It’s late on Labor Day, the ceremonial unofficial end of summer. That’s good for hockey, with players starting to filter back into town, and before you know it practices and exhibition games will get rolling as the Penguins gear up for the 2022-23 season.
But on this holiday, a day to in part to honor, “the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States”, let’s check in on some favorite hard workers over the years for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
You won’t find Sidney Crosby or other All-Stars here. And, sure, probably no one on Earth works harder than Sidney Crosby to keep his mind and body sharp, but that and an elite athlete like Kris Letang doing insane workouts isn’t the spirit of this exercise. It’s undisputed that to get to the NHL level, a person has to be very dedicated and work extremely hard for an untold number of hours over the years in order to make it to the very top level. That goes without saying.
This is a feature to highlight some players whose very calling card is breaking a sweat, getting down ‘n dirty and knowing their role and bringing the utmost of energy and effort to the rink every single day as a virtue of their character.
We’ll start with an easy one. An obvious one. But also a very true one. Brandon Tanev is nothing but non-stop energy. Constant work. Going a million miles an hours on the ice with his legs, off the ice chirping, makes no difference.
Tanev became a fan favorite and naturally enough. He busted his ass every single second of every game and would do anything to win. Block a shot? No problem. Throw a body around? Safe. Find a way to score a goal? Hell yeah!
Brandon Tanev is a constant, frenetic energy. Few work harder, few seem to have more fun out there. Which is what is all about when grown men get to play a game and make untold billions of dollars per year (combined across the league).
If the shot-based possession stats were around back in that day, the modern analytics field would probably not think too fondly of Dan LaCouture. The checking line winger only scored eight goals and 21 points in 137 games with the Pens. And he was around from 2001-03 when Pittsburgh was far from a juggernaut and losing more often than not.
But LaCouture was one of my favorite players anyways. I can remember that one time at a practice at Southpointe when he led a drill, caught a bad rut and was going so fast that when he wiped out that his legs went into a helicopter like motion as he spun around and crashed down and into the boards. It completely wrecked the drill, but even the coaches had to laugh. That was Dan LaCouture — maybe working too hard and driving his legs too fast for his own good — but always giving maximum effort regardless, whether it was a practice or a tie game against the Flyers in the third period.
And he never backed down from anyone, including multiple fights with Tie Domi. And sure, at 6’2 and 210, LaCouture was a far bigger man in stature than Tie Domi. But if you had the guts to drop the gloves with Domi (and more than once!) — buddy, you had some guts.
I can assure you, dear reader, without knowing the numbers that Dan LaCouture was on the ice in that era of Penguins hockey for more high danger chances for the other team than he was for Pittsburgh. But he also did not matter or detract from the role and player he was as a 6’2 freight train that sometimes he himself couldn’t even keep his legs under him (just ask the coaches at Southpointe). It was all energy, hustle and the perfect amount of commendable effort on the ice back then. And back then that was enough.
Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi
I feel like the ol’ Pensblog (RIP) had it best when they said that every shift you watched the USS Hal Gill with the Pens that you were just willing him on. Leaning off the couch just kinda “oof, oof” gesturing him on and hoping for the best. Living and dying with every shift, as they so eloquently captured the feeling.
To be sure, Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi aren’t guys who are going to be the driving forces to win a Stanley Cup on their own. But it’s probably no coincidence that just about every Stanley Cup winner has heart and soul guys like Gill and Scuderi stepping up in key roles.
It has been lost to history with the role that Gill and then Scuderi played in the iconic and eventual Stanley Cup winning goal in Game 7 by Max Talbot in 2009. Gill (somewhat legally) holds a guy up to help get the puck behind the net to Scuderi. Scudsy makes the classic play to hold it for a second, suck in the forecheck, “takes a hit to make the play” (classic hard worker saying) to swing the puck over to Chris Kunitz. (Kunitz’s instantaneous sliding pass up to spring Talbot all alone also does not historically get enough credit either).
Gill was also cited by Jaromir Jagr as the absolute number one player he used to hate playing against. Jagr’s career points/game against Boston remain a sour point, mostly due to Gill at his prime in the late ’90s and early 2000’s. Prior to when Zdeno Chara really emerged as the freak of freaks (meant in a good way), Hal Gill in his day was a 6’7, 245 pound mountain of a player. Human beings shouldn’t be that big and able to skate and have that type of reach and strength. As Jagr himself has willingly pointed out, Gill was the only force strong enough to limit No 68 when he was in his prime and usually winning scoring titles.
Scuderi, for his part, in his prime Scuderi was The Piece. The epitome of a heart and soul player who would gladly lay his well-being on the line to keep the puck out of the net, and succeed in doing so. What else needs to be said?
If hockey didn’t exist, you would think guys like Scuderi and Gill would be on a team to wire houses or fix your plumbing, or some kind of other critical blue collar work where they would be everyman type of unsung heroes that help keep society rolling.
Is this too nostalgic for the 2009 days? Maybe so! But I’m still not sure there’s been a better or harder working third line for the result of what fit together with Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy for the Penguins back in that time. Between the energy, effort, play away from the puck and then the ability to create, there’s not much better for the parts adding up to be more than the sum with the chemistry created with this line.
Cooke was a 10-year veteran when he came to Pittsburgh, and ended up being one of the most controversial and hated players of his generation. He played across the line of good tastes at times, but always knew that he had to give a maximum effort to make a difference. Does that excuse every decision he made on the ice? Of course not. But he was a player who worked hard, took advantage of too many opponents in vulnerable spots, and also answered the bell for it.
Even in juniors, Tyler Kennedy was good and well-regarded, but he didn’t really score that much (22 is his career-high in goals at any level), but for effort you couldn’t measure what the ol’ boy brought to the table. With an incredible motor, great forechecking efforts and all-around play, TK lasted over 500 NHL games for an extended and impressive NHL career given his pure skill.
It’s no secret that Jordan Staal was the “secret sauce” of the Penguins back in that day. Despite being the third line center, Staal also played the third most minutes of any forward in his last few seasons in Pittsburgh. He had to do a lot of the heavy lifting for defensive zone starts, eating the tough assignments to free up Sid and Geno for all the quality wingers and offensive chances. Staal did it with a smile (until he declined Pittsburgh’s contract extension in 2012, anyways) but hard work on and off the ice has literally been a staple in his origin from his family’s well told story as sod farmers in Thunder Bay.
So there you have it. Some of the hardest working and toughest players throughout Penguin history on this Labor Day. Who are some of your favorite types of player in this vein?