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Greg Enright with his book
It’s unique. Pittsburgh Penguins fan grows up in Montreal, moves to Toronto, starts a Twitter feed celebrating the history of the Pens, and ends up writing a book about the team’s first 25 years.
Meet Greg Enright, author of The Pittsburgh Penguins: The First 25 Years, which came out in the spring of 2020 from McFarland Publishing.
In the introduction to the book, Enright lays it out there: “I wrote this book to satisfy my curiosity and because I felt it was important to capture the Penguins’ colorful early history.”
Speaking on the phone during a break from his busy day job in marketing for a big computer company, Enright explained that he felt a need to make the Twitter feed—https://twitter.com/penguinshistory —into something more.
“One of the reasons that I wanted to write this is because there’s so many basic parts of this period of the team’s history that really aren’t out there for anybody to read in any kind of convenient paperback form. I really wanted people to know it,” he said.
His feeling from his 3,000-plus Twitter followers is that the pre-Mario Lemieux narrative of the Penguins is not well known. “Partly, I think, because people, maybe they just don’t care because the team didn’t win anything. Partly, because it’s just so long ago.”
When Enright, who has a background in journalism, working in tech trade magazines for 15 years, would post a neat story from the past to Twitter, he’d be entranced by it all and knew there was more to share.
“I wanted to pull out all these great quotes and descriptions of what happened back then and put them in a book. That’s really the backbone of my research,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Penguins: The First 25 Years takes the reader through the myriad of ownership woes, off-ice tragedies, and, finally, with Super Mario in the house, a Stanley Cup.
Enright tells the story through a combination of media stories and interviews with key people—players, management, journalists, fans. “I did connect with a lot of the big players from the ’70s, a few in the ’80s. I really wanted their comments to be a big part of the book,” he said.
But the idea was not to replicate previous work. “I didn’t really want to lift a lot of stuff from other books. I just felt that’s already another book, and if people want to read it, they can go there. Plus, I just felt I could tell the story without really having to do much of that.”
The Twitter account he runs already had a number of ex-Pens following it, and those connections resulted in more finds, and the Penguins alumni were on board. Enright realized on Twitter that the stringer that covered Pittsburgh for The Hockey News in the 1970s was now covering Penn State football, so that lead resulted in a few other older reporters.
Those people who were there during the 1960s and 1970s were invaluable in sorting out the “long line of failed ownership.”
“Even for me, who’s delving into the history, who really knows who Tad Potter was, what’s this guy’s story? I managed to fill in a lot of the blanks, who these guys were, why they couldn’t sustain the team financially. The reporters really came into play there because they interviewed these guys, they knew them from whatever other adventures they had in the Pittsburgh community. Whereas the players didn’t really know the owners that well ... What they knew was what they read in the paper, or a lot of these guys weren’t reading the papers.”
As with the interview subjects, Enright wanted the 40 or so photos in the book to be different than the usual ones, and he lucked out. “I was purposefully looking for pictures that weren’t really too familiar. There’s a lot out there that are, and I wanted the book to stand out with some fairly originally pics.” He found photos in personal collections, on Flickr, and even a fan who had been to the first ever game.
The Stanley Cup wins with Mario and Co. complete the 25-year tale, but it’s some of the tragedies along the way that will stick with the reader. In particular, the Penguins journey would likely have been different had Michel Brière not had his car accident in May 1970, staying in a coma until passing away 11 months later.
Enright mulled the what if? “I think the difficulties they had on the ice translated into off-ice in that period a few years after his passing. It would have been a much different story if he had been around.”
Jean Pronovost, who wrote the book’s foreword, compared Brière to a Dave Keon player, driven with great skills but not a lot of size.
“Probably the most important thing he did was he electrified the crowds and he brought fans in that one season. You look through the old press reports from that time, you really get the sense that Pittsburgh caught hockey fever for the first time, and he was a massive part of that. I think that would have just continued. He had the skills and he had the determination. He had a little bit of an ego to him too. He was very sure of himself and confident. I think that would have served him really well, especially in the mid-’70s, when they were in desperate need of some real top-line talent. He could have kept that ball rolling and maybe kept the attendances a bit higher than they were. Maybe they would not have had as many financial difficulties as they did in the ’70s and ’80s, and just been a bit more stable.”
Pronovost sets the tone in the foreword: “In this book, Greg Enright has captured the history of the Penguins before they were champions as well as the franchise’s first taste of being on top of the hockey world. It’s a story full of ups and downs, heartbreaks and highlights, tragedies and triumphs. Reading through these pages, those fans who were there can relive it, and those who weren’t can get a sense of what Penguin hockey was like all those years.”
For someone so dedicated to the Penguins, Enright has a dark secret—he once wrote a self-published book on the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey’s Best Team Ever: A chronicle of the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens’ record-breaking season came out in 2014. “I regard that as more of an experiment to see how Amazon works,” he explained. “I was always fascinated by that season that the Canadiens had, when they only lost eight games. ... Although I wasn’t a Canadiens fan, I always just marvelled at that season.”
He has another self-published book about a powerhouse team just out in May 2020 too, Yankees 365: A Full Year of New York Yankees History, Facts and Fun. “Pretty simple format—one event in the Yankees’ history for every day of the year. I’m planning on rinsing and repeating that formula for a number of teams across hockey and baseball that I think might sell well. It’s pretty lightweight stuff—no interviews and no narrative to it. But it was fun to write.”
After shopping the manuscript around a bit, and accepting that maybe he’d have to self-publish again, Enright was pleased to land with McFarland, and said that the publisher is trying to expand its hockey offerings.
Comparing the book on the Habs to the Penguins can’t be done, he concluded. “This new one is on a completely different level.”
SMALL SAVES FOR YOU TO COLOUR
Back in September 2019 -- https://sihrhockey.org/__a/public/column.cfm?cid=4&aid=579 -- I talked with James DeMarco about his “Small Saves” cartoon strip, and accompanying books. He has just released The Small Saves and His Hockey Pals Coloring Book to further build his “modest empire.”
REST IN PEACE, DAN
The Society for International Hockey Research lost one of its own with the passing of Dan Nicholson of a brain aneurysm on April 28, 2020. It’s funny, Dan was at so many of the Toronto-area events that I was at, from the monthly NHL Original Six luncheons to the SIHR local chapter meetings, but for whatever reason, I could never remember his name. Then, at a SIHR meeting in Parry Sound, Ontario, we sat together at the Saturday night dinner out and really got to know each other. Not long before his unexpected death, he shared some advice about collectables that I’d salvaged from my dad’s basement; as many knew, he enjoyed selling memorabilia at shows. He was supportive of us writer-types, but given that he had been a teacher by trade, he wasn’t shy about asking tough questions and making you think about what you’d written. Rest well, Dan.
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