As time winds down on Mellon Arena, take a look at some of the biggest villans to visit the Penguins' home ice
December 27, 2009 5:00 AM
Alex Ovechkin's knee-to-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar in last year's NHL playoffs showed that he can hurt a team in ways other than scoring goals.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
While the Penguins' run at Mellon Arena is just about over, memories made there will endure long after the team has settled in across the street at the Consol Energy Center.
And some of the most vivid will center on opposing players who were vilified by crowds here.
You know, guys like Claude Lemieux and Scott Hartnell. Chris Nilan and Dave Schultz. Randy Holt and Billy Smith. Gary Dornhoefer and Dale Hunter. All generated serious hostility from Penguins fans.
Despised as they were, however, none of them earned a place among the top 12 villains ever to show up in the Penguins' home rink wearing a road sweater.
The guys who did qualify, at least in this version of The Dirty Dozen:
12. Jim Kyte. A Winnipeg defenseman whose infamy was assured when he sucker-punched Mario Lemieux late in Lemieux's rookie season, a few years before they became teammates. The bile sent his way by Civic Arena crowds probably affected Kyte less than most, however, since he was legally deaf and simply could turn down his hearing aid.
11. Adam Graves. One of the game's real gentlemen and a truly first-rate individual by almost all accounts. Trouble is, he broke Lemieux's hand with a completely unnecessary whack during the second round of the 1992 playoffs, and that was more than enough to cement Graves' place here.
10. Jaromir Jagr. The only player among these 12 who could turn up on the Penguins' most-loved list, too. Fans absolutely adored him during his first eight or so seasons, but the relationship began to sour as his time with the Penguins wound down and turned absolutely rancid after he was traded to Washington in 2001. Turns out Jagr was forging a template for Marian Hossa.
9. Dino Ciccarelli. A Hall of Fame-caliber goal-scorer who was lethal around the net and as likely to use his stick on an opponent as the puck. His off-ice issues, including an indecent-exposure arrest, gave fans plenty of ammunition for their frequent verbal assaults, especially during his days with Washington.
8. Eric Lindros. The first Philadelphia player on this list, but certainly not the last. He was an imposing blend of size and skill, even though he never came close to realizing his perceived potential. Darius Kasparaitis knocking him unconscious with a shoulder to the chin is a snapshot most people who saw it happen will not forget.
7. Alex Ovechkin. His intense personal rivalry with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin isn't enough to get him on this list, but his proclivity for head-hunting is. Ovechkin's knee-to-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar during the 2009 playoffs reaffirmed that his goal-scoring isn't the only facet of his game that can hurt you.
6. Dennis Polonich. This guy was so dirty, he could have been cast alongside Clarence "Screaming Buffalo" Swamptown and Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in "Slapshot." Not the best-known member of this group, but maybe the most flat-out nasty on the ice.
5. Wayne Gretzky. There are a lot of places where he is regarded as a treasured icon; this town isn't one of them and never has been. In fact, it and Calgary were the only two places where Gretzky could be certain of receiving a hostile reception anytime he showed up. And when he blew off a public practice the day before the 1990 All-Star Game here, any chance of a cordial relationship with the Penguins' fan base disappeared.
4. Ron Hextall. Another Flyer (surprise, surprise) whose ultra-aggressive style often overshadowed some big-time talent. He wasn't shy about using his stick as an axe, and tape of Hextall chasing Rob Brown after taking exception to Brown's windmill goal celebration might be the only footage that's shown as a highlight in the home arenas of both teams.
3. Jimmy Mann. He was guilty of one of the great cheap shots in the post-expansion NHL, a sucker-punch from behind that broke the jaw of Paul Gardner, then one of the Penguins' premier players. That earned Mann a 10-game suspension, as well as a $500 fine and suspended sentence from a Manitoba provincial court. He actually played his final nine NHL games as a member of the Penguins but never came close to removing the stain on his reputation caused by his assault on Gardner.
1a. Bobby Clarke. If his gap-toothed smirk hadn't been enough to aggravate fans -- and it certainly was -- being the captain of a hated rival that dominated the Penguins for much of his career would have been. Especially when Clarke, who wielded his stick like a scalpel, had a knack for cheap-shotting opponents, then hiding behind larger teammates.
1. Barclay Plager. St. Louis was the Penguins' first bitter rival and Plager, a rugged defenseman, quickly became the lightning rod for the Civic Arena crowd, probably because he usually was at the center of the bench-clearing brawls that were a regular feature of Penguins-Blues games. They'll have to tear down the building to get rid of the lingering echoes of the derisive, sing-song "Bar-KLEE" chants that rained down every time he stepped onto the ice here.
Plager is gone now, and Mellon Arena will follow soon. But memories of both -- and of other villainous opponents who have played there over the years -- will last a long, long time.