Long before they were given a catchy knickname and honorary statuettes across the country, they were already being quietly celebrated. But then Tom Brokaw wrote a book, Steven Spielberg got all hot and bothered, and the next thing anybody knew, this wasn't just some admirable lot of Joes, this was 'The Greatest Generation.'
Perhaps you neglected to read the 412 page love-letter to those who "succeeded on every front" because you're any one of the millions born after 1940 and you are a little bitter that your generation wasn't given much of a shot to compete in a contest nobody knew existed. Don't worry, the point of this book (beyond its accidental confirmation how America's sense of self-importance has lost all perspective) is that ordinary people, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, can sometimes do more than imaginable.
It's a good premise, and it's one the Pittsburgh Penguins would be wise to take to heart right now.
As of Monday morning the Penguins found themselves a team faced with the one scenario no one envisioned at the end of last season. Back then it was a simple either/or proposition. Either the Penguins would lose Jaromir Jagr, or they would lose their second line of Martin Straka, Alexei Kovalev, and Robert Lang. They couldn't afford all four, and since Jagr's price tag figured to be equal to the combined cost of the other three, the organization did the right thing. They took numbers over name.
So they all rolled over and one fell out. Only today, there's almost no one left in the bed save Robert Lang.
Even if one excludes Jagr, the Penguins are currently without three of their four leading scorers from last season; one is lost for a month, another for perhaps the entire season.
A year ago, Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, and Mario Lemieux had 95, 95, and 76 points respectively on the season. Both Kovalev and Straka had career years and Mario averaged 1.76 points per game. The third leading scorer on that team was Lang with 80 points. Number five was Jan Hrdina. He had 43 points in 78 games.
Kovalev should come back in a few weeks and hopefully he'll be in mid-season form, still the Penguins just got a lot younger, and a lot less experienced in the course of a single weekend. Were this squad a middle-eastern woman looking for a husband, this might be a good thing. Since they are a hockey team, it's not.
A week ago this column touted the Penguins new attitude and how they seemed to be reveling in their youth. This is something that shouldn't change. However if there was ever a time for the youth of this franchise to demonstrate the traits of greatness, it's now. Perseverance, determination, courage, resolve; everything that makes a good team a contender is what the Penguins must discover within themselves before this season gets out of hand. The league is too talented for any of them to pretend they can do otherwise.
This isn't to suggest the Penguins get old, conservative, and boring, rather that it's time for some of these players to grow up and prove they're worth an NHL paycheck.
No more can Jan Hrdina stand around waiting for Jagr or Mario to bail him out. No more can Aleksey Morozov disappear for entire weeks and expect to celebrate wins with the boys. No more can any player on the roster take a game, a shift, or a play for granted in the hopes that they'll catch a break or a bounce.
It is time for this team to realize that there's nobody left to catch them when they fall; no Jagr, no Lemieux, no Kovalev, no Straka. The sooner they understand this, the better off they will be this year, and for years to come.
For seasons the Penguins have let the little things slide, sometimes for a period, sometimes for a game. They'd give an inch, teams would take three feet, and the Penguins might still win. This was possible because the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux could score four goals on any given night at any given point in the contest. Now, that's over.
Right now, letting anything slide can be no more, and the one who must make it so has to be Head Coach Rick Kehoe.
Whether Kehoe channels the ghost of Knute Rockne from 1928, Herb Brooks from 1980, or Denzel Washington from any one of five films not named 'Carbon Copy,' he must make this team believe. He must instill a spirit inside them that will not quit. He must teach them that individually they may be formidable, but collectively they can be unbeatableand if that's different than everything this team's been taught to date, so be it.
Right now this group of rookies and no names must become a team, together, with one mind, one heart, and one goal. The Penguins can no longer concede anything. Not an inch. Not one. Not now. No more.
The reason it happens in fiction is because it first happens in real life and it can happen here too, so long as this team believes it can.
As depleted as the Penguins are, they can still win games, they can still succeed, and they can still be viableif not more cohesiveby the time Kovalev and Lemieux return. But they cannot be so if there is any doubt, if this team is in any way divided. The Penguins must now unite like never before.
Extraordinary greatness doesn't require extraordinary men, it requires extraordinary effort.
Becoming the 'Greatest Generation' of anything doesn't come about because a television anchor says so, or because somebody takes a poll, it comes about because at some point someone stands up and declares that failure isn't feasible, that quitting is not an option.
This is the reason Pittsburgh has seen greatness before, because role players meant as much as superstars and everybody gave the same effort every time. Now is the time for this generation of Penguins to realize that the only way to bring the greatest chalice of them all back to this city again is for each Penguin to do everything he can to win every battle he can.
Now is the time when lesser teams hang their heads and go home. Now is the time when great teams rise up and say 'no more.'
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes that the Penguins couldn't have planned for worse luck if they tried, but he also understands that no one would want the Stanley Cup if winning it were easy.