Paul Coffey, who has hoisted the Stanley Cup four times, picked up the phone at his Toyota dealership in Bolton, Ontario, yesterday morning to talk about what it means to be a champion.
He had a story to tell from back in the '80s, before he won the first of three Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and a fourth with the Penguins.
"We lost to the Islanders in four straight the first year before we won the championship," the Hall of Fame defenseman said. "And I think we were mostly pretty happy to have gotten there.
"I just remember Wayne [Gretzky] saying it wasn't good enough for him to be called the best player of all time; it doesn't matter unless you win a championship. He said, 'I'll never be as good as Bryan Trottier or Guy Lafleur,' those were the two names he used. I said, 'What do you mean? You just had like, 200 points.' He said until you win a championship, you'll never go down as the greatest."
That assessment can be unfair, Mr. Coffey admitted, but that's just the way it is. He cited Pittsburgher Dan Marino, the former Dolphins quarterback who has said he'd give up all of his awards for a Super Bowl ring.
"I think anyone given the chance and the opportunity to be called a champion, that's what it's all about," said Mr. Coffey, Pens' Cup Class of '90-91, as he prepared for the trip to watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final at Mellon Arena.
TV analyst and Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy was on both Penguins' Cup winners and won twice with the Detroit Red Wings.
It was only after he held the Cup that he understood its significance, Mr. Murphy said as he watched the Red Wings practice at Mellon Arena Wednesday. "Everybody talks about it, and when I was a kid I dreamed about it, but until your hands are on it and you're skating around the ice you have no idea how exciting and how important it is.
"Today I take tremendous pride in it. It's like affirmation for your career if you're on a Stanley Cup-winning team."
Scott Young isn't a name that readily comes to mind when you think of Cup-winning players, but the former U.S. Olympian played 17 years in the NHL and was a champion with the Penguins and the Colorado Avalanche.
Mr. Young, who retired after the 2005-06 season, lives in the Boston area, where he coaches his sons, 11 and 8, in youth hockey. Earlier this year, there was a stir on a second rink alongside where his boys were playing -- Mario Lemieux had arrived with one of his hockey-playing daughters, who was there to face another Concord, Mass., team. Mr. Young brought his boys over for autographs.
To have played in the NHL for so many years was very fulfilling, Mr. Young said by phone yesterday, but to have played that long and not won a Cup would have meant a lifetime of frustration.
"Now, I feel like I have been a part of something more. ... A feeling like, now I've experienced it all," he said.
Any time he's introduced as a former NHL player, the first question is always whether he played on a Cup team. "It's the ultimate," Mr. Young said.
Joe Mullen, a Cup winner with Calgary and twice with the Penguins, is now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers. He says he recalls how Pittsburgh embraced the Penguins back in the '90s, "but it's even more so now. It's amazing -- people standing outside and watching!"
The native New Yorker and Hall of Fame winger finds it "mind-boggling" that he got to play in the NHL, let alone was part of three Cup winners.
"When you look back on the whole career, the main goal, the reason you play the game, is to win the Stanley Cup. It's the ultimate prize," he said.
The former players believe the Penguins understand the significance of the moment, despite the constant discussion of their relative youth.
The Pens came into this series with the experience of last year's final under their belts. "And these young guys, they get it," Larry Murphy said. "Sidney Crosby grew up in Canada; he gets the importance of a championship."
Detroit's Chris Chelios, at 47 the league's oldest active player, played on the first of three Cup winners before Mr. Crosby was born. He's been with the defending champion Red Wings since 1997, and their success is among the motivators that keeps him game-ready.
Mr. Chelios talked about how Scotty Bowman, who coached both the Wings and Penguins, instilled in Detroit the transition of experience, from the Steve Yzerman-Brendan Shanahan teams to today's team, led by Nicklas Lidstrom, 39.
"Pittsburgh, it's a different situation," he said. "Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin obviously got thrown into the fire, but being the skilled players they are, they made the transition pretty quickly"
Correction/clarification (published June 5, 2009) -- The NHL's Colorado franchise is the Avalanche. The team name was incorrect in the original version of this story. Sharon Eberson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1960