Pittsburgh Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque has made many visits to the Mahoning Valley promoting hockey over the years. On Monday, the “Ol’ Two-Niner” spent a few minutes reflecting on one of his special memories. (Bourque wore 29 for many seasons and two Stanley Cups before Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was drafted.)
In August 2008, Bourque came to Youngstown to play in the charity hockey game at the then-Chevrolet Centre. Two months earlier, the Central Hockey League booted the Youngstown SteelHounds out because of a financial mess between the league and Herb Washington’s three-year-old team.
A month later, SteelHounds forward Jason Baird was badly burned in a riding lawnmower fire while he was working for a landscaper in Austintown.
Kevin Kaminski, the SteelHounds coach in the second and third seasons, organized a charity game to raise funds for the Baird family. Bourque was among those who contributed.
“That Jason Baird event was a pretty special moment,” Bourque said Monday at The Lake Club. Bourque was among several former Penguins participating in the Youngstown Phantoms’ Sticks to Club golf outing.
“I actually got in touch with Kevin [Kaminski],” Bourque said of his initial involvement. “When I first heard about what happened, I was driving in my car. I had to pull over on the side of the road — I just started bawling.
“I lost it. I heard he had a family.”
Even though Bourque had played in the NHL against Kaminski, they didn’t know each other.
“I started making phone calls,” Bourque said of wanting to do something to help the Baird family. “They told me about Kevin.
“I called Kevin and the ball started rolling about me getting involved, connecting with Jason and his family. and helping with the fundraising.”
That year, it was a shorter summer than usual for Bourque, who had been the Pens radio analyst for four seasons. That spring, the Pens were defeated by the Detroit Red Wings in a six-game Stanley Cup Final.
Bourque’s presence at the charity game brought a huge dose of Pens/NHL fever. Ten months later, the Pens defeated the Red Wings in seven games to win their third Stanley Cup.
Bourque called the atmosphere at the charity game amazing. Autographed NHL memorabilia was auctioned off after the game. A signed Sidney Crosby jersey went for $1,100. Kaminski’s jersey went for more.
Bourque tried to explain why he feels so passionately that hockey players and fans are special.
“It goes to show you whether it’s Youngstown or Pittsburgh or Chicago or Montreal, the hockey community ... I don’t know if every sport can say this,” Bourque said. “We are just so tight-knit that when something like that happens, people stop what they are doing to help.”
Asked why, Bourque didn’t hesitate in his reply.
“Humility, that’s what it is about hockey players,” said Bourque who played professionally from 1983-2000. “That’s why people are drawn to hockey.
“To move up in levels of hockey, you have to be confident and humble,” the Ol’ Two-Niner said, his emotions gathering steam. “And if you are not, you will be chewed up and spit out.
“No matter how good a player you are, you will get chewed up in a locker room by the hockey community.”
Bourque said the sport’s top players police the game.
“You hear about players who are real cocky and arrogant, it doesn’t float in hockey,” Bourque said. “How many times have you heard [that] hockey players are the best, hockey players are the most approachable?”
“Hockey players are the guys that go out into the community and give,” Bourque said. “I’m not saying that all baseball, football players aren’t like that. But it’s more widespread in hockey.”
In January, Baird, 33, died after a long battle to recover.
“I think about him a lot,” Bourque said. “[What happened] touched my heart in a special way.”
Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.