Penguins hire former nemesis
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Tom Fitzgerald remembers that his shift was in its final seconds.
That he had pulled in a pass from defenseman Gord Murphy and was skating toward the Penguins' blue line while considering his options.
That finally, he decided to throw the puck on goal, then curl back to the Florida bench for a breather.
So Fitzgerald crossed the blue line -- "Just barely," he said -- and, with Penguins defenseman Neil Wilkinson directly in front of him, launched a shot at goalie Tom Barrasso.
Many observers believe Fitzgerald's shot glanced off Wilkinson; he disagrees.
No matter. Because all that really counts -- and what no one can dispute -- is that the puck ended up behind Barrasso, breaking a 1-1 tie in the third period of Game 7 in the 1996 Eastern Conference final, and giving the upstart Panthers the boost they needed to reach the Stanley Cup final.
Fitzgerald, who was named the Penguins' director of player personnel yesterday, said it "absolutely" was the biggest goal of his career; it also ranks among the most devastating the Penguins have allowed during four decades in the NHL.
It occupies a place alongside the late one Eddie Westfall of the New York Islanders scored in Game 7 of the second round in 1975 at the Civic Arena, giving his team a 1-0 victory and completing its comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the series, and the one Islanders winger David Volek scored in overtime in Game 7 of Round 2 there in 1993.
When, coincidentally, Fitzgerald was wearing a visitor's jersey, too.
If anything, what New York did that spring was even more stunning than what the Panthers pulled off three years later, because the 1992-93 Penguins had finished with a league-high 119 points in the regular season and were an overwhelming favorite to win their third consecutive Cup.
"It was really us slaying the giant," Fitzgerald said.
That 1993 series proved anything is possible in the NHL. And if anyone still questioned that, the Penguins removed all doubts by naming Fitzgerald -- a guy who had a hand in some of the franchise's most profound playoff miseries -- to his new position.
"Pretty ironic, isn't it?" he said. "I had pretty much all my success in the playoffs against Pittsburgh. Getting a chance now to work with the organization -- to help it get back to those good old days of the early to mid-90s -- is overwhelming."
The Penguins hired another former NHL player, Jason Botterill, to fill the newly created position of director of hockey administration. He will deal with financial issues, including monitoring all aspects of the salary cap and handling preparations for salary-arbitration hearings.
Botterill scouted for Dallas last season, and will do some of that for the Penguins, too.
Fitzgerald, who retired before the 2006-07 season after playing 1,097 games in the NHL, will oversee and evaluate draft choices playing in college, junior hockey or Europe, as well as working with prospects from the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre.
He lasted 17 seasons in the NHL, in part because of his versatility and willingness to embrace a blue-collar role.
Fitzgerald credits former Penguins assistant coach Jimmy Roberts, his coach with the Islanders' AHL team during the embryonic years of his pro career, with diversifying his game and Islanders coaching legend Al Arbour with driving home the importance of playing a responsible, reliable style.
Arbour's message: "If you ever score 10 goals in this league, that's a bonus. But you can play a long time in a role like that."
Fitzgerald said he took Arbour's words "to heart," and identifying prospects likely to react the same way is a key facet of his job description.
"If you have a work ethic and you're a character-type person and then throw in talent, that's a pretty lethal [combination]," he said.
"That's the biggest thing I'll look for: Kids who are willing to listen, kids who are willing to learn. Because, to me, it's part of the process. You listen, you learn, then you execute. You can't get better if you don't.
"You can teach a kid who to play defense, and how to play without the puck. To me, that's where you win games. Those are the things I'll be looking for: Kids who can be sponges, who want to learn, who want to improve."
Who might like to be in position to make a little history of their own someday.
First Published July 17, 2007 11:02 pm