When Moe Mantha jr. found out that the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes Friday afternoon, the Sturgeon Falls native felt an uncanny sense of Déjà vu.
It’s been 21 years since a struggling Pittsburgh Penguins franchise was rejuvenated by another Quebec league phenom named Mario Lemieux.
Hockey has always taken a back seat to football in the Steel city, but Moe Mantha was on that Pittsburgh team in 1984-85 where he witnessed the birth of Super Mario.
“Once Mario got there it took about a month still before he got the people excited,” Mantha said in a phone interview at Laurentide golf club where he’s preparing for his annual golf tournament which takes place Saturday at the Sturgeon Falls golf course.
“We started off with 6500 fans but just before Christmas we were averaging 10,000 fans.”
Mantha, who became the new coach and general manager of the Windsor Spitfires this spring played parts of four seasons in Pittsburgh before he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in 1987-88.
The Penguins won the draft lottery that was held Friday afternoon as the NHL officially opened its doors for business as players and league governors all approved the new collective bargaining agreement. Crosby will put on the Penguins jersey officially for the first time at the NHL draft which will take place next weekend.
Mantha believes the Penguins are in the same predicament now as they were in 1984, and once again they have a franchise type player, this time by the name of Sidney Crosby to build their franchise around.
“The fans have dropped off, but Crosby will add some stability to the franchise,” Mantha said.
While Mantha believes Crosby will be an amazing player in the National Hockey League, he doesn’t believe he’ll be an instant success.
“I hope they don’t put too much pressure on him and then he doesn’t live up to the bill,” he said.
“I hope they have patience just like Mario was given the chance.”
But how much patience will the Penguins fans have? The team missed the playoffs the last three seasons, had the worst attendance in 2003-04 and owner Mario Lemieux has said the team will likely move if it doesn't get a new arena.
With Mario turning 40 this fall, chances are pretty good that this year could be the first and last season that Crosby and Lemieux play together and even though Mantha is excited to see Crosby in Penguin black he admits for the game itself, Pittsburgh isn’t the right fit for the two-time CHL player of the year.
“The NHL needed him to be in larger media market, so Crosby would be more than just a Canadian household name,” Mantha said.
Now the question is can the Crosby phenomenon spread in Pittsburgh and can he have as big an impact on the game in Pittsburgh as Mario the player had; a man who Mantha believes is the sole reason why NHL hockey is still in Pittsburgh?
Ironically, that decision might be in the hands of Mario Lemieux the franchise owner, who’s selling a majority interest in the team but intends to keep a minority stake in the club.