There's no place like home for resilient Rick Tocchet



After a Penguins news conference Wednesday to introduce coach Mike Johnston and assistant Rick Tocchet, general manager Jim Rutherford tossed out a hot potato.

Who wanted to go to the podium Friday night in Philadelphia to announce the team's first-round draft selection? Tocchet -- who was a fan favorite when he played for the Penguins and Flyers, and who recently did broadcasting work for Flyers games -- seemed like a logical choice.

"You know I'm going to get booed, Jim," Tocchet told Rutherford.

"Well, I don't want to get booed," Rutherford replied, according to Tocchet.

Sure enough, Tocchet stepped to the microphone and got jeered by the crowd at Wells Fargo Center. After all, he had crossed over to the enemy.

"You have to think it's the best rivalry in the NHL," Tocchet said of the Penguins and Flyers. "It's really intense. Sidney Crosby could be one of the most hated visiting players in Philadelphia."

Tocchet said that's because the Penguins center is such a good player.

"It's actually a real fun rivalry," Tocchet said.

Being behind the bench for Penguins-Flyers games is just one perk of Tocchet's new job. He's thrilled to be back in coaching and made it clear that while he's had sniffs from other teams, this is where he wanted to be.

"This is a very premier job, to be part of the Pittsburgh Penguins," Tocchet, 50, said. "You get a chance to coach some world-class players. It's a team that prides itself on excellence and winning. I lived here and played here and won a [Stanley] Cup."

Tocchet, who returned to live in Pittsburgh after getting fired as Tampa Bay coach following the 2009-10 season, was part of the Penguins 1992 Cup team.

He played for six teams over an 18-year NHL career, beginning and ending with the Flyers. His numbers jump out at you: 1,144 games, 440 goals, 952 points, 2,972 penalty minutes.

A popular player in general, Tocchet ingratiated himself with Penguins fans for his combination of skill and toughness after he was acquired from Philadelphia in a trade in the 1991-92 season.

In particular, there was March 15. Tocchet absorbed a shot to the face taken by his rather famous teammate Mario Lemieux. It broke Tocchet's jaw, but he didn't know that until after he scored two goals, including the winner, in a 4-3 victory against Chicago.

It was while he was showering after the game that he noticed how much his jaw ached. When the pain worsened overnight and he found blood on his sheets, he figured he should have it checked out.

"The doctor they sent me to, the X-ray machine wasn't strong enough because my jaw was too big, so I had to go somewhere else," Tocchet said, adding that the story about his oversized jaw provided good fodder for his teammates.

He missed one game before returning with a protective piece of equipment added to his helmet -- which didn't stop him from engaging in a few fights down the stretch run. It was his insistence that got him back in the lineup so quickly.

Tocchet recalled Craig Patrick, then the Penguins general manager, told him, "We can wire it and you'll be out for five six weeks." The playoffs were a month away.

"I said, 'I came from a team that's rebuilding. I got traded to the Penguins, to an All-Star team. There is no way I am going to sit in the stands watching the playoffs.' "

Tocchet hoisted the Cup that spring. He played two more seasons with the Penguins.

He and Lemieux -- now a Penguins co-owner -- have remained friends and golfing buddies, and Tocchet said he "bugs Mario once in a while" over the shot that hit his face rather than the net.

Now that he's back in the organization, Tocchet is not sure exactly what his role will be -- he expects Johnston will iron that out now that the draft is finished -- but he hopes to transfer some of his experience as a player to this generation of Penguins.

"I think the players in today's game, they want a guy who's going to be straightforward and honest," Tocchet said. "That's something I can comply with."

He doesn't expect the 2014-15 Penguins to emulate him by dropping the gloves with regularity, but he will coach them to be hard-nosed.

"Do I like a gritty player? Absolutely," Tocchet said. "Gritty, to me, means a lot of things. It can mean holding onto the puck when you're going to get checked. Going to the net in the playoffs.

"There are tricks of the trade I can show guys -- going to the front of the net, corner work, neutral zone stuff."

Tocchet expects to work closely with another fan favorite and 2009 Cup winner, Bill Guerin. Under Rutherford, Guerin has been promoted to assistant general manager. Guerin was considered a strong locker room influence as a player, and one of his outlined duties is to serve as a liaison between players and management.

"There's going to be a lot of interaction," Tocchet said. "I'm a big Billy Guerin fan. He's a friend of mine. He sees a lot of the things I see. He's going to be the management guy; I'm a coach. I've spent some time with him, and we've had a long conversation about the team."

Tocchet has moved well past a situation that brought him notoriety for the wrong reasons.

Following a criminal complaint about gambling that included New Jersey state troopers -- and involved football, not hockey -- Tocchet pleaded guilty to conspiracy to promote gambling in 2006 and served two years of probation.

The NHL did not suspend him, but he took a one-year leave from his job as an assistant with Phoenix.

"The only thing I can say is that it was just really overblown," said Tocchet, who later moved to Tampa Bay as an assistant and took over as Lightning head coach for most of 2008-09 and all of 2009-10. When the team didn't make the playoffs those two years, he was fired.

Now he's back behind an NHL bench, or at least he will be in a few months.

Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.


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