Game 7 of the Patrick Division final 25 years ago ended a season, a dream and a dynasty. But for the characters involved, their stories did not end there. For many Penguins and Islanders, it was — for better and for worse — the jumping off point for the next chapter in their careers and in their lives.
Ray Ferraro awoke Tuesday morning in Herning, Denmark, where he’s stationed this month calling the IIHF World Championship for TSN, and checked his cell phone. In the middle of the night, the Washington Capitals had eliminated the Penguins from the playoffs, ending their run at a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the winner at 5:27 in overtime.
It felt rather familiar.
Twenty-five years ago this week, Ferraro feathered a pass to David Volek, whose Game 7 goal then thwarted the previous Penguins’ three-peat try. In Pittsburgh. In the second round. At 5:16 of overtime. But that’s where the comparisons run dry. The 2018 Capitals were the higher seed. The 1993 New York Islanders? They barely belonged on the same ice as the Penguins.
“It’s impossible to have less than no expectations,” Ferraro said recently, “but that’s where we were.”
On May 15, 1993, the headline at the top of the New York Times sports page read: Improbable. Impossible. Incredible. Islanders. Below was a photo of the Islanders mobbing Volek. That image, capturing the moment a dark horse dethroned a champion, is indelibly inked on the hearts of those Islanders players and seared into the minds of the Penguins and their fans.
It’s also not so hard to see that as the moment when both franchises started to splinter.
David and Goliath
Before flying to Pittsburgh for the start of the second-round series April 29, 1993, Darius Kasparaitis, the Islanders’ 20-year-old rookie defenseman, had a friend from Brooklyn tell him, “If you win one game, I’ll buy you a beer.” The Penguins entered the playoffs with 1-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. The Islanders were 65-1.
“It was our team against one of the best teams to ever play in the NHL,” Kasparaitis said.
“It was like David and Goliath,” defenseman Rich Pilon added.
The Penguins ended the regular season with 119 points, 32 ahead of the Islanders, and won a league-record 17 consecutive games before tying the New Jersey Devils in their season finale. They had four Hall of Famers on the ice (Mario Lemieux, Larry Murphy, Joe Mullen and Ron Francis) plus a future Hall of Fame winger (Jaromir Jagr), a Hall of Fame head coach (Scotty Bowman) and a Hall of Fame general manager (Craig Patrick).
“It was our team against one of the best teams to ever play in the NHL.”
Islanders defenseman Darius Kasparaitis
“That was by far our best team,” winger Kevin Stevens said. “Better than ’91. Better than ’92.”
The Islanders beat the Devils twice in the final week of the regular season to avoid Pittsburgh in the first round, then polished off the Capitals in six games. “There wasn’t one Hall of Famer on that team,” Islanders winger Tom Fitzgerald said, and the team also lost its leading scorer after Pierre Turgeon separated his shoulder on a cheap shot from Washington’s Dale Hunter.
“The one thing we had was an absolute mastermind in Al Arbour,” goalie Glenn Healy said. “He found a way to convince us we did have a chance and we did belong on the ice.”
Arbour, who died in 2015, spent 19 seasons of his Hall of Fame coaching career behind the Islanders bench. He won three Stanley Cups as a player and four in a row as a head coach. But the scheme Arbour drew up against the mighty Penguins in 1993 may have been his greatest.
Knowing the Islanders couldn’t match the Penguins’ firepower, Arbour tried to even the scales by keeping scorers off balance. Don’t try to win shifts against Lemieux, he told his defense, just try to tie them. He deployed Kasparaitis to make life miserable for Lemieux, who despite missing two months because of Hodgkin’s lymphoma had 160 points in 60 regular-season games.
The story of whether that strategy worked could be distilled into one shift. It occurred in Game 6 when Lemieux dumped Kasparaitis near the Islanders goal. The rookie got back on his skates and then lost his mind. “He was running around like a top,” Ferraro recalled. Kasparaitis decked Lemieux three times, delivering head shots each time, before going to the penalty box.
“Lemieux hit me from behind,” Kasparaitis explained. “I got up and punched him right in the —”
The word he wanted was face.
“I know [Lemieux] is a big superstar, but you can’t play like that,” Kasparaitis continued. “Now when I look at it, I look like an idiot. Then it was fun.”
Lemieux, who declined an interview for this story, had more than Kasparaitis on his mind. He lasted one shift in Game 1 before leaving because of back spasms. The Islanders’ celebrated their 3-2 win by drinking IC Light in the visiting dressing room at Civic Arena. “Guys from Pittsburgh hate me,” Kasparaitis told reporters. “They said in the paper I play like little dog.”
“His job was to get under Mario’s skin,” Stevens said. “He did.”
Lemieux missed Game 2 and part of Game 3, both Penguins wins. But the Islanders’ tactics had an effect. In the Penguins dressing room, a newspaper clipping was taped to the door. A quote from winger Brad Dalgarno was circled: “We’ll frustrate them into breaking down and playing individual hockey by bumping and grinding and trash talking, just like they do in basketball.”
Arbour instructed his team, “Be a pain in the [butt], but stay out of the penalty box.” But even when the Islanders were whistled, they thrived. Ferraro and center Benoit Hogue each had a shorthanded goal in Game 1, and Fitzgerald scored two on the same minor penalty in Game 4. The irony, Fitzgerald admits now, was the penalty for high-sticking should have been on him.
When the series returned to Pittsburgh for Game 7, Kasparaitis phoned his friend from Brooklyn. “Either way this goes,” Kasparaitis told him, “you owe me a beer.”
To hell and back
The bad blood between Stevens and Pilon had been brewing.
“I remember standing at the draw one time,” Pilon said, “and [Stevens] goes, ‘You’re not going to finish this series.’ ”
“I was a huge talker,” Stevens confirmed. “[Pilon] didn’t talk much, but he was dirty as hell.” In his way, Stevens meant that as a compliment. “He took it to the limit. We all did.”
Back then, Pilon said, “we crossed the line against superstars. But there was a price to pay.” That’s why Pilon had his head up early in Game 7 when he retreated to pick up a puck in the corner. He pretended not to see Stevens charging toward him. “I kept thinking, God, he’s not stopping,” Pilon said. “I’m going to wait until the last minute and throw my shoulder into him.”
“I went at him,” Stevens said. “That’s the last thing I really remember.”
What he’d learn later was Pilon’s visor struck Stevens above the right eye, knocking him unconscious. He fell face-first onto the ice and didn’t move. “It was one of the most disgusting images I’d ever seen,” Penguins defenseman Peter Taglianetti said. Stevens was wheeled out on a stretcher. He had a concussion, a sinus bone fracture and an obliterated nose.
To this day, Stevens and Pilon swear there’s no animosity. They were teammates later. Before New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith plucked Pilon off waivers in 1999, he first phoned Stevens and said, “We’re going to get Pilon. You OK with that?” Stevens replied, “Of course I am.”
After their collision, Stevens and Pilon also were set on parallel paths as their hockey careers spiraled, ravaged by years of addiction and substance abuse. Twenty-five years later, perhaps no one understands Stevens better than the man he hit. “It’s weird how that works out,” Stevens said. While Stevens’ struggles played out publicly, Pilon’s problems remained more private.
A doctor had told Stevens his face looked like a potato chip, crushed into tiny pieces.
“Whatever your ugly is, it’s really ugly for you,” Pilon said. “It feels like the end of the world.”
Stevens said he first tried cocaine during his 55-goal season in 1993, a few months before the Penguins-Islanders playoff series. After the Pilon hit, Stevens became hooked on oxycodone. As a player, his production plummeted. Off the ice, Stevens hit one low after another. After going to rehab in 1998 and 1999, he was arrested in 2000 for felony cocaine possession. In 2016, he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to probation for conspiring to sell oxycodone.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” Stevens said. “It wears you out. After a while, it takes over your life.”
This week marks two years of sobriety for Stevens.
Pilon said he never tried a drug until the Rangers’ year-end party in 2001. “Some guys can try cocaine, and they’re OK,” he said. “Rich Pilon, who has an addictive personality, tried it and couldn’t stop.” Pilon signed with St. Louis the next season and was injured early. “I was thinking, If I can milk this injury, I can collect $1.6 million the next two years,” he recalled. “I can party.”
Pilon said he’s been clean for 14 years.
“I got in a bad car accident.” he explained. “I tried to end my life, actually.”
In 2004, near his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Pilon made sure his insurance was in order, then tried to make a car crash look like an accident. “My truck was completely a sardine can,” he said. “How I walked away from it, no one knows.” Pilon suffered three compression fractures in his lower back. He went on living. He told no one he’d attempted suicide.
Five years after the accident, a friend persuaded Pilon to try motivational speaking. The former NHLer brought his son Garrett, who was 10, to his talk in La Ronge, a town three hours north of Saskatoon. Pilon told about his childhood and the transition to pro hockey. At the point in his story where he described the crash, Pilon said he was fortunate to have survived.
“As I’m telling it, I go, holy crap, I’m still lying about this,” Pilon said. “I’m lying about what I did. So I said, ‘I’m going to say something here that no one knows except me.’ And then I basically talked to my kid. I cried. The whole place was crying. My son, in his chair, was bawling. He came up and was just holding me. I needed to let go of that. It was another part of a lie.”
Today, Pilon and his wife still live Saskatoon, where he trains seven thoroughbreds. “It’s more of a hobby,” he said, “to keep me busy and out of trouble.” Pilon turned 50 last month, and he’s Grandpa now. He told his daughter Megan, “I’d prefer that [baby] Daxton calls me Uncle in front of people until I turn 55.” His son Garrett plays in the Capitals farm system, nearing the NHL.
“I’m fearful at times,” Pilon said, “because of my track record. But I’m proud of him.”
Back on May 14, 1993, the night they collided, Pilon was still on the ice and Stevens lay in a hospital bed listening to Game 7 on the radio. A doctor had told Stevens his face looked like a potato chip, crushed into tiny pieces. The Penguins trailed, 3-1, late in the third period. Stevens had surgery scheduled for the morning. In the meantime, he clung to hope for a comeback.
‘The magic of David Volek’
When Lemieux and Uwe Krupp drew matching penalties at 15:55 of the third period in Game 7, Healy did some math. Four minutes remained, and Lemieux was out for two. “Then,” Healy recalled, “bang.” Ron Francis stuffed a shot past him 18 seconds later. Later, with one minute left and the Penguins’ net empty, Rick Tocchet deflected a Larry Murphy shot for the tying goal.
“It just felt like the anvil dropped on you,” said Ferraro. “I was on the bench beside Derek King. He goes, ‘Now that’s a shame.’ We both knew that was it. We were screwed now.”
In the Islanders dressing room during the intermission, Steve Thomas broke the silence. Two weeks ago, he told the team, we would have taken this in a heartbeat — next goal wins.
“In overtime,” Bowman, the Penguins coach, said last week, “goals come from unusual places.”
There was no less likely hero than Volek. The 26-year-old winger, in the doghouse because of a contract dispute with Islanders’ ownership, was a healthy scratch for 18 games that season. He didn’t play in the first round. He watched from the press box in Games 1 and 2 of the second round. Despite scoring earlier in Game 7, he sat most of the third period as a defensive liability.
“I don’t think anyone expected David Volek to score the goal,” Kasparaitis said.
But there he was, on the far side with fresh legs, when Ferraro scooped a loose puck and led an odd-man rush just five minutes into overtime. Ferraro fed Volek, who roofed a one-timer past Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso. “It was the magic of David Volek,” Kasparaitis said.
Later, Healy recalled, members of the Islanders’ ownership group left Civic Arena and found Arbour standing beside the team bus. “What do you think of David Volek now?” Arbour asked. On the way to the airport, he directed the bus driver to stop at a beer store. Arbour went inside, Kasparaitis said, and returned with two cases of Bud Light for the players.
But just as quickly as the Islanders shocked the hockey world, they started to fall apart.
At an end-of-year dinner, after New York lost to the Montreal Canadiens, captain Patrick Flatley wrote Healy’s contract request on a napkin and handed it to one of the team’s minority owners. “I kind of knew I was done when he crumpled it up in a ball and threw it at me,” Healy said.
The next month, Fitzgerald got a call from general manager Don Maloney.
“You’re pretty tight with Jeff Norton,” Maloney asked. “Have you talked to him?”
“Uh, no,” Fitzgerald recalls saying.
“Geez. OK,” Maloney said. “I’ve got to call him.”
“Is everything all right?” Fitzgerald asked.
“Well, yeah,” Maloney said. “I just traded him to San Jose.”
Maloney neglected to mention to Fitzgerald over the phone he was leaving him unprotected in the upcoming expansion draft. Florida selected Fitzgerald. “I was pissed,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m like, ‘The [bleeping] Florida Panthers?’ ” Healy was taken by Anaheim in the first phase of the draft, claimed by Tampa Bay in the second phase and then traded to the Rangers.
In January 1994, Volek, who didn’t respond to interview requests, retired because of a herniated disc. The Islanders reached the playoffs that season, but they were swept by the Rangers, who then won the Stanley Cup with Healy as their backup goalie. Arbour retired after the season.
After beating the Penguins, the Islanders didn’t win another playoff series until 2016. By then, Ferraro was part of the broadcast crew covering the series, a first-round win against Florida. “I remember thinking, the last time they won, I was playing,” he said. “That’s far, far too long ago.”
Bowman and bankruptcy
If the Islanders could be accused of not doing enough to keep their team together, perhaps the Penguins were guilty of quite the opposite. Less than two weeks after the Game 7 loss, owner Howard Baldwin said, “I’m as disappointed as every fan on the street about what happened in the playoffs, but does that mean we’re going to go and rip this team apart and do stupid things?
Baldwin likened the Penguins to the great Edmonton Oilers teams of the previous decade. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1984 and 1985, then bounced back after being upset by the Calgary Flames in 1986 and claimed the Cup in 1987, 1988 and 1990. Baldwin believed these Penguins, whom he’d keep together, would do the same as Edmonton, “only that much more.”
“You know something?” Baldwin continued. “[The Oilers] could have won three or four Cups when they came back except [owner] Peter [Pocklington] decided to disband the team. I’m not going to do that. I think these guys will come back and win at least two more Cups.”
The Penguins went bankrupt before they went back to the Stanley Cup final, nearly 15 years later.
True to Baldwin’s word, however, the team largely remained in place after the 1993 playoffs. The main departure was their Hall of Fame head coach. Two weeks after exiting the playoffs, Bowman and Patrick parted ways. According to Bowman, he’d assumed Bob Johnson’s contract when Johnson suffered a brain aneurysm in August 1991. (He died three months later.)
Bowman, now 84, said last week he was “upset with certain things in the contract,” which had ended. When Red Wings general manager Jim Devellano called Bowman about Detroit’s coaching vacancy, the offer included a significant pay raise for Bowman. “It was such a difference in contracts,” Bowman said. “It wasn’t even close, to leave or stay. No question.”
In Pittsburgh, Bowman and the players clashed at times. While Johnson made players feel at home, several former Penguins said, Bowman stayed behind the scenes. He didn’t attend practices — except when Canadian media were there — and left his assistants in charge. “I had good people with me,” Bowman said. He preferred not to have total control of the team.
While Bowman built a new dynasty in Detroit, reaching four Stanley Cup finals and winning three over the next nine years, the Penguins marched toward the brink of financial ruin. It was partly due to bad breaks. Lemieux missed most of the 1993-94 season after back surgery. The NHL’s work stoppage cost teams tens of millions. Lemieux retired prematurely in 1997.
But much of the blame was on Baldwin. To meet the price — and his promise — of keeping the team together, Baldwin signed players to lucrative deals and then asked to defer their salaries. The bills caught up to him. In 1998, the Penguins declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Down the line, the result was Lemieux, who was owed more than $32 million in deferred salary, securing an ownership stake in the team he once played for, and would play for again later.
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Last one left
Today, the 1992-93 Penguins and Islanders players are between 45 and 60 years old. They are owners and front-office executives, coaches and construction workers, TV personalities and recovering addicts, fathers and grandfathers. What they aren’t, for the most part, are active hockey players.
The exceptions are Jagr, 46, who played in the NHL earlier this season, and Kasparaitis, 45, who played for Lithuania’s national team as recently as two weeks ago.
Jagr declined an interview request, but Kasparaitis answered while walking back to his hotel in Kaunas, Lithuania, one night last month. He was readying to retire the next day, after Lithuania’s gold-medal game against Estonia in the IIHF Division I Group B championships.
“Tomorrow,” Kasparaitis said. “Then it’s over.”
“I want to play until I die.”
Kasparaitis never won a Cup. The pinnacle of his career, he said, may have been beating the Penguins — and bullying them. He was traded to Pittsburgh in 1996. “I was very scared,” he said. “I knew people in Pittsburgh hated me. I wasn’t sure why they even wanted me there.” When Kasparaitis arrived, Jagr quipped, “Now we have to wear shoulder pads in practice.”
Kasparaitis, his wife and their five children live in Miami, where Kasparaitis is president and co-founder of Verzasca Group, a real estate development company. He has no plans to hang up his skates for good. He still plays lunch hockey three days per week. Kasparaitis went out on top, with a 4-1 win in the gold-medal game, and was back at a rink in Miami three days later.
“I want to play until I die,” he said.
Before the phone call ended, Kasparaitis had one story to add. It’s funny, he said. He actually was suspended from lunch hockey not long ago. “Two weeks for being too rough,” he said. “They told me not to come for two weeks. Then they called after one week and told me I can come back. They let me play again. I get overboard sometimes.”
Some things haven’t changed.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.