Penguins GM Shero has fond memories of days around Broad Street Bullies

Ray Shero proudly hoists the Stanley Cup after the Penguins won Game 7 at Detroit in 2009.
Ray Shero proudly hoists the Stanley Cup after the Penguins won Game 7 at Detroit in 2009. (Associated Press)
Posted: April 11, 2012

EVEN WHEN THERE was evidence of it within the walls of his own house, Ray Shero did not immediately perceive that his son, Chris, had a concussion. That is how hard it is for the average person to detect them, and why the Pittsburgh Penguins general manager has been especially cautious with his superstar, Sidney Crosby, who has battled symptoms of concussions for the better part of two seasons.

It happened within just a few weeks after Crosby suffered concussive head blows in games against Washington and Tampa Bay in January 2011, which sidelined him through the Stanley Cup playoffs and caused him to miss significant parts of this season. Chris Shero, then 15, was a player for the Pittsburgh Hornets, a Triple A hockey team in the area, when he suffered hits to the head in successive games. When Chris complained that he was not feeling well, Ray told himself he would keep an eye on it. It was only when his son took a test in school and was unable to finish it that Ray realized something was wrong.

"We took him to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center," said Shero, 49. "The doctor there did not even have to test him to come to the conclusion that he was concussed. Honestly, we were living with him and we had no idea."

Because of Crosby, and because of what happened to Chris, Shero has been a leading advocate for the prevention of head shots in the NHL. But that has not stopped the son of legendary Flyers coach Fred Shero from building an aggressive team with the Penguins, who square off against the Flyers Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at the Consol Energy Center.

In his 6 years with Pittsburgh, Shero has had a transformative effect on the organization, which he elevated from what had been a steep slide into the doldrums to win the 2009 Stanley Cup. While Shero is not his father and the Penguins are assuredly not the Broad Street Bullies, he says that the boyhood days he spent with the Flyers during the Stanley Cup years in the 1970s had a "huge impact on me." Fred "The Fog" coached the Flyers 7 years, during which Rejean - his given name - grew from a 9-year old boy until a teenager and found himself in the company of men who he remembers were "larger than life."

"Even when you left the Flyers, you would always feel a part of that organization," Shero said. "We have tried to establish that here. To be a Penguin counts for something, just as being a Flyer always has. Growing up around some of those players - Bernie Parent, Bobby Clarke and the others - was just an awesome experience for me. Whenever I was off from school, I would be at practice with Dad. I remember stealing sticks from Rick MacLeish. I was always around. And not once did anyone say, 'What a pain in the ass this kid is.' "

Shero chuckled. "I remember our first year there," he said. "It was the 1971-72 season - I was 9 - and we missed the last playoff spot when [Gerry] Meehan [of Buffalo] beat Doug Favell with 4 seconds left with a shot from just inside the blue line. I cried. I remember I went to school the following day - I was in the fourth grade - and I was so down in the dumps. And I walk by some kid who yells, 'Hey, Shero; Your old man and Favell blew it!' I knew then I was in Philadelphia."

What Shero remembers is the "family atmosphere" that always has existed with the Flyers, which is something else he has attempted to create in Pittsburgh. Former Flyers such as Bill Barber, Joe Watson and Bill Clement agree - they remember young Rejean fondly. Barber said that given the "cast of characters we had back then, I think he just sat back and enjoyed it." Barber adds that it also had to have been a learning experience.

"We had a lot of success over a very short period of time," Barber said. "I think that became embedded in him. I think he absorbed it. And I think he has used it in his career."

Watson agreed. "I remember how he would come out at the end of practice and join us on the ice," he said. "In fact, a lot of our guys had kids who did that back then. And the players would fool around with him. Heck, on some days, there would be 15 to 20 kids out there. You would have the puck and there would be four or five kids chasing you. I remember those days very well. It was fun."

Clement remembers Rejean as a "a happy guy, always smiling."

"He always had a stick in his hand. He wanted to play as much as we did. He was outgoing. More like his mother than Freddie. Freddie was more of an introvert. I just remember Rejean being affable and likable as a kid, just as he has become as a man."

Given his pedigree in hockey, it seemed likely that Shero would have gotten a shot to run his own team long before he did. But as Barber said, "You have to work your way up in this game. Nothing is ever given to you."

Shero played college hockey at St. Lawrence University, briefly considered a career on Wall Street after graduation but instead became a player agent. He said he had no desire ever to coach, though he has held on to some of the notebooks his father kept. With an eye toward landing a job in management in some organization, Shero hooked on as an assistant general manager with the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Nashville Predators general manager David Poile hired him away in the same capacity in 1998. There, Shero settled in for what would be a long apprenticeship under Poile, whose dad Bud had been the original Flyers general manager. While Shero said he learned "an awful lot" in Nashville, he wondered whether he ever would get a chance to be a general manager, or whether he even had the ability to do the job.

"I was not even getting interviewed," Shero said. "I never let it bother me, but then you see some of your peers get interviewed and get jobs, and you wonder. I remember having that conversation with David. But the team was beginning to get some recognition, so David seemed to think that it would happen eventually."

Of the organizations that finally contacted Shero in the spring of 2006 - and there were a few of them - none presented a greater challenge than Pittsburgh, which had a run of last-place division finishes since 2001-02 under general manager Craig Patrick. While the Penguins had a core of fine players to build on that included Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and others, the organization Shero joined in 2006 was in a state of disarray. To add to the dismal performance of the team on the ice, rumors swirled that the Penguins were poised to leave Pittsburgh for Kansas City in the event they did not get a new arena. Shero remembers that he told his wife not to buy the new drapes she had her eye on for their new home.

"I told her, 'Not until we find out where we are going,' " he said. "We started out the 2006 season by not selling out our first 20 home games. But then the team got on a roll. We ended up selling out the second half the season, and we have been selling out ever since. I told people the first day I was hired: 'Not only do I want to win the Stanley Cup, I want to be in the position each year to win the Stanley Cup.' And we have done that."

But it is not just what the Penguins have done on the ice under Shero that has been transformative. Off the ice, he has been forward-thinking in his views toward promoting hockey. In a sport that he has been searching for ways to expand visibility, he has shown that he is skilled with the media and in marketing. To that end, the Penguins were the first team to agree to allow HBO to film its "24/7" program. While Shero concedes that there were apprehensions on the part of some that the film crew would be intrusive, he says the program has proved to be "fantastic exposure for the league." Shero has also been vigilant in pressing for the removal of head shots, not surprising, given that his star player has been victimized by them.

"Not every head shot is cause for a suspension," he said. "But we have shown progress with our safety division."

Given his stance on head shots, does Shero think the type of brawls that erupted between the Flyers and Penguins toward the end of the season also should be removed? He says he does not think so, but . . .

"I am open to any conversation," said Shero, who says that the Flyers-Penguins donnybrook sprang "spontaneously out of the emotion of the game."

"Some things that were acceptable in society 30 years ago are no longer acceptable."

Ray has followed in the large footsteps of his father when it comes to embracing innovative ideas. According to Watson, Fred was "always a step ahead of everyone when it came to hockey." Given the stature Fred holds in the annals of the sport - including two Stanley Cups in Philadelphia - it surprised Ray that his father has not yet been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Ray said, "Some people think he is already in there." Shero then adds of his father, who died in 1990: "Hockey was his life, but he still had time for me. I remember driving to the Spectrum with him and going over the Walt Whitman Bridge. The toll was 55 cents. He would light up a Lucky Strike and ask me, 'How is school going? How are your friends doing?' "

Shero chuckled and said, "I have nothing but great memories of those days."c


Contact Mark Kram at kramm@phillynews.com.

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