Not so long ago, Bob McElligott, like most Western Pennsylvania hockey fans, would savor a long Pittsburgh Penguins playoff run.
The Somerset native followed the Pens’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992.
Tonight, McElligott will be part of the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but he won’t be rooting for the Penguins.
No offense Pens’ fans, but McElligott is hoping the playoffs end very soon for Pittsburgh.
“It’s strange because you spend all those years watching the Pens and hoping they succeed in the playoffs,” said McElligott, who is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ radio play-by-play announcer. “Now you’re in a situation where you hope they fail and fail miserably because you’re on the other side. It’s kind of weird.”
The Blue Jackets and Penguins meet tonight in Game 1 of a best-of-7 first-round playoff game at Consol Energy Center.
McElligott is only part of a significant Johnstown Chiefs’ connection to the playoff series.
Joining McElligott in the radio booth is former Chiefs tough guy Jody Shelley, who went on to play in parts of 12 NHL seasons, including seven with the Blue Jackets. McElligott once was the famous Iron Dog mascot of the Chiefs who later advanced to be the team’s radio broadcaster.
On the Pittsburgh side, Westmont Hilltop graduate Dana Heinze is head equipment manager and Greater Johnstown grad Chris Stewart is the head athletic trainer. Each got his start in hockey with the former ECHL Chiefs team, and both have a pair of Stanley Cup rings, the second one earned with the 2009 Penguins.
“During the open media sessions, Bobby Mac will be in the locker room with Jody and they’ll talk to our players,” Heinze said. “I’ll make a point to pull them into the equipment room so we can chat.”
McElligott backed that statement.
“The last time we were in Pittsburgh we sat down and talked to Dana for a while,” said McElligott, the Chiefs’ play-by-play man from 1997 through 1999. “When they were here in Columbus in March we talked about old Johnstown stories for 15 or 20 minutes. Some players had to break us up. I love seeing those guys. As soon as we see each other we talk about the Chiefs and our days in Johnstown.”
There still is a game to be played though.
“At the end of the day I want my team to win. They want their team to win,” Heinze said. “The game is played on the ice. We’ll still be friends no matter what happens. We’ve been through a lot together. When you work in the minor leagues and ride the bus together you form that bond.”
Shelley played two seasons with the Chiefs as a contract player in the Calgary Flames organization. In 1998-99 he played 52 games, scoring 12 goals and 29 points while collecting an eye-popping 325 penalty minutes.
The next season, he had nine goals, 26 points and 256 penalty minutes in 36 games before a call up to the AHL’s Saint John Flames, where he added an additional 93 penalty minutes.
Like McElligott, Shelley spent time with Columbus’ AHL team in Syracuse before making the jump to the NHL in 2000-01 and played in 627 games with the Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
“We both made it through Johnstown, we both made it through Syracuse, and now we’re both in Columbus, Ohio,” Shelley said of his radio partner. “We appreciate where we came from.
“I’ve made it to the National Hockey League and I got the chance to play there (Johnstown),” added Shelley, who had a reputation as one of the league’s top enforcers and collected 1,538 NHL penalty minutes. “I’m proud of those days in Johnstown. Me and Bob always share those stories from our time in Johnstown.”
Shelley played in one NHL game in 2012-13 after appearing in 30 with the Flyers one season earlier.
McElligott has helped him make the transition to broadcasting. In addition to his radio work, Shelley has done some rink-side reporting on the TV broadcast.
“We’re together all the time. He’s doing more TV lately but he started by doing radio,” McElligott said. “He still does a lot of radio. We’re doing a lot of stuff on the website. We do a daily podcast. We’re together all the time.
“It’s been the most fun year I’ve had since I got here. He has made it so fun.”
McElligott chuckled when recalling Shelley’s radio debut.
“He came in and thought he had it all figured out. He had a big scorebook,” McElligott said. “Then the lights went down and he was like, ‘What the heck?’ It’s been fun to watch him develop. He’s come such a long way.”
Shelley said he learned a lot from that first game.
“Calling live sports at a fast pace is very unpredictable,” Shelley said. “My first game, I did all of this preparation. I had all of these notes prepared. I was actually overconfident for the preseason game. Then, the lights go down and I can’t see my notes. Bob is going 100 miles an hour. The National Anthem is being sung. Bob turns to me and asks me to give him two keys to the game.
“My confidence went down pretty quick. I gave him two keys that couldn’t be more general, something like, ‘Shoot the puck.’ ”
Both men anticipate a great playoff series and neither minds wild-card Columbus’ underdog role against the conference’s second-seeded Penguins.
“Everybody wants to be the favorite,” McElligott said. “Do you take it as a challenge? I know our players do. They’re taking it as a challenge. There is a lot more pressure on the Penguins than on the Blue Jackets.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys. They expect to be in the playoffs. After being eliminated on the last day last year, they expect to be here. They expect to beat the Penguins.”
McElligott isn’t taking the postseason opportunity lightly.
“I just realized the other day that I haven’t been with a team that’s been to the postseason in five years, four years with the Blue Jackets and my last year with Syracuse,” he said. “When I was in Johnstown, my first two years in hockey, I never realized the magnitude of getting to the playoffs. We had never done it. It’s almost like a do-over. Jody and I are together again, and by the way, the team is pretty good this time around.”
After being predicted as front-runners to win the Stanley Cup in recent seasons, the Penguins are in a different position as one of the top teams but not the runaway favorite to win. Pittsburgh has had playoff disappointments the past four seasons. But playoff hockey never loses its luster.
“Chris (Stewart) and I are a little spoiled. We just completed our eighth season in Pittsburgh. We’re lucky. We’ve been there in the playoffs every year,” Heinze said. “This is a whole new experience for the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’re going to be a tough to play against.”
That’s exactly what McElligott and Shelley are counting on.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.