Bill Guerin: The Intangible Difference by @ChicksDigHockey


I am a Bill Guerin fan. The announcement that the Penguins were promoting Billy G to Assistant GM brought a smile to my lips and joy to my heart. I wrote this article in 2013 but I proudly offer it today as a homage to a man from the Penguins' past who stands on the bridge to their future:



The Pittsburgh Penguins entered 2009 with some issues in their organization. The 2008 Eastern Conference Champions never really approached conference dominance that next season. Saturday, February 14 of ‘09 typified their short comings of the season. The Pens went up 2-0 in Toronto and looked like they were going to win with relative ease. Instead, they folded like a cheap umbrella in a storm, allowing six unanswered goals in a 6-2 loss to the Leafs. The next day,  head coach Michel Therrien paid for the lack luster season with his job. The Pens knew they couldn’t get back to the playoffs if they didn’t turn things around. Dan Bylsma, who had been coaching the Pens' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre took over as head coach.

That wasn’t the only move the Penguins would make that winter. Looking for a veteran presence for their locker room and some experience on the Ice, the Penguins acquired Bill Guerin from the Islanders on March 4, 2009. At 38 years old Guerin, the popular Isles captain, agreed to waive his no-trade clause to join the Pens and hopefully be that intangible they were looking for to make a difference.



That’s what it boils down to. The intangibles. That one thing that can’t really be defined. The thing that turns good into great.  In this case, someone whose presence makes a difference though it wouldn’t seem so. The Penguins would be Guerin’s eighth NHL team in his 16 year career. He had size (6’ 2”, 220#),  he could still skate and he wasn’t one to shy away from dropping the gloves. Did he still have what it would take to make a difference? Guerin once raised the Stanley Cup, but that was in another time and place, when he was a 24-year-old member of the 1995 champion Devils.

Billy joined the New york Islanders in 2007 and was voted their captain soon after. The Islanders were a young, injury-riddled team fighting to rise from the bottom of the NHL standings. He was asked to try to produce goals and provide an upbeat example, especially for the younger Islanders. He was quoted in a New York Times interview as saying, “You have good days and bad days. Some days are tougher than others. But you have to try to come to the rink with a good attitude every day and expect the best.” In doing that, he made a difference to the bottom-dwelling Islanders.

Guerin was, by all accounts, beloved wherever he played. When Josh Bailey was a rookie center with the Islanders, the Guerins declared Oct. 2 ‘Josh Bailey Day’ and had 19th birthday festivities at their house for the rookie. Bailey told The New York Times, “His kids sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. They gave me gifts and a cake. He’s treated me great.” Kyle Okposo credits Guerin with helping him become comfortable and transitioning to the Islanders when he joined them at age 20 calling him a great leader. Leadership is an intangible as is mentoring those in whom you see talent.

Before the trade deadline in 2009, Guerin had left open the possibility of lifting his no-trade clause but also expressed reluctance to uproot his family. A native of Massachusetts, Guerin had made Long Island his year-round home with his wife and four kids. All he would say when asked about waiving his no-trade clause was, “I can’t say, ‘Yes, I’ll lift it.’ Or, ‘No, I definitely won’t.’ ” He did. 

Legend has it that by the end of his first day with the Penguins Billy Guerin had famously told Sidney Crosby to “Lighten the f*ck up” while grinning from ear to ear. The legend continues that Sidney Crosby did just that. That may have been what made Billy Guerin the intangible that Jarome Iginla couldn’t be for the Pens. Iginla took the approach that the best way to handle Sid was to stay out of his way. Guerin did anything but that. He wasn’t the flashiest player and he didn’t have the biggest game (make no mistake, he still had game) but he had charisma and he wasn’t afraid to confront Crosby and call him on his shit.
Nicholas Cotsonika interviewed Billy as late as this past March about his playing days with Crosby. He asked Guerin what it took to play on Crosby’s wing. “Confidence” was Guerin’s answer. He told Cotsonika, “You have to be confident in yourself to give [the puck] to him in certain spots. Once you figure that stuff out, he’s just a lot of fun to play with. I mean, it’s awesome.” That was part of Guerin’s intangible quality; the ability to be confident in his skills while being confident that Sid would find a way to make it work.

On April 17, 2009 the Pens went into over-time against the Philadelphia Flyers in game 2 of the first round of the playoffs after winning game one. Guerin, who had already scored a goal in the game, found himself in a rare 5 on 3 OT chance. He took Sergei Gonchar's pass from center point and skated toward the net from the low left circle, faked a pass and beat goalie Martin Biron on a shot that deflected off the left post and into the net 18:29 into overtime. It was the first game-winning playoff goal in Guerin's 17-season career. Admittedly, that was a pretty tangible contribution on the road to the Cup.

Guerin continued to be a factor in the Penguin’s 2009 Cup run. The final round went to a memorable game 7 before the Pens triumphantly beat the Wings 2-1 on their home ice. It was a remarkable if not improbable run for the Pens who had struggled thru the first part of the season. There were so many stars in that series; Max Talbot, Evgeni Malkin, Marc Andre Fleury and Crosby himself. Commissioner Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to the young captain they called “Sid The Kid” who hoisted it in that classic move and pressed it high above his head to the cheers of his team mates and anyone left in The Joe. Crosby could have next handed the Cup to any number of team mates; Talbot who scored the Pen’s two goals, Geno who was that year’s Conn Smythe winner, or “Flower” who arguably saved the game but he didn’t.
 Sidney Crosby handed the Stanley Cup to Bill Guerin. He returned the Cup to 38 year-old hands that last held the legendary trophy at age 24.  If you watch that hand-off, you’ll see them lock eyes at center ice. In that moment, you’ll understand that Billy Guerin was the intangible difference. He contributed his skill, his experience and his leadership to a young team full of talent who were looking for that one thing to elevate them to greatness. Palpable respect passes between the two as Guerin steadied his grip and accepted the greatest trophy in all of sport.  

In 2009, ‘The Bad Ass Billy Guerin’ was the intangible difference. The Penguins have searched for his successor ever since.



Shortly after this piece was written, Bill was inducted into the U S Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the 2013 class. Here is his induction video:
                                               

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