BY MIKE MASTOVICH
PITTSBURGH — Prior to each NHL game they play, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Max Talbot boxes goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Arms flail. A few jabs land.
But no one gets hurt.
The playful ritual is just another in a long line of NHL superstitions adopted inside the Penguins locker room.
“We’ve been doing that a while now,” said Fleury, who occasionally can be seen on the jumbo scoreboard TV fending off Talbot’s jabs while the Penguins wait to enter the rink from the hallway just outside the Pittsburgh locker room. “We just keep it going. We do it just before we go on the ice. It started with one, then two.”
That’s how superstitions develop.
Do something out of the ordinary once, then follow that with a good game. Do the same thing the next night. And, the next. And, so on.
“It’s a little thing I got. I guess it worked,” Talbot said of his boxing skills, which he displayed wearing street clothes during games he missed because of an injury. “We kept on doing that. Fleury’s been playing well. I think that’s why he’s been playing well. A couple jabs. Nothing more to it. We just talk. We just act a little bit, nothing too crazy.”
The Stanley Cup playoffs provide a two-month stage for one “crazy” superstition after another.
“That’s kind of the fun part of the playoffs, you see guys get into their routines and stuff that you don’t typically see during the season,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “Guys that aren’t typically that superstitious, you start to see the same things over and over again. They’ll tell you they’re not superstitious – that they like to get in their routine – but in a way, we all like to get used to doing the same things and we don’t want to change things up.”
Just look at the players’ facial hair. Most Penguins don’t shave during a playoff run. One bushy beard after another can be seen lining the bench. A glance across the Detroit Red Wings bench will offer a similar view.
In the Penguins locker room, if someone unwittingly walks across the team logo on the carpet, that person probably will be chastised. It’s bad luck for a shoe to touch the logo.
There are routines involving the food players eat on game days, the suits coaches and management wear, the placement of sticks in the room and Evgeni Malkin’s zipping a puck off of the foot of Johnstown native Chris Stewart at the end of warmups.
Stewart, the Penguins head athletic trainer, is the last person off the ice after the warm-up skate. He does so to make sure no one needs unexpected treatment after a muscle pull or freak injury.
“I don’t know when that started with Geno (Malkin),” said Stewart, who is hit by a soft Malkin shot just outside the door leading to the Pens locker room.
At Mellon Arena, the lights are low as warm-ups conclude. Malkin usually is at the far end of the rink looking for Stewart. “He did it one game. He had a good game,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t out there for warm-ups the next night and he got mad. From then on, we started doing it.
“I always make sure I’m the last guy off the ice so that no players are on the ice when I’m not out there. When he’s done shooting down there, I wait and he shoots the puck off my foot. We’ve got it down to a routine now. Whatever works for him works for me. If that’s what he wants, why not do it? I’m not going to screw with anybody’s ritual. If I can help him play better, so be it.”
Malkin enters the Stanley Cup finals with nine goals and 19 points, so Stewart can live with a sore foot if he must.
Penguins head equipment manager Dana Heinze of Johnstown contends with a long list of superstitions and rituals that affect his job.
Prior to the game and during intermissions, Fleury positions his goaltender stick in a small nook in the doorway to Heinze’s office. When someone quickly enters the room to sharpen skates or adjust a helmet, sometimes the stick inadvertently is knocked down. Panic sets in as staffers attempt to place the stick in exactly the same position Fleury had it.
“We look at it and think, ‘What do we do?’ We pick it up and gently try to put it in the same spot,” Heinze said. “He’ll notice if it’s not and he’ll put it back in the same spot.”
A few feet away, Pens defenseman Darryl Sydor leans his stick on a black scuff mark on the wall. Sydor apparently did the same thing while winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004.
Heinze said a maintenance crew recently applied a coat of fresh paint on the locker room walls, covering the mark and creating a minor buzz. A new scuff mark mysteriously appeared on the wall in the exact spot as the old one.
Sometimes, rituals can be painful, too.
Heinze said Pens tough guy Georges Laraque rushes through the locker room door and must bump members of the equipment and training staffs in a particular order – Scott Adams, Brett Hart, Paul DeFazio, then Heinze.
Heinze said he had a sore rib after Laraque collided with a bit more enthusiasm than usual during a game. Once, when he forgot to wait in the line, Heinze said Laraque found him in his chair in the office and bumped him there.
Malkin retapes his stick between periods and must take a pair of scissors out of Heinze’s pocket to cut the tape. The list goes on.
The most superstitious Penguin is one of the youngest: Crosby. He was asked about them earlier this week.
“Too many to discuss, to be honest,” he said with a smile. “Especially in the playoffs.”
After the Pens defeated Philadelphia in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, Crosby refused to touch the conference championship trophy during the official presentation.
Other players declined to don the commemorative Eastern Conference championship caps.
The conference crown isn’t the big prize. Partaking in such activities, the theory goes, is bad luck.
“Our guys have unbelievable superstitions,” said Ed Johnston, the Penguins senior advisor of hockey operations. “Sid has four or five of them.”
Johnston is a former Pittsburgh general manager and coach. Even though he’s not on the bench these days, Johnston is not immune from superstition.
“The coaching staff, we’re just as bad as the players are,” said Johnston, who won a championship as a goaltender on the 1959-60 Johnstown Jets. “I wear a certain suit, one I had on for the last six or seven games we were undefeated. As soon as the game is over, I go home and put it back in the vault. I’ll bring it out for the Detroit series. Some of the coaches wear the same tie. They don’t change their stuff. That’s part of the game when you’re winning.”