penguins 2009 Cup-stealing victory. That’s just primadonna stuff.

But this rivalry is deeper than Malkin, Crosby5, Bowman bragging rights, and our owning rights over Pittsburgh fans.


Ron Francis and the Penguins were akin to the hot chick and her tool boyfriend, while the Wings fan was the book-carrying dweeb. The Wings fan – low on self-esteem – was envious as the couple collectively basked in popularity and sipped wine coolers from the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, all while snickering at the Wings’ sorry exits to St. Louis6 (first round, ’91) and Chicago7 (second-round, ’92).

Then things changed.

Francis and the Penguins blew a 3-2 series lead in the conference finals to the Florida Panthers in ’96, then suffered first-round exits in both 1997 and 1998. It was like the chick falling out of shape, unattractive, bitter, then miserable as her boyfriend descended from jock to janitor to jailer. Meanwhile, the Wings fan became lean and mean with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1995. The 62-win season in 1996 was like dating 62 hot chicks from October through April. And then the 1997 Stanley Cup was like marrying Miss Universe, the 1998 Cup like having beautiful twin girls. Years of pain gone. Nothing but happiness.

But it wouldn’t end there.

No, because here came Francis, making a trip to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals. It was like the Wings fan seeing the model-turned-unattractive-turned-cougar chick at his 20-year high school reunion. After all these years of pushing her out of his memory, building his confidence and forgetting the painful past, there she was, just a few feet away, threatening his Cup-winning manhood.

Francis’s overtime-winning goal in Game 1 was like her approaching him, snickering again, then starting to walk away with that you’re-still-a-loser look.

But this was different, dammit. The Wings fan responded by ripping her with insults, from her plastic chest (Game 2 victory), to the jailed ex- boyfriend (Game 3 triple-overtime classic win8), to the her face caked in 700 layers of makeup (Game 4 Wings shutout victory in Carolina). She responds with nothing, and tries to mouth words, but nothing comes about (Francis posting a measly assist and minus-4 rating in Games 2-5, and being on the ice for Brendan Shanahan’s Cup-sealing empty-net goal).

The Wings fan is rolling. Nothing is stopping him. And as the final insults spout from his mouth (the seconds ticking off the clock during Game 5 inside Joe Louis Arena), she begins to pout and cry (Francis crouching to a disappointing glide of defeat as the Wings swarm Dominik Hasek), then watches the Wings fan exit through the doors with Miss Universe and leave forever (Francis watching the confetti rain from the Joe Louis rafters, the destination of yet another Stanley Cup banner in Detroit, something he’ll never see again.)


Paul Coffey also has a unique role in all of this.

Let’s start with March of 1992. The Penguins were struggling, five wins in 21 games, nowhere near their Stanley Cup caliber from the previous spring, when, of course, they annihilated Minnesota in Game 6 of the ’91 Cup Finals.

So what do they do? They traded Paul Coffey.

Three months later, Pittsburgh had another Cup. It turned out to be a brilliant move. Wings fans can only hate Pittsburgh for trading Coffey, because it gave Pittsburgh another Cup and he would’ve never landed in Detroit. That shouldn’t have happened – and it wouldn’t have – but the Penguins ownership team wanted to dump Coffey’s $7 million salary.

Cheap bastards.

Coffey never wanted to leave Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux? Jaromir Jagr? Bryan Trottier? Who would want to leave those guys? The guys who passed around the Cup with overflowing champagne one year earlier? Coffey, understandably, didn’t wanna go. Heck, when he heard the trade rumors, he walked around the Pittsburgh locker room with a “For Sale” sticker across his head, according to Sports Illustrated. And when the Penguins finally did trade him, he skated around the Civic Arena ice surface to think about the quality time he had in Pittsburgh. It clearly bothered him, as it should.

So, it’s obvious Coffey cherished those memories dearly, the memories of lifting the Cup in black and gold, of drinking champagne with Penguins teammates. Maybe he wanted his final Stanley Cup memory to be in Pittsburgh, not in Detroit. OK, OK. Maybe that’s crazy and he was just a defensive liability in Detroit, but I do know this: If the Penguins keep him, he never enters Joe Louis Arena. And for that, I must hate Pittsburgh, because, quite frankly, when Coffey landed in Detroit, an odd string of performances unfolded, thus earning him another sticker that I’ll proudly slap to his dome: “The Joe Louis Arena Jinx.”

Check out his four postseasons in Joe Louis Arena. I’m convinced that his heart is colored black and gold:

1993: This is when the Coffey beans were planted. The Wings faced arch-rival Toronto in the first round. In a Game 5 overtime loss inside Joe Louis Arena, Coffey was a minus-2. In a Game 7 overtime loss9, he was a minus-1. Both games, he had zero points. Not all that bad? Oh, the jinx is just starting …

1994: Detroit vs. San Jose. Game 7. Remember: This wasn’t Joe Thornton’s Sharks. This was ugly-teal-jersey-no-superstar Sharks, who sported a midget in between the pipes, Arturs Irbe.

But we had our own mental midget, Coffey, who was on the ice when Jamie Baker scored the game-winning goal that made history become history. Everyone blames Chris Osgood for this, right? I blame Coffey, who could’ve yelled at Ozzie to swing the puck in the other direction. Or, Coffey could’ve possessed better hand-eye coordination as he tried to knock down Baker’s shot in mid-flight. Sure enough, he didn’t stop it, and the puck found the upper right corner.

Maybe that’s harsh. OK, maybe that’s ridiculous. But that’s the way Wings fans think about Coffey, who was a minus-2 in Game 1 of the series and gave the Sharkies hope of pulling off a upset. Coffey also instilled more hope in the Sharks during the opening minutes of Game 7, when he poorly played an odd-man rush, refusing to tie up Johan Garpenlov in the crease, which allowed Garpenlov to promptly score the first goal of the game and got the Sharkies believin’.

Oh, yeah: Coffey also was on the ice as the final seconds ticked away10

1995: The Stanley Cup Finals. Wings vs. Devils. Coffey was on the ice for both New Jersey goals in a Game 1 loss. That was bad. But it paled in comparison to Game 2.

The game was tied in the third period, 2-2, when Coffey blocked a shot and lay upon the Joe Louis Arena ice. The Devils worked the puck around the attacking zone. Coffey laid there. The Devils worked the puck around. Coffey laid there. The Devils shot the puck on net. Coffey laid there. Jim Dowd pounced on a rebound. Coffey laid there. Jim Dowd swatted the puck past Mike Vernon, and Coffey laid there, even though he was within a stick-swinging distance. New Jersey 3, Detroit 2, now 84 seconds left. And Coffey laid there. Heck, in total, Coffey laid on the ice for SEVEN SECONDS – which, of course, felt like 7,000 minutes to Wings fans as New Jersey orchestrated a de facto power play.

Thanks to Coffey, the Wings were now in a 2-0 hole and never recovered, en route to being broomed.

1996: Wings vs. Avalanche. Game 1. Western Conference Finals. Coffey scored on himself.

This wasn’t just a put-the-puck-in-your-own-net mistake. This wasn’t an accidental redirection, a bad bounce or a deflection. This was a literal one-timer, a mental gaffe, maybe an acid trip, I don’t know, because it was bizarre. Coffey stood to the left of Chris Osgood, both skates inside the crease, when he took a “pass” from Colorado’s Stephane Yelle and slammed it home.

Coffey stared into the rafters as the red light flickered, a look of bewilderment. Seriously, did he have an LSD trip and think he was playing in Pittsburgh? Afterward Osgood said he “chuckled” when seeing Coffey one-time a shot into the net. It was that unbelievably bizarre. A chuckle. That’s all you could do. That … and wanna strangle yourself.

Oh, some Wings fans will tell you, “Hey, Coffey scored two goals in this game.” I say, ‘Hey, if it wasn’t for scoring on himself, there wasn’t overtime, and maybe the Wings win Game 1 and take the series instead of losing in six games.’

In 1997, the Wings became wise and decided … well, maybe Paul Coffey shouldn’t be inside Joe Louis Arena. They didn’t even let him lace the skates for the home opener and traded him to Hartford for a rugged sniper known as Brendan Shanahan. With that, Coffey was gone, the jinx was gone, and immediately, the Wings started winning Cups.

You know what? I’m wondering if Coffey snuck into Joe Louis Arena during Game 7 of the 2009 Finals. Think about it: Marc Andre-Fleury played the best game of his life11, Maxime Talbot went from scrub to superstar12, and Dan Bylsma outwitted13 his former coach, Mike Babcock. Only a Coffey sighting could conjure such an odd unfolding of events. Niklas Kronwall hit the cross bar with two minutes left? And Fleury’s save on Nicklas Lidstrom in the final second14? Are you serious? That looked like Clint Eastwood’s bullet-absorbing dive from “In the Line of Fire.”

Coffey had to be there.

And Francis was probably there, too, snickering and laughing at us again.

Thanks, Angotti and Johnston. Thanks a lot.

1. 20,000 people stood in shock as Pittsburgh celebrated on the ice. I’ve never seen a more devastating scene. An overtime loss to Toronto in Game 7 of 1993 was awful. Watching the Wings get swept against New Jersey was tear-jerking. But nothing is worse than watching someone dethrone your defending Stanley Cup champions on your ice in a riveting game. (Pouring salt into gash.)

2. Wings fans would never do such a thing. Because if they did, the kid would find The Ambassador Bridge and plunge to his death. “Penguins? Penguins can swim, right? Let’s try this … (jumps into water) …”

3. At least Penguins fans had a productive Hossa. Our version stunk. He had one assist in Games 3-7 combined – and that “assist” came in a 5-0 romp in Game 5. After the series, when Hossa was bombarded with media harassing such as “You’re the only guy in these locker rooms who lost both years …”, he responded by saying, “that’s life.” Yeah, that’s life. I’m sure it hurt you bad while playing in Detroit for nine whopping months, all while you knew you were bailing for the biggest bidder, you dirty Cup chaser!

4. Amazing how much Penguin love was presented during this series. NBC introductions for each game was Crosby, Malkin, Penguins, Crosby, Penguins, Crosby. No wonder Malkin didn’t get suspended. If that was Henrik Zetterberg who “instigated” the fight, I guarantee he’s out for Game 3.

5. All of this considered … can you imagine what it was like last week to watch Wings-Penguins without Sidney Crosby? He missed 10 months, 68 games, came back … and now he’s out again? This is like going to a party, doing a keg stand, getting dropped on your head, and then having someone say, “Umm … You drank from the O’Doul’s keg, bro …”

6. The Wings led the series 3-1, lost Game 5 by a 6-1 thumping, got shut out at home 3-0 in Game 6, then … well, they had a chance in Game 7. With less than five minutes left and the Wings trailing by one, Keith Primeau broke into the St. Louis zone, to the middle of the circle, and unleashed a muffin. Easy save. Blues prevail, 3-2. That was Primeau in Detroit. All potential, no results.

7. This was just sick. The Wings, regular-season owners of the best offense in the Campbell Conference, were held to one goal in Game 1, one goal in Game 2, and then shutout in Game 4. Blackhawks sweep.

8. If this game would’ve lasted any longer, I would’ve been jailed, too. There were seven minutes left in triple overtime when the bartender had the nerve to say “we’re closing in 30 minutes.” Thank God, Igor Larionov scored with 5:13 left. If not, there would’ve been intermission, a closing call, then a refusal to leave. How are you going to close a bar during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals? The nearest TV was 30 minutes away. I wasn’t leaving. The cops would’ve had to drag me out. I really should send Igor a Thank You card.

9. I’ll never forget Nikolai Borchevsky’s game-winning deflection from atop the crease. The puck moved in ultra-slow motion toward the gaping net as my Dad said, “there it is,” but his voice sounded like Will Ferrell in Old School after taking a tranquilized dart to the neck. “There … it … is …” The season’s memories flashed before my eyes as the puck inched toward the goal line. Yzerman’s 137 points. Probert’s 252 penalty minutes. Then it finally crossed, the red lamp flickered, and the Toronto bench exploded in pandemonium, all while my jaw scraped the Joe Louis Arena steps. Terrible. Just terrible.

10. I’m too distraught to talk about this series …

11. Anyone who thought Fleury would recover from his bumbling disaster in Game 5 needs a drug test. I know goalies prefer to use dull skates, but Fleury looked like a wet walrus on tile in Games 1, 2 and 5. Every carom off those lively Joe Louis Arena end boards evaded his mindset, no clue for proper angles, no geometry inside his mask at all. And then Game 7? And then Game 7?!? He’ll never play that well again. (Sigh.)

12. Maxime Talbot should send a Christmas card to Brad Stuart: “Thanks for the turnover in the corner on my first goal, and for pinching too far on my second goal.”

13. Hey, Bylsma: Thank you for sealing last week’s Wings win. It was only 2-1 when you kept Malkin on the ice for that 2-minute, 54-second shift. That’s why he lost the puck to Jonathan Ericsson, that’s why he was too gassed to backcheck, that’s why the Wings had a 3-on-1 rush and scored.

14. Since I’m a masochist, I’ve watched the clip umpteen times. Every time, I still think the puck will find a way to sneak past Fleury. I’m convinced it will someday. Maybe I insert a video-generated Nicklas Lidstrom from 10 years prior, a fleet-footed Lidstrom who can race to the loose puck a nanosecond quicker, and release it a nanosecond quicker, and I can tell him in the vacuum between the past and present, “Hey, Nick, aim low.”

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