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Catching Fire
Michael Farber
May 20, 1996
Ken Wregget, Pittsburgh's homespun backup goalie, is the surprise star of the postseason
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May 20, 1996

Catching Fire

Ken Wregget, Pittsburgh's homespun backup goalie, is the surprise star of the postseason

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The ice in Pittsburgh was thick with caps after one-size-fits-all showers honored the three-goal performances of Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux last Saturday night. Of course the ritual hat tributes were classier than the tossed octopuses or the plastic rats that are the rage in other cities this playoff spring, but they did scant justice to Jagr and Lemieux, who are as formidable a pair as Death and Taxes. As glum New York Rangers coach Colin Campbell noted after Jagr and Lemieux torched his team in the 7-3 win that propelled the Penguins into the Eastern Conference finals, they are the two best players in the world. Actually, the Rangers played Jagr and Lemieux dead even—they scored 15 goals and Death and Taxes scored 15 in the five-game series. The key man for Pittsburgh, even in Lemieux's judgment, was neither he nor Jagr.

Penguins goaltender Ken Wregget defines his job this way: "I don't play unless something happens." Well, something happened, and it was more unexpected than Lemieux backchecking. Pittsburgh's No. 1 goalie, Tom Barrasso, suffered back spasms in the Penguins' first-round series against the Washington Capitals, and Wregget, a virtual career backup, became the hot playoff goaltender of 1996. While winning seven of eight games in the first two rounds, Wregget allowed an average of 2.00 goals per game and had the NHL's second-best postseason save percentage, at .941. The Rangers had girded themselves for Jagr and Lemieux, but they had to fake esteem for a goalie who stopped 77 shots in 3-2 and 4-1 Penguins wins in Games 3 and 4 in New York and who made every big save at every big moment when the series returned to Pittsburgh for the clincher. Wregget isn't the best goalie in the world—those are his words—but time in this Cinderella story has stopped at 11:59 p.m.

The obvious question for Barrasso is "Have you heard about Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp?" but for more than a year he hasn't spoken to journalists, other than to say "Move" if they get near his locker, so the answer will have to wait. Wregget has a different temperament from tight-lipped Tom. Naturally the Penguins say they are equally confident playing in front of either Barrasso or Wregget, but if the topic were which you would rather share a meal or play a round of golf with, some of the Pittsburgh players might express a preference. "Different type of guys, like night and day," says Penguins goalie coach Gilles Meloche. Wregget is most definitely day.

Pittsburgh media relations director Harry Sanders says the 32-year-old Wregget is everybody's neighbor—probably an overstatement considering there are more than 250 million people in the U.S. and Jagr looks like the only Penguin who could be everywhere at once—but Wregget certainly seems to be everybody's neighbor in the Pittsburgh suburb of Upper St. Clair. The lawns are manicured. The minivans are in the driveways. This is the most serene neighborhood outside of Mr. Rogers'. Jim Senge, a computer consultant who lives with his wife and family next door to Ken and Susan Wregget, says Ken helps shovel neighbors' driveways, brings other kids along when he makes McDonald's runs with his two kids, Matthew, 3. and Courtney, 2, and takes on all comers in ball-hockey games in his driveway. The kids on the block always want to know if Ken can come out and play, but, Senge says, "we don't allow them to ask."

"I bring my kids to the mall like everybody else," says Wregget. "You go to the mall and somebody recognizes you, you don't blow them off. If you do, the next time you're in the mall there will be 10 people pointing fingers at you. Maybe I'm just a regular guy who thinks people are people and people are good."

Wregget, as the French say, feels good in his skin, but this wasn't always true. He had trouble being a second banana even if he had no trouble eating a second banana. In 1984-85, Wregget's first full season in the NHL, he came to the Toronto Maple Leafs' training camp weighing 197 pounds and left weighing 207. One day in practice Toronto center Bill Derlago tied a doughnut to his stick and baited Wregget with it. "That was a long time ago," says Wregget, who battled Allan Bester for the starter's job before becoming the Leafs' No. 1 goalie in '86-87. Despite a couple of mediocre seasons with less-than-mediocre Toronto, Wregget was still so highly prized that in '89 the Philadelphia Flyers gave up two No. 1 draft choices for him even though Philly only wanted him as a backup to Ron Hextall.

"I've never actually lost a No. 1 job," Wregget says. This is true. But he has never seized one beyond all doubt, either. He had his moments—the Flyers started Wregget in Game 7 of the second round in 1989, and he shocked the Penguins 4-1, which at least gave him credibility in Pittsburgh when he was traded cross-state three years later—but he was streaky. After his first season behind Barrasso, Wregget assessed his career. He decided he didn't want to be one of those players who always felt dissatisfied. If he was going to take backup money and play backup minutes, he would work hard to be ready when those minutes came. "I was tired of yelling and banging on doors," Wregget says. "It didn't work for me."

Still, after leading the NHL with 25 wins in the lockout-shortened 1995 season when Barrasso missed all but two games with a wrist injury, Wregget couldn't resist banging a little. He expressed his frustration last October to Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick and coach Ed Johnston because it was apparent he was still No. 2. Patrick counseled patience, telling Wregget his time would come.

That time came at about 8:30 p.m. on April 24, at the beginning of the second period of Game 4 against the Capitals when Barrasso couldn't continue because of the back spasms. Some five hours and 45 minutes later, after the third-longest game in NHL history, Wregget skated off a star. He had stopped virtually everything, including a penalty shot by Joe Juneau in the second overtime. During a break in the third extra session Wregget had to take the blocker off his right hand—his stick hand—and literally pry open his middle finger which was locked around the stick. He had to do that again in the fourth overtime. The game was a flashback to childhood: It's late, Mom's calling you for dinner, and there's an understanding that the next goal wins the game, although in this case there was a sense that the next goal wins the series. If Washington had nudged one past Wregget, the Capitals would have taken a 3-1 series lead and Pittsburgh surely would have been too physically and emotionally drained to come back. Instead Wregget was steadfast, and Petr Nedved scored to end what a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline called the PAJAMA GAME. Wregget has never had consecutive shutouts in his 13-year NHL career, but that night and morning he started a shutout streak of 146 minutes and 30 seconds against Washington that continued into the second period of Game 5, which the Penguins won 4-1. Wregget stopped 73 straight shots in the equivalent of almost 2� games. Pittsburgh closed out the Capitals in six games.

New York viewed Wregget as a guy who had had his 146 minutes and 30 seconds of fame. He is not a textbook goalie, although he is not a comic book one either, having learned positional hockey from his junior coach, John Chapman, who once tied one end of a skate lace to the crossbar and the other end to Wregget's waist so he wouldn't wander. Wregget is just an average puckhandler, sometimes lurches at the puck when attempting to make a save, carries his glove hand too low and locks his right knee behind him when he slides across the crease to his left, which makes it difficult for him to recover to block a rebound. "Certainly it's an awkward style," Meloche says, "but he'll come far out of the crease and let the puck hit him. He's got a great head on his shoulders." Wregget used it to nudge a puck off the goal line in Game 4 against New York, a heads-down play. Later an underwhelmed Campbell termed Wregget "a flopper."

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