Being a kid is only fun in retrospect. While it's actually happening it tends to vacillate from awkward, to hilarious, to the most miserable existence imaginable; usually all within a matter of minutes. Then it starts over from the beginning the following morning. Yet, especially when reflected upon later in life, nothing touches the moments of elation and edification found during the years of youth.
The days aren't repetitive, or predictable, they're one new experience after another. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but almost every time it's different. Only then, once school's done and the 'real world' finally takes hold like a bad case of the flu, life becomes sadly static. Same work, same play, same friends, same tedium. What happens? Obligation trumps imagination, responsibility drowns innovation; in essence, life happens.
But it doesn't have to be that way, just ask the Penguins' new head coach, Rick Kehoe. Every organization has that middle manager who's been passed over for a promotion so many times they've become the local Susan Lucci. Always a bridesmaid, never even once lucky enough to go home with the bartender from the reception. But every so often, one of these perennial also-rans gets a shot. Sometimes this move proves to be long over due, other times it's merely an invitation to crash and burn, but in Kehoe's case, the porridge may be just right.
Like a sixteen year old whose parents have gone out of town for the weekend, Kehoe's taken the keys to the car, put the top down, and hit the road. Why not? If anybody's earned the chance to put a foot to the throttle, it's Kehoe. He's been with the team since 1974, longer than thirteen of his current players have been alive. Who can blame him for wanting to see how this thing's going to corner?
Since his promotion to the top job last week, Kehoe's been testing out players the way an amateur chef tests pasta, by grabbing random noodles and whipping them up against the wall. If they stick, they're ready. Toby Petersen with Mario Lemieux and Martin Straka? Why not. Kevin Stevens with Robert Lang and Jan Hrdina? Sounds intriguing. Kris Beech with everybody short of assistant coach Joey Mullen? What is there to lose?
Everybody has to adjust early in the season, the NHL is a marathon and those who train for it as such are those who end up holding the Cup come June. This is why Kehoe's current tack is so welcome. He's finding out more in four games than the Penguins gleaned in all of training camp.
So far, he's potentially found a young finisher in Toby Petersen, conceivably rejuvenated a scorer in Stephane Richer, and a buoyed the spirits of a Moose that's begun to look more confident in the crease with each passing game. How?
Simply put, he's let them play and given them room to fail.
For too many seasons, the lines were the lines. Check that, the lines were what Mario said they'd be or what Jaromir Jagr said they'd be. Not to beat a dead Grand-Rapids Griffin into the ground, but did Kip Miller ever really deserve to be on a line with Jaromir Jagr? Why did a glower from a superstar almost always result in an immediate demotion? Sure, Mario could still dictate lines today if he wanted to, but that's what's exciting about the Penguins' youthnobody knows how good they are yet, not even Mario. So now everybody will find out, together.
On the day Ivan Hlinka was let go as head coach of the Penguins, some of his now former players, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, and Milan Kraft, joined Hlinka at his home to commiserate over some soup. Perhaps this was the final, telling sign that Hlinka would never get what the Penguins were going to need this season. Not soup, spaghetti; the Penguins need more than mere sustenance, they need substance. Soon. Hlinka was spending too much time concentrating on the bouillabaisse and not enough on the bolognese, shortening his bench before truly assessing all the talent at his disposal.
Only now are the Penguins beginning to find out that Dan LaCouture is willing to play against anybody, anywhere, and that Jan Hrdina can apparently disappear at any given moment, without any prior notice. In kicking over a few rocks here and there, some good has been unearthednamely the encouraging play of much of the youth. Yes, there has been some bad news as well, but no team has ever gone 82-0.
The easiest negative to rectify immediately would be for someone to eliminate the reluctance of General Manager Craig Patrick to swallow his pride and give Darius Kasparaitis the contract extension he deserves.
Kasparaitis (again) refuses to hold a grudge over how prickly his contract negotiations were over the summer, instead he simply comes to play hard every night. On a team thin along the blueline, Kasparaitis has proven once more to be a necessity in Pittsburgh, at least for the time being. The organization should reward his display of maturity and professionalism with an apology and a raise. Whether they will or not remains to be seen, as does much else, and that's where the excitement lies.
What will be the future of the Penguins' favorite ball of potential, Aleksey Morozov? When will the highly touted Milan Kraft start to take over games as advertised? How long can the Penguins keep this many centers (six if you count Mario) on the roster?
The only way these answers will be found, the only way the Penguins can make an honest effort toward building for their future, is to roll the dice and see what they've got.
From his first game through the Penguins' back-to-back wins against Atlanta and Dallas, new head coach Rick Kehoe has been giving everybody on the bench a genuine shot to claim a place on the team. It seems certainly more than coincidence that all of the roster has been reveling in their youth ever since.
Should Kehoe bring nothing else to this team, it quite possibly could be said that his coaching tenure will be labeled a success based on this alone. For what is hockey if does not celebrate the exuberance of youth? What good is this sport if it can't be those few brief moments when the world can slow down just long enough to experience what it's like to be young again?
Isn't that the point?
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes that what some call 'immature,' is something he calls 'being young at heart.' And the sooner he finds away to sell this to a jury of his peers, the better.