PLAYER FEATURE: TOM KOSTOPOULOS
Ladies and Gentleman, presenting Mr. Penguin.
Don't get the wrong idea. It's true Tom Kostopoulos is a Los Angeles King and yes, he's thrilled to be one. But on the other side of the country, some 2,700 miles away, there's a legion of fans that think this soon-to-be 27-year old is one of the greats of hockey.
He is their Mr. Penguin.
"I can tell you that Tom is by far the most popular player that we've ever had in our seven years," says Tom Grace, broadcaster for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. "Out of my 10 years of full-time pro hockey broadcasting, he is probably the player I've seen that best symbolizes what a pro hockey player should be."
Born in Mississauga, Ontario, Kostopoulos got hooked on hockey by watching his older brother play, which motivated him to hit the ice "as soon as I had the chance." Being able to tag along with big brother eventually paid off.
After scoring 87 points (27-60-87) in just 66 games for the Ontario Hockey League's London club during his final year of junior hockey, Kostopoulos was taken by the Penguins in the seventh round, 204th overall, in the 1999 Draft. He joined a burgeoning franchise in Wilkes-Barre that was still looking for an identity.
"He wasn't our most talented player," says Grace. "He wasn't even our best player. But, day-in and day-out, he came to epitomize what this franchise wanted to be."
Back in 1999, the American Hockey League brought in it's newest member, the Pittsburgh Penguins' minor league affiliate. In typical expansion team fashion, they finished a dismal 23-43-9-5 in that initial campaign, failing to even sniff the postseason. But in 2000-01, the Baby Penguins, as they are sometimes referred, made an improbable playoff run, reaching the Calder Cup Finals despite owning only a 36-33-9-2 record during the regular season.
Not coincidentally, that 2000-01 campaign also marked the pro debut of Kostopoulos. In his first season with Wilkes-Barre, the right winger finished second on the Penguins squad with 58 points (26-32-58) in 76 regular season games, then added 12 more (3-9-12) in 21 playoff outings.
The next year, 2001-02, Kostopoulos led the team in goals (27), points (53) and power play goals (10), which earned him an 11-game stint with Pittsburgh in late December/early January. His first NHL shot resulted in his first NHL goal, coming against Patrick Lalime and the Ottawa Senators, and he finished with three points (1-2-3).
Despite his success in Wilkes-Barre, Kostopoulos still couldn't crack the parent club's lineup on a stable basis. He spent most of the 2002-03 season in the AHL, leading the team in assists (42) while ranking second in goals (21), points (63) and penalty minutes (131). But he found himself in the NHL for less than a month, playing only eight games and recording one assist with Pittsburgh.
"It was a little frustrating," Kostopoulos admits, "but you just try to put in your work and wait your turn to get called up. I was getting little stints, but I definitely wanted to stick."
He seemed headed for more of the same in 2003-04 when he once again started the season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. After scoring 20 points (7-13-20) in 21 games for the minor leaguers, however, the message was clear that Kostopoulos belonged in the NHL. He was sent permanently to Pittsburgh on December 17.
Well ... almost permanently. He played in 60 games for the Penguins that season, scoring 22 points (9-13). But by the time March rolled around, it became obvious that Pittsburgh was not going to make the playoffs. On the other hand, Wilkes-Barre was headed for a third-place finish and a sure playoff berth. Kostopoulos was asked to go back down to the minors and help the Baby Penguins in their postseason endeavor.
"I was actually really excited," he says about returning to Wilkes-Barre. "They asked me if I wanted to go and I said, 'Sure.' I love the city and all the teammates I knew. We had a great run and went to the finals. We were just worn out by then and lost in the finals to Milwaukee, but it was a lot of fun."
Kostopoulos provided a much-needed boost for the club, providing 23 points (7-16-23) in just 24 playoff games. When the 2003-04 campaign came to a close, he was Wilkes-Barre's all-time leader in career games played (318), goals (97), assists (149), points (246), power play goals (31) and overtime goals (three), and he ranked in the top five in shorthanded goals (five), game-winning goals (10) and penalty minutes (527).
All of which made it all the more difficult for him when he decided to leave the Pittsburgh organization and sign with the Kings prior to the 2004-05 season.
"I think of myself as a pretty loyal guy," says Kostopoulos. "It was tough to leave, but L.A. is giving me a real good chance. I couldn't turn it down."
"I wouldn't say it was a shock for our fans as much as it was a disappointment," said Grace about Kostopoulos' departure. "Pittsburgh didn't want to lose him, but at the same time I don't think they were willing to offer him as lucrative of a contract."
Still, last season Kostopoulos found himself back in the AHL due to the work stoppage, only this time he was suiting up for the Manchester Monarchs. Though a new team, his impact was the same. He picked up 71 points (25-46-71) in just 64 games while earning a spot on the Canadian squad during the AHL's All-Star Game. He finished second on the team in assists, third in points and first among forwards in plus/minus (+30).
"When L.A. signed him, I told the Monarchs coach, 'You have no idea what you're getting,'" said Grace. "And sure enough, by like the 10th game he called me back and said, 'Wow, does this guy play like this every night?' I said, 'He's played like that every night of his whole life.'"
And what was it like when the inevitable happened and Manchester went into Wilkes-Barre for a game? Kostopoulos was treated like a returning hero.
"When Tom came in here, there were signs and people cheering," Grace remembers. "It's one of those things where the fans say, 'We hope Tom gets a hat trick, and we win the game, 4-3.' That's the best way I could describe it. He's our number one, all-time favorite player."
Now Kostopoulos is an everyday member of one of the best teams in the Western Conference and is excited about what postseason hopes may be ahead. Although a difficult decision at the time, he is glad to be gone from a Pittsburgh team that is having its share of struggles this year, even though he will always remember fondly his time spent as Mr. Penguin.
"It was a great place to play with great fans," Kostopoulos says. "I got close to a lot of teammates. I really liked it there and I really learned a lot there.
"(Wilkes-Barre) helped me in my career."