Saturday, March 22, 2014

Frank Pietrangelo: 6 Autographed Cards

As a goalie for the first half of my life, I modeled my playing style after those of Patrick Roy (like most Quebecers) and Sean Burke, as previously mentioned. Combining their butterfly techniques and rapid glove-side reflexes came to me naturally, but there were two others that influenced how I played: Ron Hextall, for his stick-handling and aggressiveness (I was always the most penalized goalie in the league and was the lone goalie-enforcer in the LHJMQ in 1995-96 when I quit playing), and Frank Pietrangelo, another fast glove, whose knack for appearing twice as large as he actually was always impressed me, like Bruce Banner becoming The Hulk when a shooter appeared. All four also used a Brian's glove for a fair chunk of their careers, and so did I...

Despite going the American College route, which was rare for Canadian players, Pietrangelo was drafted in the fourth round (63rd overall) by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1983, and yet he remained with the University Of Minnesota Golden Gophers (yes, the team Herb Brooks coached in the 1970s) for three more seasons before moving onto the Pens' IHL farm team, the Muskegon Lumberjacks, where he appeared in 35 regular-season games and 15 more in the playoffs in his rookie year in the pros.

The next three seasons were spent moving from the Penguins to the Lumberjacks, playing very well in the IHL (GAA around 3.00 in the high-scoring 1980s, and a spectacular 30-6-4 winning record) and playing mostly well in the NHL but with some games where he, like other goalies of that era, was put in terrible circumstances, so his GAA was around 4.00, his save percentage around .870, but his wins-losses record was okay for a back-up at 22-20-2.

He spent all of the 1990-91 season in Pittsburgh, sharing the back-up duties with Wendell Young, behind Tom Barrasso, and winning the Stanley Cup. Many hockey fans (particularly in Pittsburgh) remember him for The Save on Peter Stastny, staving off elimination while Barrasso was nursing an injury:

For my money, though, and as a fan of two Adams-division teams growing up (the Québec Nordiques and Montréal Canadiens), it was during his time with the Hartford Whalers backing up Burke that I not only got to see the most of Pietrangelo, but that I saw him at the top of his game, a steadying presence on sub-par (to say the least) teams. The team finished out of the playoffs in both of his full seasons in New England, with Paul Holmgren (a decent NHL-caliber general manager, but average coach whose record was 30-63-8 in Pietrangelo's tenure in Hartford, and 83-126-22 with the Whalers in total with no playoff participation in 4 seasons) at the helm.

He had a spectacular seven-game series against the Habs in 1991-92, stopping 95 of 99 shots in the final two games, including 53 in a double-overtime loss in the series clincher.

After playing a part of the locked-out 1994-95 season with the IHL's Minnesota Moose, Pietrangelo set his sights on Europe, first with the Bolzano-Bozen Foxes (1996-97) and HC Asiago (1997-98) in Italy, then the Kaufbeuren Eagles in Germany (1997-98), followed by three seasons in England with the Manchester Storm (1998-2001), where he was named Player Of The Month in December 1998.

Upon retiring, he moved back to his hometown of Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he is involved in local youth programs, chief among them the awesome Niagara Bauer Hockey Challenge, where 250 teams from 11 countries in 35 age and skills categories compete in a tournament attended by NHL, AHL, Junior Leagues and U.S. College scouts and coaches, providing kids with an extra (or sometimes a very first) opportunity to progress, on the ice and/or academically.

I sent him these 6 cards and a fan letter on March 13th, 2014, and got them all back, signed in black sharpie with his jersey number (40) tagged at the end, on March 21st, 2014. Though they are from just two different seasons, they show the changes in modernizing their uniforms that the Whalers went through in the early 1990s, starting with the ones they wore throughout my childhood, first with the white (home) uniform:
They are both technically variants of the same card by Pinnacle Brands, the one on the left being from the 1992-93 Score (American) set and the one on the right from the 1992-93 Score (Canadian) set; both bear #535.

The next card shows him wearing the green (away) uniform, in the same stance (ready for a face-off) as the first one, from Pro Set's 1992-93 Pro Set (card #64):
That stance is part of what I meant when I mentioned by his taking up twice as much room as he should in front of the net, with his arms forming a diamond with his body, in his half-ready mode. It's even more obvious on the next card, where he just seems to pop out of the net, looking at the puck like a bear would an oncoming salmon, shoulders perfectly aligned with the cross bar:
The card on the left is from Topps' 1993-94 Stadium Club set (card #272), the brand's highest-end set of the day, while the one on the right is from Topps' 1993-94 Premier (card #287), which was a premium brand when released under the O-Pee-Chee banner but fell a tad short when re-branded to Topps. If you're curious about his pose in the second card, it's taken during warm-ups, where he had a habit of visualizing top-corner glove saves while stretching his groin (the same pose can be seen on other cards). Both cards show the next-generation Whalers white (home) uniforms, with silver/grey added as a highlighting colour to the classic palette of white and green.

Which brings us to perhaps the prettiest Whalers uniform, where they changed the primary colour from green to navy blue, with green and silver acting as highlighters, from Upper Deck's 1993-94 Parkhurst (card #352):
It's also the one card with different masks represented, with the best one of the front (above), and the runner-up on the back:
Like Roy, he switched from Brian's to Koho in 1992-93...

6 of 6, in 8 days. I really liked him before, I think I like him even better now! By the way, if you think you recognize his name but are unfamiliar with early-1990s hockey, yes, he is related to current St. Louis Blues star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who is his cousin's son.

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