With the 2011 Winter Classic just a short week away, I decided to get a Pittsburgh perspective on the event from three friends of Hockey Prospectus: Pittsburgh radio personality Rocco DeMaro, Mike Colligan of The Hockey Writers and Forbes SportsMoney, and Prospectus own John Perrotto.
Timo Seppa: What's your overall take on the Winter Classic? Is it a worthwhile event? Does it help promote hockey?
John Perrotto: It's one of the best things the NHL has ever done. It's an event that draws the interest of people who are not hockey fans. You can make a case it's the league premier event beyond the Stanley Cup Finals.
Mike Colligan: Absolutely. In its current form, there's nothing negative about the event. The novelty of the outdoor game draws in the casual fan on a day when most are taking it easy and watching sports already. The only concern is there has to be a temptation for the NHL to continue to add more outdoor events which would really dilute the appeal of the January 1st game.
Seppa: What does the Winter Classic mean to Pittsburgh? Are folks in Pittsburgh excited about it?
Rocco DeMaro: People in Pittsburgh are very excited about the Classic. If they're not frothing at the mouth, they're coming darned close. Sid versus Ovie, the recent winning streak in 2010, the foundation of recent successes in the postseason including a Cup, Ray Shero's genius
Then there's the HBO series. It's feeding into that excitement, obviously, and has taken the fervor for The Classic to another level. I'm really not sure the Penguins' popularity here in town could get much higher than it is at this specific point in time...and I say that as a 32-year-old, lifelong Penguins fan who lived through the Lemieux era. With all of those factors converging the way they have, and with the hockey world's eyes about to be keenly focused on Pittsburgh, it's basically paradise for Pittsburgh Penguins fans.
Perrotto: It means quite a bit to the city of Pittsburgh. It gives the city a chance to showcase that it is one of the best hockey towns in the United States, quite a departure from the way it was here in the pre-Mario days.
Colligan: Fans were generally excited for the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, but no one knew what to expect from it. After the storybook finish, fan anticipation couldn't be higher in Pittsburgh for this year's installment. It's almost to the point where a normal hockey game would be a letdown in some ways. Fans are expecting a once-in-a-lifetime battle.
Seppa: Speaking of Mario, he obviously still has great stature in Pittsburgh hockey, both as owner and icon. But is it even more than that? What's the stature of Mario Lemieux among the pantheon of Pittsburgh sports heroes?
Perrotto: I say he ranks right at the top with the great ones like Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, etc. No one has ever meant more to his franchise than Lemieux. There was no interest in the Penguins before he came to town. He led them to two Stanley Cups as a player then bought the franchise, kept it from moving, and won another Cup. Pretty amazing stuff.
Colligan: Lemieux is at the top of any list of when it comes to Pittsburgh heroes. No other athlete in Pittsburgh and maybe all of sports can say they've saved a franchise multiple times. His production on the ice was amazing, but his contributions after his playing career meant just as much to the Penguins.
DeMaro: He's number one and it's not close. Barry Bonds may be the greatest baseball player of all time and he was a Pirate. Clemente is a legend in the Latin community, and he may be more popular in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have had more all-time greats than any other franchise in NFL history. Yet none of those people did for their sport, their city, what Mario Lemieux did for hockey in Pittsburgh. He saved the floundering franchise with his talent in the mid-80's. He won Stanley Cups in the early 90's. He saved the franchise again in the late 90's byliterallybuying the bankrupt team after converting owed salary (about $30 million) into equity. He then saved the team again a few years later, turning Jim Balsillie's last-minute rescinded offer into an eventual agreement on a new arena. That arena deal, largely orchestrated by Lemieux, will keep the Pens in Pittsburgh for the next 30 years. So as historic as Bonds talent was, as graceful and important as Clemente was, as dominant as the Steelers talent has been for decades...no Pittsburgh sporting icon will likely ever touch Mario Lemieux's impact.
Seppa: Then, the logical follow-up question is: what about Crosby? Is Sid in the pantheon yet? Where could he be if he wins another championship or two for the Pens?
DeMaro: Unless he foils a terrorist plot at the PPG building or something, I just don't see Crosby ever doing as much for the city as Mario has. That's obviously not an indictment on Sid's abilities on the ice...it's simply an acknowledgement of Lemieux's legacy in the city.
Perrotto: He is steadily heading toward that status. However, I don't know if he'll ever be able to quite surpass Mario if for no other reason that there wouldn't be hockey in Pittsburgh without Mario. He saved the franchise twice, as a player and an owner.
Colligan: Barring disastrous circumstances, Crosby is firmly in the pantheon. The scariest part about Crosby is just when you think he can't get any better, he finds another aspect of his game to improve. If he's not the best in the NHL in a certain category, you can be certain at some point in the future he'll work his way to the top of that list.
Seppa: All right, well need to wait and see how Crosbys career plays out to see if he can challenge Mario. How about in the here and now? Do you consider Sidney Crosby a great leader?
Perrotto: He is learning how to be a leader as he is still young but he definitely has the respect of his teammates.
Colligan: Crosby was the youngest captain in NHL history, but believe it or not, this season is his first test as a true leader. He's always had a babysitter like Lemieux, Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts, or Bill Guerin around to look over his shoulder when times got tough. The Penguins' slow start to the season gave Crosby an opportunity to show this is his locker room now and their 12-game winning streak that followed speaks volumes to how he handled that test.
Seppa: How does Alex Ovechkin compare as a leader?
Colligan: Just like with Crosby, the next few weeks should be very telling for Alex Ovechkin and his leadership abilities. The Capitals' playoff failures can be chalked up to a variety of excuses, but those letdowns also took place over a series of days. Washington's December slide this year is very different and it will be the first big test of Ovechkin's ability to rally the troops.
Seppa: What's your take on the Sid vs Ovie debate? Who's the better player? Who will have a better career?
Colligan: At this point, Crosby is the better overall player and has been for the past few seasons. Ovechkin's dynamic offensive abilities still can't be matched, but Crosby has taken leaps and bounds in recent seasons to improve weaknesses in all aspects of the game: shooting, faceoffs, and even defensive play. It's not a stretch to suggest we might see a Selke Trophy in Crosby's future. Can we say the same about Ovechkin at this point? Not a chance.
Seppa: Thoughts on the new arena?
Perrotto: It's absolutely beautiful. The Civic Arena was a grand old place, but it was also a dump. Consol Energy Center has all the amenities that the Igloo didn't.
Colligan: The simple fact that there is a new arena in Pittsburgh is amazing in itself given the team's decade of struggles off the ice, but the Consol Center is definitely impressive. The Penguins took the time to visit and study a number of facilities around the NHL and pulled the best characteristics together for their new building. It's not overly unique, but it's an enjoyable facility that the team should have no trouble filling on a nightly basis.
Seppa: What's your overall take on the Penguins this season? How far can this team go?
DeMaro: They're awfully talented. Crosby, Malkin in their primes. A nice mix of talent and grit on the blueline. A well-rested Jordan Staal for the stretch run. The sky is the limit here.
Colligan: It's hard to believe the Penguins are at the top of the Eastern Conference without Jordan Staal playing a single game. Crosby and Malkin get all the attention, but Staal brings an extra scoring punch and dominant defensive abilities to the table that just might take this team to another level. The concern I still have is the weakness that Montreal exploited in last year's playoffs. If Crosby gets shut down, is there enough left on offense to still win games? The upgrades on defense might help to counteract that, but it's also a question we probably can't answer until after the trade deadline.
Seppa: All right, guys. Thanks for taking time to weigh in on the Penguins and the Winter Classic. Hopefully, it will be the game that Pittsburghs been anticipating it to be.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.