Riding the Bus with Jagr

For five years during the early ’90s, I sat next to Jaromir Jagr, and Jaromir Jagr’s magnificent hair, on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ team bus.

I was the play-by-play announcer, and Jaromir had recently come over to the States from Czechoslovakia to play for the Pens. He was still just a teenager at the time and didn’t speak English all that well. I’ll never forget, one of the first days I’m sitting next to him, he looks at me like he wants to say something. Then the kid pulls out his wallet.

I didn’t know what was going on. I thought maybe he was going to show me what Czech money looked like, or pull out some pictures of his family back home. But it was neither of those things. It turned out that what Jags wanted to show me was a small picture of Ronald Reagan that he had tucked in there.

At that point, there wasn’t a ton of verbal communication happening between us, so he basically just pulled out the picture and started nodding and giving a thumbs-up, with a big old grin on his face.

Communists had taken over Czechoslovakia in ’48, and Jags knew the stories of how the party had seized his grandfather’s land and imprisoned him for refusing to work at the state-run farm. Then the Soviet Union had invaded in 1968, a few years before Jaromir was born. So he loved Reagan because of how he had gone toe-to-toe with the Soviets in the 1980s and refused to back down. The kid was just all smiles anytime Ronnie was mentioned. And he was so excited to be over here and living his dream. Right from the start, he loved everything about this country. It was unmistakable — and it was part of who he was from the second I met him.

Al Messerschmidt/AP Images

The other big thing I noticed about Jaromir back then was that he was super intelligent. Most people don’t think about smarts when they think of Jags, but almost right away I realized that he was a very, very bright kid. He was a master of watching people, and listening, and then learning from what he saw.

When Jags found out that I was known for a bunch of catchphrases that I’d yell out after goals, he latched on to one of the more famous ones and started calling me “Michael Michael Motorcycle” — or just “Motorcycle” for short.

Whenever he spotted me in the arena, he’d yell out, “Motorcycle! Michael Motorcycle!”

Jags learned English in no time, and our friendship grew from there. One day on the bus he turned to me with this big smile on his face, like he had a secret to tell me.

“Have an idea,” he said, with this twinkle in his eye.

He asked me if he could work up his own catchphrase for me to use during the games.

I said sure. Then I handed him a piece of paper, and we got to work translating his ideas back and forth in a blend of Czech, English and Pictionary.

And you know what he came up with?

… Just wait.

Sixteen years before I became friends with Jags, I had stepped off a plane in Pittsburgh for the first time and smelled … that smell.

I’d taken the red-eye from San Diego in August 1974. I flew in on what was then known as Allegheny Airlines. In those days, the gates in a lot of airports weren’t set up the way they are now. So when they landed the plane, they just kind of opened the door and lowered some steps, and you walked out into the open air.

John Heller/The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ultimately, it was the people who got me hooked on the city of Pittsburgh.

Mike Lange

I still remember the exact moment I got off that plane in Pittsburgh. I was so excited. I’d been calling games for San Diego’s Western Hockey League team, the Gulls. But in ’74 the World Hockey League swooped in and our league disbanded, and I was suddenly out of a job. The Penguins agreed to give me a shot, and I couldn’t have been more excited for the chance to make my mark in Pittsburgh. I had goose bumps getting off that plane.

Then I took a deep breath.

The smell was … overpowering. And, to be honest, it was just horrific.

I immediately thought, What have you gotten yourself into here, Mikey? For a split second there, I wanted to spin around and get right back on the plane.

What the hell is that godforsaken smell?

Well, what it turned out to be was the sulfur from the steel mills. When you live around it, you don’t really notice it as much. But if you’re not familiar with it, it will hit you like a right hook, and that’s what happened to me.

I wasn’t about to hightail it back to California over some funky smell, though. The Penguins, and the city of Pittsburgh, had thrown me a lifeline. After the Gulls shut it down, I’d sent my tapes around to any team that would give me a look. The Pens just so happened to have an opening.

And, by God, let me tell you: What a time to show up in Pittsburgh!

Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated/Getty Ima

My initial season with the team was 1974-’75, the first year the Steelers won the Super Bowl. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this town. All those bridges were a sight to behold. And the neighborhoods each had their own unique personalities to them. Plus, soon after I arrived, I was shocked to find out that bars could actually stay open past two o’clock in the morning. That’s not the case here anymore, but in those days, when the mill workers were getting off their shifts at all hours, it was anything goes. That was new to me.

Everything about Pittsburgh, really, was new to me. But ultimately, it was the people who got me hooked on the city. And early on, Pittsburghers inspired me to add some creative touches to my broadcasts.

Now, I had always been intrigued by catchphrases because of my affinity for the great broadcaster Al McCoy. I had used “Great balls of fire!” a few times as an homage to Al. But one night I happened to be sitting at a bar, minding my own business, when everything changed. This guy walks in, and I could just tell he was a real character. As he strides in he points to another gentleman sitting at the bar and calls out to the bartender, “Buy Sam a drink … and get his dog one, too.”

I heard it, and my ears perked up.

I said to him, “Hey, can you do me a favor? Can you say that again?”

He yelled out, “Buy Sam a drink, and get his dog one, too!”

There was something about it. Something uniquely Pittsburgh. And I thought … O.K. You got something here. I wrote it down on a bar napkin.

A few nights later the Penguins scored a big goal and the building exploded — and it just came out of me.

Ohhhhh, buy Sam a drink, and get his dog one, too!”

And you know what? At first, it didn’t hit. It flopped. Nobody knew what to make of it. But I kept my ears open, and I kept absorbing these sayings. You remember that show Kids Say the Darndest Things? Well, I can tell you that adults do, too.

So I’d repeat all these incredible sayings I heard.

Look out, Loretta! (Another one overheard in a bar.)

He beat him like a rented mule! (Stockbroker.)

The kitchen is closed! (Waitress.)

After a few seasons, they really caught on. I was doing TV by that point, so people started recognizing me and walking up to me in the street with their own suggestions. It was just something fun — something to keep the games interesting during the lean years when the team was struggling.

And then in ’84 a kid by the name of Mario Lemieux arrived and changed everything. All of a sudden, anything was possible. Mario had a certain grace about him, this aura. He was a broadcaster’s dream.

You saw that when he scored a goal on his very first shift in the NHL for heaven’s sake. And then you saw it over and over again throughout his career. Mario was a guy who would actually make you nervous sometimes as broadcaster because he’d do things so out-of-this-world that you had to watch your headset — I’d jump out of my seat so fast that my headphones would go flying. Same goes for Jags.

Heck, those two would do things that had the whole town jumping up out of their seats. We were all along for the ride together, you know? So when I’d scream out something crazy — like, “She wants to sell my monkey!” or “Hallelujah Hollywood!” or “Michael Michael Motorcycle!” — I always felt like the fans at home were yelling all sorts of things along with me, because the players were just so skilled.

People ask me all the time, “Why the catchphrases? What do they even mean?”

Well, they don’t mean anything. That’s the point. They’re expressions of disbelief.

It was almost like your brain couldn’t process what your eyes had just seen, so sometimes you’d blurt out whatever popped into your head at that moment. Those guys were so good they kind of brought the joy out of you. They had us all speaking in tongues.

When I think back to those Stanley Cup runs in 1991 and ’92, what I remember most is how special that group of guys was. And nobody (nobody!) was more special than the coach.

In my view, everything started with “Badger” Bob Johnson. He was such a good person that at first the players actually couldn’t believe it. Most guys were just tremendously cautious at the beginning, because they’d never really been around a coach like that. The thinking in that locker room was like, Nobody could possibly be that positive. So, initially, players were scared to death that a big butcher knife was going to come out at some point, and that they were going to get it in the back when they least expected it.

But, you know what?

Bob Johnson really just was that optimistic and supportive. When he said, “It’s a great day for hockey,” that wasn’t just some slogan. He really meant that sincerely, and believed it.

Early on, I remember watching him talk to a young player he was going to scratch for the next game. Bob put his arm around the kid and said, “Listen, I’m gonna need you. Don’t doubt that for a second. Before it’s all said and done, I’m gonna need you.”

He had this way about him that made everybody feel like they were special. And wouldn’t you know it, that kid walked away from the conversation smiling.

Bob did stuff like that day in and day out during that first Cup run, and he got every last one of those guys behind him. Every single one. They would’ve run through a wall for the Badger. No questions asked.

You had Kevin Stevens, and Joey Mullen, and Ronnie Francis, and “the Recchin’ Ball.” Paul Coffey. Larry Murphy. Ulfie. I mean, I could go on and on. They all fell in line.

Keith Srakocic/AP Images

And Jags, from the moment he joined that crew, just soaked in everything about that atmosphere. He was so willing to learn, and to accept advice from people who were looking to help him get better. Quite honestly, when he first came into the league he only had one shot, and that was the backhand. That ain’t gonna cut it in the NHL. So he went to work. Rick Kehoe spent a ton of time with Jaromir and really taught him how to shoot the puck. But Jags also just watched other players closely and took bits and pieces from their games.

He was a big guy, a solid 240 pounds, and at first he wasn’t great at getting through traffic. So he watched Stevens and learned to use his butt to clear out space. It was like, Here, you want space? Just shake your big ass. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. Kevin taught Jaromir how to be a big old Saint Bernard in the corners.

And my God, did that kid watch Lemieux like a hawk. To this day he’ll tell you, without any hesitation, that 66 was the best player who ever played the game. Jags just wanted to do all he could to learn from Mario early on, and without both those guys firing on all cylinders that year, you probably don’t win that first Cup.

Only a few months after the ’91 Cup parade, of course, we all found out that the Badger was dealing with some serious health issues. And then, before we knew it, he was gone.

People ask me all the time what was the most special moment in Pittsburgh Penguins history, and my answer is always the same. The night of the tribute to the Badger was it for me — Nov. 27, 1991. And, really, it’s not even close.

I’ve never seen so much emotion pour out of a large group of people like I did that night. And, to be honest, that sort of response wasn’t something that we all expected. I don’t think any of us thought a light show — a light show? — was going to be something that could move you in the way that one did. But from the minute it started, you could just feel something bubbling up deep inside of you. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. People were sobbing — grown men, old ladies, little kids, everyone.

But we were all there to celebrate his life, so, you know, it was tears of joy.

People were sobbing because they got to experience a truly incredible human being.

Nothing’s come close to that night for me in terms of pure emotion.

I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

By the time the team raised its second Stanley Cup, in ’92, the city was absolutely crazy for hockey. All of a sudden, everybody started coming up to me with suggestions for catchphrases — grandmothers, security guards, bookies, everyone.

Pittsburgh is a town of characters, and everybody knew somebody who would just say the craziest things. In almost every conversation I had with fans back then, someone at some point would say, “You gotta hear this one, Mike!”

I decided to tell folks looking to submit ideas that they’d need to write their catchphrase down on a sheet of paper and then, you know, I’d take it under advisement. That was my only rule. So I got an old shoebox and started using it to hold all these scraps of paper I was handed on the street, and the notes that were mailed to me. Every summer I’d dig in and go through the pile and see what I had. Some of my most famous sayings came out of that old shoebox — straight from Pittsburghers who were looking to connect with my broadcasts.

For example, I knew this bookmaker named Quay through a friend of a friend. This guy was from out in the South Hills, and he had taken bets from the time he was 16 all the way up through the day he died at 86. One day, out of nowhere, he told me he had a couple catchphrases that I might be able to use.

“Write ’em down,” I told him. “It’s gotta be written down, or else I can’t consider it.”

A rule’s a rule, you know?

Anyway, one of the things he wrote down was “Call Arnold Slick from Turtle Crick.” And as soon as I saw that, I just started laughing. There was just something about the name Arnold Slick, and the use of the blue-collar Pittsburghese pronunciation of the word creek.

It was a slam dunk.

To this day, people still come up to me and ask me where in Turtle Creek this guy Arnold lives. Quay also gave me, “Get in the fast lane, Grandma, the bingo game is ready to roll.”

I feel like Quay is just as much a part of the Pittsburgh Penguins as Mike Lange.

But yeah, that sort of thing would happen all the time back then. There was this one time I had to go shoot a local commercial out at this office park in Monroeville. So I get there, and I can’t find the right office. I’m walking around kind of in a daze, just completely lost, and there’s a security guard at the place sitting behind a desk in a kiosk who’s dressed exactly like Barney Fife — he’s got the big hat on, the whole nine.

Well this guy — his name is Sam Mancerella — he recognizes me from TV, and he asks me if I need directions. So he tells me where to go, and I thank him, and then I start heading out toward the office for my appointment. A few seconds later, I hear his voice from over my shoulder.

“Mike? Mike? One minute….”

I turn around.

“Hey, do you still take submissions?”

“I do,” I tell him. “Do me a favor, though, please. Write it down for me.”

So he fiddles around a little bit trying to find a paper scrap and something to write with. I’m just standing there waiting, and then I see him start writing.

It’s upside down from my vantage point, but I can make it out pretty well. And the first word I see is “Scratch.”

For whatever reason, that had me interested.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Then I see him write, “my.” So we’ve got “Scratch my,” and at that point I’m like, This could be something here.

Then it’s, “Scratch my back,” and I’m just all-in at that point. I’m excited. So he finishes writing it all out and then hands me the scrap of paper.

It reads: “Scratch my back with a hacksaw.”

I pause for a second or two after reading it. Don’t say a word.

“Can you do me a favor, sir?” I ask.

“Could you come around here on this side of the desk for a second?”

He seemed a little confused by the request, but he came over. And when he got to me, I put my arms around that guy and gave him a big, huge bear hug.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”

I knew right away. What can you possibly say when you witness Mario Lemieux not only stickhandle his way through four defenders, but also make the whole thing look like ballet?

Ohhhhh, scratch my back with a hacksaw!”

People often ask me what advice I’d give to young broadcasters hoping to break into the business. My answer to that one is always the same: Be nice to people.

It sounds ridiculous, but when it’s all said and done, your greatest legacy is going to be based on how you treated other people. That’s Badger Bob’s legacy. That will be Mario’s legacy, too. You can achieve greatness and still be a decent human being at the same time. You want proof? Just look at the last 10 years of Penguins hockey, as Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury helped the Pens win their third and fourth Stanley Cups.

You won’t find two better human beings in the game today.

In fact, if you were to ask me about the nicest people I’ve met during my more than four decades in hockey, number 87 would be right there in the top five. Bar none, he’s the most complete package I’ve ever seen in terms of a person and as a player. He’s an even better person than he is a player.

He’s nice to everybody. He’s just nice.

Fleury’s like that, too. He’s just an honest-to-goodness nice man, and that’s why the players love him. That’s why he’s been loved since the day he walked in the door as an 18-year-old kid. He’s humble, and he is everybody’s friend. So that makes him very special as a person, because it’s just such a pleasure to be around someone like that on a daily basis.

When Sid and Geno and Kessel and all those kids were drinkin’ out of that Cup last summer, you better believe they raised more than a few toasts to Flower.

Those guys know the deal.

When I look back on 42 years covering the Penguins, you know what comes to mind? It’s not the four Cups, and it’s not the individual magic on the ice.

I think, God, was I lucky to get to know some of these great people. God, was this whole town lucky.

So, wow, that was going to be the end of this thing. But I just realized I almost forgot to tell you about Jaromir’s big idea — that catchphrase he was dying to give me back in the early ’90s.

Before I tell you what it was, though, I need to say that Jags is the ultimate perfectionist. He’ll do whatever it takes to get something right, even if it’s just creating a silly saying for some play-by-play guy to shout at the top of his lungs … and even if it means taking three damn months to nail it.

Three months!

That’s what it took. I mean, that guy workshopped this thing to death. He didn’t want just some run-of-the-mill phrase. He wanted it to be really good, to stand the test of time.

So he tried out different things, and he changed it around a bunch of times, and he played with different ways to word what he was trying to say. For months he did this, I’m telling you.

Mark Lennihan/AP Images

Then one day he comes up to me on the bus with a big smile on his face — that huge Jagr grin.

“I got it!” he says. “I got it! I got it!”

“All right,” I say. “Show it to me. You gotta write it down for me, though.”

He was so happy at that point. He was just so happy. So proud.

“Write it down for me, Jags. That’s how it works.”

So he grabs a pen. He’s looking around for a piece of paper.

“And do it in Czechoslovakian.”

So he finds what he needs, and he writes:

“Vykouril si ho jako špatnou cigaretu!”

I had no clue what the heck it said. I just knew from the smile on his face and all the nodding he was doing that it had to be pretty good.

I kind of looked at him, and it was clear to me that he was waiting for a big reaction. But I had no idea what the words on that paper meant. So I couldn’t really even respond properly.

“Can you say it for me Jags? What’s it say?”

He nodded, and kind of made a face like he was working up this big voice, and he says, “Vykouril si ho jako špatnou cigaretu!”

“No, no, Jaromir … in English. What does it mean?”

And then he said it.

“He smoked him like a bad cigar!”

As soon as Jags finished the last word, I gave him a big hug.

Twenty-six years later, lots of Mike Lange catchphrases have come and gone. But that one, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will always be my favorite of the bunch.

It’s still in my shoebox.