In its most general sense, success is quite easy to characterize. In sport, it is many times even easier to recognize. With heroes and villains, sport finds itself one of the few arenas left in life where it is still acceptable to have winners and losers. 'Moral' victories aside, sport is bereft of a touchy-feely way to appease the masses with a group-hug that says, 'hey, we're all winners here.' In sport, losers inherit blame and ignominy while winners get fame, fortune, wine, women, and the extended Queen mega-mix of "Another One Bites the Dust" and "We Are the Champions."
Such is life, whether one admits it or not.
Yet, quantifying any single success beyond the scoreboard is invariably more intricate in both life and sport. Being a successful friend, parent, or citizen involves innumerable variables and grades on a sliding scale.
Robert Lang totaled four more points (80) than Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux (76) this season, it was a career high. Whose season was the greater success? If the amount of games played are accounted for (82 for Lang, 43 for Mario) does the evaluation change? Should it?
The truth is that it's impossible to render any sort of determination on a season before at least a majority of the facts weighed. That said, and based on the results to date, the 2000-2001 season for the Pittsburgh Penguins has been an unqualified success.
Moreover, it would have been a success even if the team had lost Game 7 in overtime a week ago. Should the Penguins fail to score another goal in these playoffs, this season would still be a success. Career years in points from Alexei Kovalev (95), Marty Straka (95), Lang (80), and Jaromir Jagr's highest goal total in since 1995-1996 (52 vs. 62, respectively) dot the Penguin landscape this season and numbers, compelling as they are, tell only half the tale. The rest is wrapped up in the organization officially turning a profit, and the emotional return of Mario Lemieux to the ice and the sport; only now is when it starts to get difficult.
The Penguins made a fundamental mistake when Mario Lemieux last swept through the Stanley Cup Finals nearly a decade ago. It involved the dangerous assumption that the Igloo was suddenly filled from top to bottom with diehard hockey fans. Or maybe this was just how they acted.
Nestled within a blue-collar—dare it be said—football town, the Penguins built a distinctly white-collar hockey team; and when the fans flooded to see the Penguins win, it was expected that these new found friends of the organization would stick around through the inevitable retooling that would follow Mario's departure. After all, they were hockey fans.
The rest, of course, is history.
The fickle receded as they always do while others were apprehensive when it came to Mario's anointed successor, Jaromir Jagr, and the tractable, yet consistently bland supporting cast which surrounded him. Interest waned and it took Lemieux himself to turn it around again.
However, now it has turned around. Astoundingly—as the Eastern Conference Finals return to Pittsburgh tied at one game apiece—the euphoria continues thanks as much to Darius Kasparaitis as to Mario Lemieux, and it has become obvious this revived hope, on the ice as well as off, will continue well into next season. This in and of itself is a marked step up from where the team was less than twelve months ago.
This is also precisely why the organization should capitalize on this success immediately. Support should be crystallized for the sake of the franchise's future while it's still possible. This playoff run is in the hands of the players from here on in. Rather than courting the same mistake twice, the organization would be better served to turn an eye toward the future and take a long look at both what will win, and what will play in Pittsburgh.
The reason Camden Yards, Coors Field, Pac Bell Park, and now PNC Park have been so taken to by their respective cities isn't just because they're new, but because they are reflections and celebrations of the best the city has to offer. So, too, the 'Steel Curtain' era of the Steelers and the 'Showtime' era of the Los Angeles Lakers; these were more than just marketing gimmicks, they were echoes of the surrounding town. They were personas which resonated to packed houses years after the trophies moved on.
With the questions surrounding Jaromir Jagr and a multitude of restricted free agents, the Penguins find themselves provided the rare opportunity to construct a team that can not only win, but that can command a continued following when Mario decides to hang up the skates for good.
People talk of what it takes to 'manufacture' a good team, but champions aren't manufactured, they are cultivated, built piece by piece on a solid foundation. For the first time in a long time, the Penguins seem to have that young, solid foundation in the form of more than just one player. Kraft, Melichar, Rozsival, Petersen, Ference, and Orpik among others are already drawing interest and most of them have yet to make the Penguins' roster.
Before the entry draft sneaks up on them, before it gets too late in the game, now is the time for the organization to look at the hard choices involving names like Jagr, Kovalev, and Kasparaitis, and construct a clear vision for the future. It will be difficult, entertaining the idea of retrofitting almost an entire roster that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in five years, but this must be the next step for an organization whose stated desire is to be a premiere power in the league once more.
It is time to test the argument that, even more than a trip to this year's Stanley Cup Finals, what this team needs now is the solidification of its future as a team and as part of the Pittsburgh community. To not sit on one success, but to instead use it as fodder for the next triumph, that should be the team's charge. Because rolling it all out to take one shot at the crown may be the province of the Florida Panthers, but seizing the grand opportunity when it arises, and building on the success that continues to be this season, only that is the way to bring Mario's goal to fruition. Only that is the way to rebuild the Penguin dynasty.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and is of the firm belief that Penguin fans should enjoy every minute of this team as currently constructed because, next year's roster should feature a dramatically different cast.