Perhaps it was fitting that 1984 was the year Mario Lemieux was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, made his NHL debut, and scored his first goal while on his first shift.
I say that because 1984 was also the year that Terry Bradshaw retired, Franco Harris got released, and Jack Lambert suffered a career-ending turf toe injury. Meanwhile, the last remnants of the Steelers Super Bowl dynasty of the 1970s, led by head coach Chuck Noll, made one final run at One For the Thumb before succumbing to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins in the AFC title game down in the Orange Bowl in January of 1985.
It took a while, but Lemieux eventually led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup in the summer of 1991. Pittsburgh would hoist Lord Stanley again one year later, as the Penguins were the new kings of the local sports scene.
For that matter, even the Pirates, Pittsburgh’s “big league” baseball franchise that spent the second half of the 1980s just trying to stay afloat amid drug scandals, ownership changes and threats to relocate, were a serious contender to win the World Series, led by Barry Bonds, like Lemieux, arguably the greatest player in his sport at the time.
The Steelers, meanwhile, had grown cold and stale by 1991. The 1970s were a distant memory, as the franchise had just missed the playoffs for the sixth time since losing to the Dolphins in that AFC Championship Game following the ‘84 campaign.
As hard as it was to believe, the Steelers were now bringing up the rear in terms of relevance when discussing Pittsburgh’s professional sports landscape.
That, of course, began to change by 1992 when Bill Cowher was hired to replace the recently-retired Noll as head coach of Pittsburgh’s once-proud professional football franchise.
The Pirates had one last gasp at a title in ‘92 before succumbing to the new realities for small-market teams in Major League Baseball.
The Penguins would remain relevant throughout the remainder of the ‘90s, but they never quite recaptured the same magic they had in the late-80s and early-90s.
Cowher helped to usher in a new era of excitement for Steeler Nation; the 1990s, while not nearly as successful as the 1970s, saw Pittsburgh make it to the playoffs six years in a row and to its first Super Bowl since the glory days.
Old Three Rivers Stadium was as loud and as rockin’ as ever on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights.
It was a great decade to be a Steelers fan.
That brings us to today and the Sidney Crosby era, one that kind of looked like it unofficially came to an end on Thursday night when the Penguins were dismantled at home, 7-2, by the Edmonton Oilers.
Instead of chants of “Let’s Go Pens” filling the air at PPG Arena, you could hear fans hollering for the dismissal of Ron Hextall, the team’s general manager.
Hextall became the general manager in 2021, replacing the departing Jim Rutherford, the man who helped shape Pittsburgh’s fourth and fifth Stanley Cup winners in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
They were the second and third during the Crosby era; Crosby has spent most of his career as the best hockey player in the world and has been the leader of a legendary core that also includes Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.
That trio of future Hall of Famers has led the Penguins since the mid-00s, and despite some calls to break the group up, the three were brought back for the 2022/2023 campaign.
Did the Penguins stick with their legacy players a bit too long? It sure looks that way, as Pittsburgh is fighting and scratching just to make the playoffs as a wildcard.
If that whole legacy thing sounds familiar, it may be because that’s how a lot of Steelers fans felt about the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career in Pittsburgh.
Many felt that the Steelers held onto the face of their franchise for a year or two too long. Maybe they were right, as the old gunslinger was clearly a shell of his former self by the end.
Still, it was nice to see Roethlisberger lead his team to the playoffs one final time in 2021, even if nobody with a logical bone in their body thought the Steelers had a chance once they qualified.
As for the current Penguins, I would not be surprised if the core, but especially Sidney Crosby, leads them into the postseason one more time.
Will they have a chance?
No logical bone in my body has that feeling.
It could be the Oilers, led by arguably the best hockey player in the world, the 26-year-old Connor McDavid, who hoist the Cup next. If it’s not Edmonton, it will most likely be another team with youth, talent and a vision that appears to be more in line with what NHL franchises need to do to win in this day and age.
Younger people are usually more adaptable to change.
Older people are not, and Crosby, Malkin and Letang have all reached their mid-30s—an ancient age for any professional athlete.
We had been hearing that about the Steelers for a while, that they were old—or at least their vision and approach to winning were.
Maybe that's why Heinz Field grew kind of cold and stale during the late stages of Roethlisberger’s career.
Heinz Field is now Acrisure Stadium, and it remains to be seen if it will ever be as loud and crazy as it was during Roethlisberger’s heyday. But the energy certainly seemed different last fall when Kenny Pickett, the rookie quarterback drafted in the first round to take the place of Roethlisberger and his legacy, officially made his NFL debut in Week 4 against the Jets.
It’s obviously way too early to know if Pickett, who never did have a breakout game in 2022, will be able to fully replace Roethlisberger and his legacy. But while Pickett didn’t have a breakout game, he sure did have some breakout drives late in the season, as he led the Steelers and their putrid offense to last-minute wins in consecutive weeks.
If Pickett takes that all-important leap in 2023, he’s going to bring with him the kind of magic and excitement that we haven’t seen at Heinz Field/Acrisure Stadium for many years.
Sadly, PPG Arena will likely seem cold and stale (and empty) the moment Sid the Kid and that core leave town.
In fact, the Penguins will probably go through several general managers over the next decade or so. Mike Sullivan, the head coach who led the Penguins to those back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in the mid-to-late-2010s, will almost surely be sent packing before the 2020s are half over.
No, PPG Arena hasn’t been filled with much excitement during Penguins games this season, but Peterson Events Center, home of the Pittsburgh Panthers men’s college basketball team, has been loud and electric. After spending many years as the ACC’s doormat, the Panthers are doing their best to capture their first conference title. The Zoo, the name of the student section that once made The Pete one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball when the Panthers were a major force in the Big East back in the 2000s and early-2010s, is once again filled with roars and growls in 2023.
Heck, even the Pirates seem to have some promising young talent and a bit of hope for the near future.
Can PNC Park become a cool place to watch baseball again?
That’s the cyclical nature of sports. One team is up. Another team is down.
And that’s often happening at the same time and in the same city.