Before the Penguins became a civic institution, they hatched in 1967 as a humble expansion team
Jack McGregor moved back to Pennsylvania six months ago after living for 32 years in Connecticut, which meant he had to get a new license plate for his car. He decided he wanted a vanity plate so he could publicly proclaim his adoration for his favorite NHL team.
McGregor is 82, a lawyer and a former Pennsylvania state senator, and even though he had moved to Mifflinburg, a little bit closer to Philadelphia than Pittsburgh, he has been a bona fide Pittsburgh Penguins fan since 1967, the team’s inaugural year. He had to settle for a “P-QUINS” plate from the DMV.
It was the best he could do, since the Penguins have become a Pittsburgh civic institution. But without Jack McGregor, who led a campaign backed by several area investors, including the late Steelers owner Art Rooney, the city might not have gotten an expansion team.
Thanks to McGregor, who was named president and chief executive officer by the investor group, Pittsburgh did get the Penguins, who are vying for what would be their second consecutive Stanley Cup and their fifth since 1991, when a colossus of a center from Montreal named Mario Lemieux led the team past the Minnesota North Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.
Even before the end of his Hall of Fame career, Lemieux bought the bankrupt Penguins in 1999 and promised to keep them in Pittsburgh. Lemieux is still the owner, and the franchise honored McGregor and several members of the first 10 Penguins teams last October.
“He thanked me for bringing the Penguins to Pittsburgh, and I thanked him for saving the Penguins for Pittsburgh,” McGregor said this week.
“Penguins” was the winner among 356 nicknames — submitted by 26,400 fans in a public name-the-team contest — but McGregor had actually already made the call. His first wife, Carol, liked Penguins because it was alliterative, like Pittsburgh Pirates, and the team would also play at the 6-year-old Pittsburgh Civic Arena, a domed building already known as “The Igloo.”
(Igloos are found in the Northern Hemisphere, and penguins are in the Southern Hemisphere, but that apparently did not matter to the McGregors.)
The Igloo had been home to an American Hockey League team, the Hornets — a Detroit Red Wings farm club that won the Calder Cup in its last game — but McGregor said, “I was opposed to that [name] because it was not suggestive of a new team coming to town.”
The first Penguins team was composed mostly of aging players, like 35-year-old forward Andy Bathgate, plus players who had spent most of their careers in the minors — not that that was such a bad thing. In those days, the AHL was said to be almost as good as the NHL. Paul Andrea, a forward from Nova Scotia, had played all of four NHL games before he got to town. It hardly mattered that the mascot was a less-than-fearsome penguin.
“A lot of us were kind of journeymen in the American League and Western League,” said Andrea, now 75. “I had to be grateful for expansion to come along when it did.”
He then said, “I did think it was kind of unusual that they came up with the name ‘Penguins.'”
The Penguins lost their inaugural game to the mighty Montreal Canadiens, but the score was only 2-1, and as Gene Ubriaco, a veteran forward said, “It was like we’d won the Stanley Cup. We were the first [expansion] team to play an established team, and everyone was wondering how we’d do.”
The Penguins did not exactly beat a fast track to prominence, however. All six expansion teams were grouped in what was called the West Division, with the Original Six in the East Division, but the Penguins had a losing record and missed the playoffs by two points. Minnesota beat them out on the last day of the season.
Although about 4,000 seats had been added to the Civic Arena to meet NHL standards, expanding its capacity to 12,580, the first Penguins team averaged only 7,407 fans per home game — a figure that would drop to 6,008 the following season.
But the players noticed something about the fans who did come: They were loud and loyal. Les Binkley, the Penguins’ first goaltender, had played 12 years in the minor leagues before the 1967-68 season, and he was grateful for the home crowds who showed up.
“The Steelers were big, and the Penguins were big. It was a workers’ town, with lots of steel mills, so I thought it would go over,” Binkley, 82, said from his home in Hanover, Ontario. “But not everybody can start out as a winning team.”
Ubriaco, who had also played for the Hornets, said, “The whole city was ambitious and aggressive.”
But the new team had a couple of other setbacks along the way — none more notorious than the heartbreaking story of Pete the Penguin, or Penguin Pete, an actual penguin who was brought to The Igloo from the Pittsburgh Zoo on game days to cavort on the ice. “I remember coming in for practice one day,” Ubriaco said. “They had him on a tether and roller skates, and some guy was teaching him how to skate — on roller skates.”
But that was not the worst part. Pete was not an emperor penguin, which is native to Antarctica and is the inspiration for the Penguins’ first logo (a chubby penguin in a scarf), as well as the team’s latest, somewhat more fearsome-looking logo. Pete was from Uruguay.
“He looked more like an eggplant,” Ubriaco said.
Pete appeared only a handful of times before he apparently caught pneumonia and died early in the Penguins’ second season. McGregor never did find out the reason for Pete’s demise. But he decided to have Pete stuffed and display him behind glass at the team’s offices. “It disappeared one night,” McGregor said. “It was just at that point when the animal-first movement was coming around. I always assumed it was some animal-firster thief.”
Three years later, the Penguins got another live mascot, which they named Re-Pete, who survived, though both mascots, as Binkley remembers, “were always slipping and sliding around the ice, like people in street shoes.”
The Penguins did not make the playoffs in their second season, either, but they did get there in their third campaign, sweeping the Oakland Seals in the first round before losing to the St. Louis Blues. The Penguins did not win two series in the same year until they won their first Cup.
Andrea, for one, is amazed at how much players’ salaries have soared and how much more comfortable playing conditions have become. He drew a $14,000 salary for playing for that 1967-68 team and also held down a summer job with Coca-Cola because “most of us had to work all year.”
McGregor and his partners sold the team during the 1970-71 season, but he is still an unabashed Penguins fan. Rooney pitched in by lobbying brothers Jim and Bruce Norris, the owners in Detroit and Chicago, respectively, but McGregor did much of the dirty work.
Not surprisingly, he attended the first two games of this year’s finals in Pittsburgh, and Penguins fans and ex-Penguins alike appreciate his place in Pittsburgh sports history. Ubriaco said of McGregor, “He was in it for all the right reasons.”
Ubriaco, now 79, had returned to coach the Penguins in 1988 and helped them win a playoff series in 1989 (with Lemieux’s help, of course), but he was fired midway through the following season. Badger Bob Johnson was hired in 1990 and took the Pens all the way.
“I remember when the team’s colors were white, blue and black,” Ubriaco said. “I’ve seen this whole movement. For me, it was sort of like a dream come true.”