ESPN The Magazine: March of the Penguins

The red-bearded man limped around the locker room that spring, and the kid kept thinking, "He looks so old." The kid was right.

The bearded man did look old. His eyes seemed half asleep, folded away under his brow. His sweaty, strawberry hair matted to the top of his wrinkled forehead like moss on a wet beach. The veins in his neck strained just underneath his skin, as if they were about to snap and let his large head fall to his shoulders. Flecks of gray dotted his beard, which was unwieldy and made him look older still. The kid wondered what purpose the red-bearded man served. He played only occasionally, on the third or fourth line, and he couldn't keep up with younger guys. The old man had had a wonderful career, skating with Team Canada in 1976, with Darryl Sittler and Tiger Williams on the Leafs, even under Don Cherry in Colorado. Now here he was in Calgary, at the end of his career, still on the roster as the Flames entered the playoffs. Why?

The kid found out. The man with the red beard scored only one goal in that spring of 1989, and it came in the clinching game of the Stanley Cup finals, one of the most revered goals in Calgary history. The kid still looks at the team photo from that championship season. He still shakes his head and thinks how old the man looked. Lanny McDonald was 36 when he scored that goal. The kid's name was Gary Roberts. Next month, he'll turn 41.

How old was Roberts back then? Barely 23. The next fall, as he stood on the blue line on opening night with his childhood buddy, Joe Nieuwendyk, Roberts looked up as they raised the title banner and said, "How many of these things you think we can win?" But McDonald hung 'em up, and eventually Nieuwie was traded for some kid named Iginla, and Roberts suffered a horrific neck injury that forced him to sit for a year. Still, he was sure he'd get at least one more Cup etching, especially in Toronto, where the 2002 team he was on had everything and more. Roberts still wonders about that team -- wonders how the Flames could beat the Habs and Patrick Roy in 1989, but the Leafs couldn't beat the Canes and Archie Irbe in 2002.

Now he's in Pittsburgh, in 2007, knocking on his wood-paneled locker when he mentions the words "I'm" and "healthy" in the same sentence. Nieuwie is retired now, and when he called Roberts after his pal's trade-deadline arrival in Steeltown, he asked his old teammate not how many more he could win, but how many more he could play. Roberts says he's going to retire when he gets even with his buddy in Cup rings. But Joe's got three, and Gary's still got just the one. Then again, with Mark Recchi taking off the first Monday in April, Roberts has the only ring in this locker room.

And oh, how he can feel the eyes on him. He's got a teammate on the PK named Jordan who is 18 and a daughter in Toronto named Jordan who is 17, and he knows both look at him and think, "He's so old." He knows he's here because of his "experience," even though one Jordan was in diapers and the other wasn't even born when he got the experience the rest of them so desperately want. Hell, he thinks, if he could pass on wisdom about how to win a Cup, he would have passed it on to himself in 2002. Instead, his world makes less sense than ever. Eight-seeds beat one-seeds, and the Presidents' Trophy is as much of an albatross as it is an honor. This Penguins team wasn't supposed to get 80 points, never mind 100, and it could just as easily be the next flameout as the next dynasty. Nearly 20 years removed from his first and only Cup, all Roberts has to offer on playoff hockey is what the red-bearded man taught him.

So he stands in the locker room, watching as the media folk scurry in search of the answer to one basic question: Do the Pens have it? That is, do they have the key to playoff success?

Everyone looks to Sidney Crosby, sitting a few feet away from Roberts. Crosby was born in 1987, when Roberts was playing in Calgary, and he's often compared to Wayne Gretzky, who won four Cups. And Crosby seems grounded, self-assured, hardworking, just like the Great One. Penguins GM Ray Shero said he traded for Roberts because he is "fearless," but Crosby seems fearless too. Maybe Crosby knows the secret.

"It's just more intense," Crosby says. "A battle ... One mistake can make all the difference ... There are a lot more ugly goals ... It's just the grind of it all ... You gotta take it one game at a time ... You have to be a warrior ... "

All clichés, of course, but you can forgive the kid for them because clichés are a nicer way of saying I can't really explain it. How could he? He's 19, he's never played in the NHL playoffs, never grown a playoff beard. To be honest, he's not even sure if he can. Will the Penguins be more intense than their opponent? Do they have more warriors? Asking Sid the Kid to unlock the playoffs is like asking Gary the Kid in 1988 or Wayne the Kid in 1980.

Back at his locker, Roberts sees a scrum develop around the goalie. Can't win in April, May and June without great goaltending, right? So the digital-recorder army asks Marc-Andre Fleury, all of 22 years old, if he has what it takes. Perhaps he'll be cocky, like Martin Brodeur or Roy. Or quirky, like Gump Worsley. Or heady, like Ken Dryden. Goalies win because they are one of those things, or all of those things, right? So what say you, Marc-Andre, former No. 1 pick?

"It's a little more intense ... I think it'll be fun ... My goalie coach told me how fun it is ... I want to get started ... It's best of seven ... You gotta be ready ... Gotta study your opponent ... "

Fleury can be cocky and quirky and heady as all get-out, but a goalie, who sees the plays develop, doesn't really understand the playoffs any better than a forward or defenseman, who makes the play develop. Goalies aren't paid to think, anyway. They're paid to react. It's funny how they always talk about goalies' personalities. Why don't they measure their flexibility? Or their reaction times? Or even their wingspans? They think the key can't be that simple. So they keep looking for the secret.

Directly across from Roberts sits a man who has been to the end of the line, and he's talking to another group of scribblers. Sergei Gonchar, 33, has been to the finals, where his Caps got swept by the Red Wings in 1998. He had seven goals in 21 games -- remarkable for a blueliner. And yet not enough. Roberts came scary close to being Gonchar. If Lanny doesn't score that goal, maybe Roberts is Gonchar. So what was the difference between the two fates? Maybe Sergei has the answer.

"Every mistake costs you more," Gonchar says. "Every ounce of intensity helps that much more. Every shift is crucial. And in every playoffs, you learn something." He pauses. "But I don't believe they are all the same. I believe you learn more in some playoffs than in others."

And which of his 10 playoff series taught Gonchar the most?

"The finals against the Red Wings," he says. "We were up in the second game, had a chance to win it and tie the series. But we had a few bad shifts."

Yes, they did. The Caps scored all three second-period goals to go up 3-1 in Game 2. Then Detroit scored three in the third, won in OT, and took a 2-0 series lead. And that was it.

"We gave them a chance, and they used it," Gonchar says. "Not even a chance. Half a chance."

Half a chance. Not much at all. A loss of focus here, a missed check there. But how can anyone prevent half a chance from happening -- or exploit it when it does?

Maybe it's the oatmeal. When Roberts got to the Pens a few weeks ago, he noticed that team breakfasts featured bagels. This is a man, mind you, who's convinced that he's hanging on partly because he lost nearly all his body fat by giving up white starches. Roberts explains his diet like this: When you eat a lot of sugar -- and simple carbs turn into sugar in the body -- your energy rises quickly and then you crash.

There might be a whole grain of truth in this. In the playoffs, you need to maintain an even keel -- a steady diet of energy and equanimity that sustains you over a long period of spring highs and lows. Which explains why the Penguins are now scarfing down egg-white omelets, brown rice and mush.

But oatmeal is about more than good nutrition. It's about control. "If I do that, this will happen." All hockey players adopt a cause-and-effect mentality this time of year, because even an imagined sense of control feels better than a reality of no control. The best team usually wins in soccer and basketball and football, in pretty much every sport except this one. Maddening. So clichés are the right thing to say. A playoff beard is the right thing to grow. Hockey players cling to such rituals, tapping the goalie before games or the goal posts before faceoffs, just to make sure that, yes, there is something behind you -- always there.

After playoff games, in bed at night, hockey players stare at the ceiling a little longer, trying to stop the wheels from spinning. Everyone does silly things, like wearing the same socks or underwear. But just about every player in the NHL eventually ends up in the silent locker room, staring straight ahead, rewinding and regretting. Half a chance, they all think. How could we have prevented half a chance from happening?

But the answer never comes, which brings Roberts back to Lanny, who got one more half a chance than he gave up. And what did McDonald say afterward? "This is the most peaceful feeling I've ever experienced in hockey," he said in May 1989. "There's no feeling like it. I wish I could describe it to people outside."

But he did describe it, perfectly: To the winner of the war comes peace. And all the players can do is try to achieve peace during every single moment from the middle of April until that last tick in June. The peace to let the worry come. To let the sleeplessness come. To let the media annoy and family members cloy. To let it happen. Because nothing can be done to stop it. The half a chance is coming; just be ready in case it comes to you. That's all Sidney and Marc-Andre and Sergei have to do. That's all Lanny did.

Gary Roberts knows this. He knows that these Penguins could be the 1989 Flames or the 2002 Leafs. He accepts this, and he'll walk through Pittsburgh's locker room with his "experience" in tow, a calmness that, hopefully, will seep into the hearts of his teammates. He'll seem old to them, but his presence will also soothe. Some of his peace will be thought to come from the ring on his finger, but most will come from the hard-earned knowledge that there is hardly any knowledge to earn. Eat the oatmeal, spout the clichés, grow the beard -- it's still just a game with funny sticks.

So what's the secret? What separates the teams that win from the teams that should have won?

Roberts smiles a peaceful smile as he gives the answer only an old, wise man can give.


Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.