WILKES-BARRE — Dennis Bonvie had already played for six pro teams and logged 25 NHL games when he arrived at the first Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins training camp in 1999. At age 26, Bonvie was one of the elder statesmen of the young team and it wasn’t long before he reached a conclusion about the new franchise.
“I signed late and when I got to Wilkes-Barre I remember reading the paper in the morning and telling myself that I think this is going to be a special spot to play,” Bonvie said. “Hockey had never been here before.”
Nearly 20 years later, hockey is here to stay as the 20th season of Penguins hockey gets underway at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday.
While many of the Penguins on this season’s roster were just learning to walk when team began its first season 19 years ago, there were plenty of challenges in the early days that make the 20-year mark a monumental achievement.
Prior to 1999, construction of the arena was a controversial topic with plenty of opposition and delays that forced the team to play its first 13 games on the road.
And the team itself was a ragtag bunch, comprised of kids fresh out of college, several Europeans looking to find their way in the North American style of hockey, a couple of prospects and a few veterans to hold it all together.
To top it all off, the parent organization – the Pittsburgh Penguins – was in dire financial straits.
“It was crisis management at its best,” said Wilkes-Barre/Scranton CEO Jeff Barrett of the work just to make the first season a reality. “Today, it’s a well-oiled machine.”
And the foundation was built by the players on the inaugural team. It’s a foundation that gave the Pittsburgh organization stability when it comes to the crucial player development process.
For the years prior to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh was been splitting affiliations, such as with the Vancouver Canucks in Syracuse and we had some players in Cleveland,” said Brian Coe, who worked for Pittsburgh in 1999 and is now the vice-president of operations for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “From the development perspective that wasn’t ideal because you didn’t have the authority to say we want a certain player to get more ice time. From a player development perspective, having Wilkes-Barre/Scranton really helped to move the Pittsburgh Penguins in the right direction.”
Tom Kostopoulos was one of the few prospects on the squad. The Penguins’ first season was also his first as a pro, and as a 20-year-old rookie Kostopoulos had never experienced anything like the birth of a franchise.
“I remember all the energy surrounding the team and the rink itself,” said Kostopoulos, who is now a player development coach for Pittsburgh. “Tom Grace was the perfect broadcaster for that time and Dennis Bonvie was the perfect player. They led the way.”
Barrett also credits his front office at the time – Rich Hixon, Brian Magness and Neil Bossola – with pulling together to get the first season off the ground.
“There’s a lot of things I would’ve done differently back then, but I learned you’re allowed to make mistakes. Just don’t make the same mistake twice,” Barrett said.
And even though they may not have realized it at the time, the Penguins players were not only building the foundation during that first season, they were also forming a special bond that continues to this day.
Bonvie and Kostopoulos both said they keep in touch with several of their former teammates, and Barrett has become long-lasting friends with Mike Yeo – who played briefly during the inaugural season and is now the head coach of the St. Louis Blues.
But any thoughts of a bond, or even the significance of being the inaugural team, was overlooked by many of the players at the time.
“Back then you didn’t think about it. As a team we were just struggling to win games,” Kostopoulos said. “But looking back, it was a really cool experience. It was probably one of the most fun seasons I had in pro hockey.”