Mario's hat dance is sinking Penguins

ERIN NICKS -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 2:27 PM ET

Who's afraid of Mario Lemieux? Everyone. Who in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization is willing to admit it? No one. And that's the main reason why the franchise finds itself in a major quagmire.

The dismissal of coach Ed Olczyk capped a culmination of unfortunate events for the Penguins since the NHL season began in October. A vision much different than the optimistic image initially painted in June with the landing of monster prospect, Sidney Crosby. Young Crosby in particular was a vital asset in securing the team's future in Pittsburgh.

SIGNINGS BACKFIRE

But perception and expectations are often different from reality. The Penguins' reality finds them in 14th place in the Eastern Conference through 31 games this season. Injuries to key cogs in the system, such as John LeClair, Zigmund Palffy and the player/captain/owner himself, led to a rocky start. The free-agent signings of Jocelyn Thibault and Sergei Gonchar were indisputable additions that unexpectedly turned into disastrous decisions in hindsight.

When franchises fail (or flail), everyone shares in the blame. Olczyk was fingered for his lack of coaching experience. GM Craig Patrick remains under fire for the manner in which he handled the team's goaltending issues. Everyone from the bottom to the top of the power structure is held responsible.

But if a team has the same person holding a position at the top and bottom of an organization, what effect will it have on the balance of power?

Lemieux is one of the biggest hat collectors in the NHL. He wears three to mark his involvement with the Penguins as owner, captain and teammate. And then there's the obvious crown that comes with being a select member of hockey royalty. You couldn't possibly ratchet the intimidation factor up much more.

With every decision that Patrick makes, he must consider the opinions of Mario. For every line change, shootout selection and healthy scratch that Olczyk selected, he had to factor in Lemieux' likely preference. That's what happens when the guy that writes the cheques sits on the bench instead of upstairs.

And when Mario's advanced age was undoubtedly showing as the season progressed, how was Olczyk expected to handle it? Is there any way to tactfully inform your boss that he will be riding the pine?

Mario's disruption of the balance of power has had an effect on his young protege as well.

Crosby surely must sense the authority he possesses, not only as the incoming star, but also as top recipient of preferential treatment from the owner. Crosby has been increasingly brash of late, and his impertinent attitude combined with perpetual complaining has led to a tarnishing of his image.

Teams in all sports have been accused of letting one player run the organization, but in the case of the Penguins, it's a legitimate fact. By maintaining positions as both player and owner, Mario is tying the hands of all others that attempt to run his franchise. He may enjoy the ability to wear all the hats, but for the sake of the franchise, it would be best if Mario stuck with the one that read "Owner," and hung up the rest.

FAN FARE: A follow-up to last week's column regarding the behaviour of Senators fans -- your reaction was overwhelming. One very important point that was brought up involved the frustrating selection of music during games. The Pepsi Center has a good reason for spinning John Denver, but what has been the Corel Centre's excuse for the past eight years? And as for that Cotton Eyed Joe track? I'm guessing it has at least nine variants of mold growing on it by now. Change is a good thing, even when it involves the background music. Keep your ideas and suggestions coming -- we'll continue to discuss fan behaviour and etiquette as the season progresses.

HAIR TODAY: Perhaps influenced by Broncos QB Jake Plummer's beard renaissance, Bears QB Kyle Orton has grown his own grizzly version. But whereas Plummer's facial hair gives him a down-and-out adult film star look, Orton's causes a bizarre resemblance to George Lucas.

HO! HO! HO!: Mets pitcher Kris Benson and his notoriously press-hungry wife Anna arrived at the team's holiday party this week, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Anna apparently claims that if Kris doesn't get her what she wants for Christmas, she'll lock herself in Santa's closet with the toy-making elves.


Videos

Photos