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Old Shoe Keeps Penguins in Step

The Baltimore Evening Sun

Talking to Gene Ubriaco these days, you get the feeling that he still doesn’t realize where he is, even after an entire season as a coach in the National Hockey League.

Ubriaco coaches the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are tied, 2-2, in the Patrick Division final series with Philadelphia after a 4-1 loss to the Flyers Sunday night at the Spectrum. The Penguins go back to Pittsburgh Tuesday night for Game 5 of the best-of-seven series.

Coaching the Penguins puts Ubriaco in hockey’s big time, all right, but “Ubie” -- that’s what he was known as when he was coach of the Baltimore Skipjacks of the American Hockey League for the last five years -- doesn’t seem to understand that.

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He is the same old shoe as when suffered the indignities of the American Hockey League, the worst of them last year.

After coaching in the minor leagues for 14 years, Ubriaco is not about to change. He is still the smiling, down-to-earth guy he’s always been.

Sunday night at the Spectrum -- where, even at a $39 top price, every seat was sold out for the Penguins-Flyers game -- he was classic Ubriaco.

The Penguins arrived at the arena two hours before the faceoff; Ubriaco’s players filed solemnly into the visitors’ dressing room. They looked so young.

“We’re the second youngest team in the National Hockey League,” Ubriaco said proudly.

“Which team is the youngest?” he was asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They keep telling me we’re the second youngest.”

One of Ubriaco’s young players is Mario Lemieux, 23. For the second straight year, he led the NHL in scoring.

Is Lemieux better than Wayne Gretzky?

“He is in many ways,” said Ubriaco. “Gretzky is like a water bug. He darts here and there.

“Mario is big, 6-4, 210. He’s a thinking man. He knows where everyone on the ice is. He knows where everyone is supposed to be. That’s very unusual for a player his age.”

Lemieux is, of course, the principal reason the Penguins are where they are. He led the NHL in goals, points, power-play goals and short-handed goals. Of the Penguins’ 347 goals this year, he scored or assisted on 199 -57.3 percent, the highest percentage in league history.

Consequently, Pittsburgh is in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 1981-82 season and for only the 10th time in the team’s 22-year history.

Philadelphia, by contrast, has been in the playoffs 17 straight years and 20 times in 22 years.

How did Lemieux respond to Ubriaco who, the year before, had won only 13 games with an AHL club?

“The first day of practice training camp,” said Ubriaco, “when I blew the whistle to call the players together, Mario skated right up to me. That sent a message. That showed the other players the new coach had his attention.”

Sunday evening Lemieux dressed quietly as Ubriaco spoke. The players talked very little as game time approached.

“The game is so much faster up here in the NHL,” said Ubriaco, 50. “Everything is faster. All the players are a step faster. Two steps. A coach in this league has to be more alert. Way more alert.”

This is a whole new way of life for Ubriaco, who thought that he would spend the rest of his career coaching in the minors. Then-General Manager Tony Esposito hired him last summer.

“You live better up here,” Ubriaco said. “You have a bigger support staff. People in the front office take care of things like marrketing, which I had to do in Baltimore.

“It’s still tough, though. When I was hired, some people cried cronyism. I’m from the same town in Canada, Sault Ste. Marie, as Tony Esposito, even though I knew his brother Phil better.

“The media up here expects you to win every game. We had great guys covering the Skipjacks in Baltimore -- George Taylor, Jim Jackson. Before that Lou Hatter. You’re under a microscope in this league. Up here, behind the bench is everything.”

What Ubriaco set out to do this year, he says, was build relationships and make the talented Penguins into a team. He is the 11th coach this team has had.

“Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey are big stars in this league,” Ubriaco said, “but they’re not interested in individual goals. They want to win, and they know the only way you can do that is with everybody pulling together as a team.

“I’ve asked Mario to become a leader. Up to now, he was too young for that. Now he’s been in the league five years. He’s a leader on this team.”

The leader had a rough time of it in the Spectrum Sunday night. In the first period he injured a knee. In the third, he collided with his own teammate, Randy Cunneyworth, and went down. He was dazed and lay there motionless for a few minutes.

“Mario’ll be all right for the next game (Tuesday) night,” Ubriaco said. “Tonight, we just couldn’t get our rhythm. We couldn’t stop the Flyers’ power play.”

Ubriaco was not upset after Sunday night’s loss. He takes the long-range view of the series. “It’s best two-out-of-three now,” he said. “With two of those games at home, we’ll be all right.”

Home. Home in Pittsburgh for Ubriaco is an apartment near the Civic Arena. He lives there alone. His wife of 27 years, Nella, and their son, Gene Jr., still live in Maryland. The Ubriacos have a married daughter who traveled to Philadelphia over the weekend to see the Penguins split two games with the Flyers.

“Being up in Pittsburgh by myself has been the hard part,” Ubriaco said. “It’s been like being on retreat. Hockey retreat.”

You might think that Ubriaco would relish life in the big leagues after all those years in the minors, that he’d be trying to forget last year in Baltimore. He doesn’t.

“I’m not at all sorry I did what I did last year in Baltimore, as difficult as it was,” he said. “I learned a lot from that experience. I learned to appreciate some things.”

And he’d like to keep appreciating the playoffs for a while longer.


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