Commentary

Malone just like Pittsburgh -- blue-collar tough, hometown proud

Updated: May 23, 2008, 10:55 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Ryan MaloneGregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesRyan Malone is the only Pittsburgh native to be drafted by and play for the Penguins.
PITTSBURGH -- When Ryan Malone looks up at the worn, empty seats at Mellon Arena, he doesn't see an aging hockey mausoleum, but rather something more comforting, something more closely akin to home.

Up there, near the private boxes, is where Malone and his younger brother Mark played hide-and-seek. Beyond the boxes was where they rollerbladed while their father, Greg, worked in the offices beneath the stands as the director of amateur scouting.

Out of sight, in the Penguins dressing room, is where NHL players quizzed the young Malone boys on how many pieces of gum they could cram in their mouth at the same time.

Just a few feet away, where the ice surface is now quiet and clean, is where Ryan, Mark and Greg played shinny with the kids of Pittsburgh icons such as Craig Patrick and Ed Johnston after Penguins practices.

"I can remember taking the diaper bag and taking them to the rink," Greg Malone recently told ESPN.com.

Many pro hockey players move in a straight line -- a dominating star in some small town, moving steadily forward to bigger and better things, the past and future somewhere else.

Ryan Malone's path to NHL stardom is more circular. The first and only Pittsburgh native to be drafted by and play for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Malone is, in many ways, this city, and the city is him.

At first glance, the 28-year-old is raw and tough with a tattoo-festooned body and fiery red hair. But that's not all there is to Malone, much like this blue-collar city with its hard ways and surprisingly beautiful waterfront and hidden architectural gems.

Every once in awhile, Malone will run into someone he went to high school with or played minor hockey against. "It's like, 'Hey, I remember playing against you,'" he said.

And then, maybe he gets a look of surprise or admiration or, heck, maybe even disbelief. But that's OK; Malone never imagined this is where his life would take him, never imagined he'd come home and be part of one of the great sports revivals in recent memory.

"It is weird," Malone said in a recent interview from the Mellon Arena seats. "Honestly, whenever I pull the sweater on, I look at it as a privilege and an honor."


When local All-Star teams were picked to play in tournaments in other cities, it wasn't a given Ryan would make the team. He often didn't. He tried out for the amateur Penguins team and made their "B" squad.

It didn't stop Malone from being on the ice all the time. He played high school and club hockey. Some days, he wouldn't get home until 11 p.m., which made it difficult to concentrate on school. "The last thing you feel like doing is school work," Malone said.

And about those tattoos …

So, about the tattoos.

"They're a bad habit. I love them," Malone said.

Think Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man" and you've got a sense of the body art that covers most of Malone's body (at least the parts that are revealed during the normal course of business in a hockey dressing room).

He and his wife have matching tattoos with a giant rose motif, although they stopped short of having each other's names tattooed on the design. "We didn't want to jinx it," Malone said.

Malone and his brother Mark have matching tattoos of the family's Irish crest.

There is now the date of his wedding and his son Will's birthday.

Malone insists that if the Penguins win a Stanley Cup, he will lead all his teammates in getting matching tattoos of the Cup.

They'd better get that Cup soon, joked former road roomie Brooks Orpik. "He's running out of room."

-- Scott Burnside

So, with marks an issue and hockey a dream, Malone talked to his dad about what he should do. For his junior year of high school, Malone attended Shattuck-St. Mary's, the hockey prep factory in Faribault, Minn., before heading to Omaha of the United States Hockey League.

Who knows what you think when you're 15 or 16 years old. Who knows what you think is possible or what you understand to be impossible. Being an NHL player and competing for the Stanley Cup didn't seem to be in the realm of possibility for Malone.

"I never thought at all I could make it," he said. "No one from Pittsburgh had ever been drafted or even went to Division I," Malone said. "We thought [playing on the Junior B team] was great because we didn't really know anything else."

As a scout, Greg understands the dream and the reality often exist on different planes for young hockey players.

"I don't think anybody should take [the dream] away and say, 'No, you're not good enough,'" Greg said. "I tell them, 'Take it as far as you can and be honest with yourself.'"

As for his son, Greg was pragmatic about Ryan's chances of playing pro hockey. In his mid-teens, Ryan was 6-foot-3, but only 170 pounds.

"He was really, really thin and he ate like a horse," Greg said. "I was more interested in him getting a scholarship and continuing to play hockey because that what he wanted to do."

Ryan ended up at Minnesota Hockey Camps, the brainchild of legendary U.S. national team coach Herb Brooks. Brooks established the camp at a former family resort near Brainerd, Minn., as a way of capitalizing on the growth of the game following the "Miracle on Ice" gold-medal win at the 1980 Olympics.

But this was no skate/swim/tan summer hockey experience; this was boot camp for the skate set. Malone, who gave up a promising baseball career to concentrate on hockey, went for seven weeks that first time. His mom called after the first week and asked him if he was having fun. "No," he told her.

He couldn't sit down his body ached so much. He couldn't go up stairs he was in such pain from the workouts. "It was awesome," he said.

He has been there pretty much every year since. Last summer, he was there for two weeks working out with NHLers Matt Greene and Scott Hartnell, among others.

[+] EnlargeGreg Malone
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesRyan Malone wears No. 12 in honor of his father, Greg, who played for the Penguins from 1976-83.

"Ryan was probably a little bit behind at that time for his age," recalled camp co-founder Chuck Grillo, who continues to run the camps every summer. "He was in catch-up-and-pass mode. That's a monumental task. It takes unbelievable commitment.

"Right now, I would say he went from being one of the lower-end players in his age group in terms of ability [to one of the best]. He always had great hands and a good mind for the game."

A self-made hockey player?

"That's exactly what he did," Grillo said. "It would take a real special person to do what he did. And he's not done. He's only going to get better."

Malone ended up getting a scholarship to St. Cloud State, where he thought of little else beyond hockey. He thought about it so much, he forgot to pay his parking tickets. Oh, and Malone's truck was registered in his father's name, so those tickets steadily made their way back to Greg.

"He got a lot of parking tickets. I would get them all," Greg said. "I kept a ledger of them, and when he turned pro, I said, 'Here you go.'"

Ryan did just enough at school to keep his hockey plans on track. His parents would sometimes ask, "What about after college?"

"I didn't really have a back-up plan. I sort of had a one-track mind," Malone said. "It was all about playing hockey. The only thing that really mattered to me was hockey. When hockey wasn't going good, I didn't know how to leave it at the rink."

Although he was injured his senior year, Malone figured he was on some teams' radar, including the Penguins. He worked on his skating, defense and upper-body strength. He was faster, stronger (like an Olympics ad), and headed to Boston for the 1999 draft to see what would happen.


Greg Malone hails another blue-collar town, the Miramichi area of New Brunswick in Atlantic Canada. He was drafted by the Penguins (19th overall) in the 1976 draft and played 704 NHL games and scored a career-high 35 goals in 1978-79.

[+] EnlargeSykora, Malone and Malkin
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarRyan Malone, center, has played with Petr Sykora, left, and Evgeni Malkin for the latter part of this season to help form one of the Penguins' more potent lines.
He stayed with the organization after he retired, working as a scout and trying to spend as much time with the boys as possible after he and their mother split up when they were little.

"They were the main reason I stayed here," said the elder Malone, who is now a scout for the Phoenix Coyotes, but still lives in Pittsburgh.

A handful of rinks sprung up after Mario Lemieux saved the team the first time in the early 1980s, but the local minor hockey scene was still underdeveloped when the Malone boys were growing up.

"We used to have to practice at 4 in the morning," Greg said. "You'd come back home and go back to bed. It was almost like a dream."

Much like the day Ryan Malone was drafted.

Down on the draft floor, Greg and the rest of the Penguins draft team were prepping. The third round came around and the Pens were interested in Malone; but they also needed a goaltender and ended up taking Sebastien Caron. But, in the next round, there was more discussion about Malone and the decision was finally made -- Ryan Malone would be a Penguin.

But Greg, who always called out the draft selections for the Penguins, refused to do it.

"I said, 'I'm not doing it.' Herb Brooks [then a scout for the team] was the one who grabbed the mike and made the announcement in Boston," Greg said.

"I didn't think it was special at the time," he added. "I was just thinking about the draft, thinking about my job. Afterwards, that night and even the next morning, it started to sink in. 'Holy cow, Ryan got drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins.'"

Although it's not unusual for young players to be drafted by teams for whom their fathers work, it does provide some incentive. "He was going to prove to everybody that he wasn't a 'daddy pick,'" Greg said. "I think it really pushed him."


Ryan Malone remains one of the most popular guys in the Penguins dressing room because of his upbeat nature. In fact, former road roommate Brooks Orpik acknowledged that the perpetual grin can sometimes drive teammates a bit crazy if things aren't going well.

But if the Penguins have had to mature quickly, almost defiantly as they march into their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992, Malone has also evolved.

Malone was a player with a reputation for loving a good time, so he spent time last offseason talking to coach Michel Therrien and GM Ray Shero about what he was going to be to the team. Malone had seen his goal totals drop from 22 in both 2003-04 and 2005-06 to 16 last season after missing 18 games to injury.

The message was simple: It's one thing to be a decent player on a bad team, which the Penguins were when Malone arrived. It's quite another to be a good player on a good (maybe great) team, which the Penguins are now. The choice was up to Malone.

So, he put in the work and went from being a happy-go-lucky Penguin to being a front-line player on a team full of front-line players.

Malone found himself playing with Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora for the latter part of the season, and collected a career-best 27 goals. He became a staple on the Penguins' power play, scoring 11 times. He kills penalties. In 27 of his past 34 regular-season games, Malone played 20 minutes or more. In his first 41 games this season, he hit the 20-minute mark just twice. In the postseason, he has 15 points in 14 games and is a plus-6.

"The first time I saw Ryan Malone, I saw his potential," Therrien said. "And he's got tons of potential, but I don't think he realized it. There was some tough love with him at the beginning because I realized the potential that he's got.

"All the credit goes to him because, you know what, he's focusing a lot more than he was. He's playing a tough game. He's disciplined on and off the ice and he understands what it takes to be a true professional, and that's why this is what I respect about Ryan right now."

Married to his college sweetheart, whom he met while she was tending bar at St. Cloud State ("I was like, 'I'm going to marry that girl.' And I did," Malone said with a laugh), the couple had their first child, William Ryan Malone, three months ago. Young Will has been a constant reminder that the game is not life.

"You're doing this for them as well as for yourself," Ryan said.

In the offseason, Malone's life might change again as a potential unrestricted free agent. His combination of grit, skill and size will make him a coveted asset on the open market. Given the pressures on Shero to keep his core of talent in place, there are many who believe Malone will be hard to re-sign. Still, it's hard to imagine both he and the Penguins won't try to get a deal done.

"This has been a career year for him, obviously," Shero said. "This has been a perfect storm for him, family-wise, career-wise."

From hide-and-seek to his own place of business, the distance between here and there appears short; but Malone knows the true length of the journey.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.