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While his owner gripes about dirty play and his captain is out with a concussion, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke has earned a reputation as a headhunter. (SHAUN BEST/Shaun Best/Reuters)
While his owner gripes about dirty play and his captain is out with a concussion, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke has earned a reputation as a headhunter. (SHAUN BEST/Shaun Best/Reuters)

ROY MACGREGOR

The problem and the promise of the Pens Add to ...

There are times when it feels as if the Pittsburgh Penguins lack only a Canadian address.

The National Hockey League franchise has seen its greatest glory, three Stanley Cups, under two Canadian captains, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, who also led their country to the Olympic gold medal in 2002 (Mr. Lemieux) and 2010 (Mr. Crosby).

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Those names alone conjure the best our country can offer. At their best, the Penguins - one of the league's best teams - represent unparalleled finesse. Their storied franchise and iconic surnames invoke worship.

While Mr. Lemieux retired as a player shortly after Canada's gold-medal win in Salt Lake City, Mr. Crosby has emerged in recent years as the undeniable No. 1 star of the league, a fierce competitor surrounded by such other gifted players as Evgeni Malkin on forward, Kris Letang on defence and Marc-André Fleury in goal.

But the team also possesses Matt Cooke, widely regarded as the NHL's dirtiest player.

Trying to strike the right balance of finesse and muscle, the Penguins are the state of hockey in 2011.

Like so much of Canada, the Penguins are also grappling with the sport's violent nature, which is all the more poignant because of the team's leadership status.

Mr. Lemieux, now the team owner, has called a recent brawl between his Penguins and the New York Islanders a "travesty," while Mr. Crosby has been out of the game since Jan. 5 with concussion symptoms caused by two separate hits to the head, the first incurred during the current season's showcase moment, the Winter Classic held in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day.

Mr. Crosby, prior to New Year's Day, had been closing out a year of incomparable brilliance, from February's goal that won Canada its Olympic gold to the 25-game scoring streak he put together in November and December that had him running away with the scoring race. His new year, however, began cloudy and has since darkened into questions as to when he will play again and, alarmingly, will he ever be the same?

They are fair questions, given that concussion - which has become the game's No. 1 issue - has already cost the season for Boston Bruins' gifted centre Marc Savard, which again connects back to the Penguins. Mr. Savard's troubles began with a hit to the head suffered last March when he was struck by Mr. Crosby's teammate, Mr. Cooke.

While Mr. Crosby's hit to the head is the most talked about injury in the game, Mr. Cooke's hits have made him the game's most talked about headhunter. Whereas Mr. Crosby, Mr. Malkin and Mr. Letang suggest Pittsburgh is a skill team, the reality is that the Penguins are, at the same time, the league's dirtiest team - at least by the various statistical measures available.

Fighting in the NHL has risen dramatically in the years since the 2004-05 owners lockout. According to the website www.hockeyfights.com, the Penguins lead the league with 62 majors for fighting, ahead of both Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues, with 55 each, and far, far ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, with only eight fights so far.

Just for the record, the Red Wings are widely considered the best team in hockey over the past decade and more.

A single Penguin, Deryk Engelland, has more fights, 12, than the entire Detroit team. Last month, Pittsburgh signed Mr. Engelland to a three-year contract extension.

But it is much more than just fighting - an "infraction" that carries no meaningful penalty in hockey. Pittsburgh averages almost 20 minutes of penalties a game - the highest in the league - while Detroit averages less than nine.

Throughout its history, the Penguins have been a meld of skill and nastiness. Before Mr. Crosby there was the incredibly gifted Mr. Lemieux, a Hall-of-Famer who won two Stanley Cups and once called the NHL a "garage league" for its tolerance of dirty play.

Back when the 1967 expansion team was beginning, it boasted the elegant Andy Bathgate, but there were also players in the past such as Bryan (Bugsy) Watson, who took great pride in being the most-despised player around the league and was known as hockey's "Super-Pest." Today, Mr. Cooke has that honour.

There has always been that two-faced quality to the franchise. When the team name was announced at a fancy dinner hosted by the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the crowd broke up, thinking it was a joke. By 1991-92 the "Penguins" were the most popular name in hockey.

Mr. Lemieux himself has changed as much, from an 18-year-old draft pick who refused to put on the team jersey or shake hands on the draft stage, to a 45-year-old owner who over the years earned the respect of the entire hockey world.

When he spoke out last week - threatening at one point to leave the game if it does not clean up - he was branded a hypocrite insofar as he is the face of the league's most penalized franchise.

There is truth to that, but also opportunity.

Mr. Lemieux can lead by example. As an owner and governor, he can lead the charge for change.

And he can, should he decide to, help guide the violent NHL of today into the NHL of tomorrow, where physical play is retained but heads are protected.

No better place for that to begin than Pittsburgh, which has long been known as the City of Bridges.

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