What does it mean to be a champion? In some sports the actions of a single individual can merit a championship, because of the design of the sport. Tennis, golf, etc. are all sports where an individual can rightfully and impressively earn a championship.
But, there is something about a team winning that is just extra impressive. A collective conscious, individuals united by a common purpose, striving for a championship. Stripped down from the flowery language… it is friggin’ HARD to motivate a team of professional athletes – not to mention the entire organization – to make every decision in their job through a prism that evaluates, “will this help the team win?” Championship teams not only must have the right personality mixture and complementary skills, the entire organization – every employee – must but all in, they must all believe.
In 2009, no championship team was better than the Pittsburgh Penguins. For fans, the Stanley Cup Trophy the team earned this year was not only a dream come true by defeating the very team that thwarted them in 2008, the Detroit Red Wings, but because of who is running the organization… how the championship was won. Pittsburgh favorite son, hockey Hall of Famer, and former Penguin great Mario Lemieux owns and runs the team.
In 2006, the team had fallen on hard times. That is, until then new owner Mario Lemieux declared, “It is time to take control of our own destiny.” At the time he was referring to the potential move out of Pittsburgh. History now teaches that Lemieux was negotiating a stay in Pittsburgh, a battle he won. Then the team used the first overall pick in the draft to pick up Sidney Crosby, “Sid the Kid.” Lemieux offered to let the young 18-year old live in his basement rent free (not that the rent free mattered too much). Just two seasons later the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup Finals, winning in 2009. The journey to win was long and hard, full of potential issues seemingly bent on destroying the team’s future. But, the entire organization found a way to prevail.
The 2009 Stanley Cup Finals series itself was very entertaining. The series went to all seven games with the Penguins eventually beating the Red Wings – the franchise that is synonymous with hockey… actually playing in “Hockey Town USA” – on a Maxime Talbot goal midway through the second period, one of two he scored on the night.
The series victory was more than just as single championship, too. New York Times hockey writers Jeff Klein and Stu Hackel decided the victory was a changing of the guard atop North American hockey, from the historically dominant Red Wings to the new, younger, faster, and equally tough hockey played by the Penguins. This Penguins team is built for speed and scoring, unlike the old board-hawking days of hockey’s yesteryear. The new game is cleaner, more open, and perfectly represented by the Penguins and star players Sidney Crosby and this year’s Conn Smythe winner Evgeni Malkin. Sure, power and toughness are still important – but speed and skill wins the championships, now.
The act of winning, actually achieving the trophy, is the primary element of a great championship. But, what else is there? A coach will say that even after winning a championship, it is difficult to enjoy because the mind immediately wanders to whatever is next. Who should the team draft? What contracts need renewal, what contracts should be allowed to expire? How in the world does a coach motivate a group of players that already have achieved the highest reward available in the sport?
What makes the Penguins so impressive is the team’s ability to sustain success, playing at a high level all the time without taking games off. Sure, the team loses, but it does not lack effort night in and night out. After reaching the Finals and losing in 2008, the team won in 2009, and is building another impressive resume for 2010. The team is third in points and second in the division to New Jersey, already having survived an injury stint from star Malkin. Crosby is again near the top of the NHL in goals scored, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is second in the league in wins.
The Penguins underwent a major rebuilding effort and still won. The Penguins are still playing like a champion, unlike their Steel City counterparts who took a few games off and may have lost the opportunity to repeat as a result. A champion not only wins one time, a champion wants to win again and again and again.
Few sports are as fluid as hockey, requiring every player to be tuned in and ready to go on the ice at any moment, to give up their body in front of a puck, to showcase individual skills, and to never take a stupid penalty that puts the team in a bad situation. These are the traits of a champion, and these are the traits of the best champion of 2009 – the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were the greatest champion of 2009 not just for the tough slog of a series they won against the Red Wings, but because of what the team represents for hockey, and for life. Hard work pays off, and the Penguins are changing the way the game is played to a formula for success now, and for the future.