PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby smiled widely as the memories flooded back.
Growing up, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain was a fan of Shawn Michaels, the WWE wrestling legend who headlined main events from 1989 through 2010.
“Yeah, I was. I liked Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart but I was also a Shawn Michaels fan,” remembered Crosby, in a bit of Canadian sacrilege. “That would have been right around the time when I was following it. He was in his prime,”
He was known as the Heartbreak Kid, or HBK, a moniker that’s taken on some unexpected relevance in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins’ outstanding line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel has been christened the HBK Line by fans and media. And, thanks to those fans and an invitation from Brett Keisel of the Steelers, Michaels will be in the building for Game 5 of the Penguins’ Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s kinda cool,” said Crosby. “These things kind of evolve out of nowhere, but that line has been playing great.”
Michaels said when he became aware of the HBK Line, he wasn’t sure if it was something only a few fans were using or if it had taken on a life of its own.
Turns out it’s the latter, from T-shirts mashing up hockey and wrestling to Pittsburgh staple Primanti Bros. offering up a sandwich in his and the line’s name:
“I’m absolutely blown away with what’s been going on in the last 48 hours. I’ve had more stuff named for me in the city of Pittsburgh than I ever have in my hometown of San Antonio,” Michaels told NHL Network.
So the hockey-and-wrestling connection is strong in the Eastern Conference Final, but it’s far from the first connection we’ve seen between the squared circle and the rink.
In light of Shawn Michaels and the Penguins, here are 10 hockey and wrestling connections, some of which have taken place in previous postseasons:
1. Ric Flair ‘Wooooooo’s’ The Carolina Hurricanes
Pete Soto, the guy in charge of Jumbotron videos for the Hurricanes 10 years ago, started playing the trademarked ‘Woooooo!’ of The Nature Boy Ric Flair when the Hurricanes would score a goal or go on the power play. At first, the fans hated it. And then they woo’d along with it.
Flair, who lived in Charlotte, embraced it, attending games in a “Nature Boy” Hurricanes jersey, sounding the arena siren and recording additional videos with proclamations like: “That’s a stylin’ and profilin’ Hurricanes goal. Woo!”
2. Brutus Beefcake and the Boston Bruins
When Flair’s Hurricanes played the Bruins in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals, Beefcake was a presence around the team, having a friend on the training staff. The Bruins even had a short winning streak with him in attendance, which of course was due to his presence and not, like, hockey things.
He was reportedly in attendance for Game 7, which the Bruins lost in overtime. Well, at least they had a barber in the house for those playoff beards.
3. Yes! Daniel Bryan and the New York Islanders
In 2014, the perpetual underdog Islanders fans adopted the chant synonymous with a perpetual underdog wrestler.
Daniel Bryan – a shaggy-bearded grappler who captured the imagination of WWE fans for not looking the part of a champion – participated in a simple cheer with his supporters in which he stuck two fingers in the air and shouted “YES! YES! YES!” over and over again.
4. Hulking Out For The Lightning, Brother
In 2004, wrestling icon Hulk Hogan became the “tanned, supersized good luck charm of the Tampa Bay Lightning” thanks to his pregame shirt-ripping routine. The Belleair, Fla. resident’s son played for the Junior Lightning; his daughter, Brooke, sang the National Anthem at Lightning games.
He even had some heat with Bret Hart, whose Calgary Flames played the Lightning for the Stanley Cup. “I’m picturing it now — Hulk passing out Flintstones vitamins while Vincent Lecavalier and the rest of the Lightning are on their knees, hands clasped, saying their prayers as their best and only hope,” wrote Hart.
When the Lightning won the Cup, Hogan celebrated with “Nasty Boys” member Brian Knobs and hugged Lecavalier, who later admitted he didn’t remember the moment.
5. CM Punk, Blackhawks Enforcer
The Chicago-born wrestler-turned-MMA fighter has been a vocal support of the Blackhawks for years, from appearing at games to playing “shoot the puck” between periods.
He reached Peak Punk in 2015, when he openly feuded with Tampa’s own Hogan who snarked that the Blackhawks “are in a whole lot of trouble, they should take their puck ‘punk’ and go home, CM can show them the way brother.”
Punk dropped this pipe bomb during the Stanley Cup Final when Hogan was referred to as a Lightning fan.
“No he’s not. That’s the problem I have with that. If I’m a Lightning fan, I’m embarrassed they hitched their wagon to a guy like that. Doesn’t know Stamkos’s name, the captain’s name. Icing to him is something he eats three times a day.
6. Bret Hart’s Hitmen
Hart wasn’t just a celebrity backer of the Flames: He founded a WHL team in 1994 called the Calgary Hitmen, the name inspired by his wrestling moniker.
True to form for anything related to professional wrestling, it drew the ire of local fans and the business community for its evocation of violence, which has no place in the name of a hockey team.
7. The Goon
Back when wrestlers with plumbers and garbage man gimmicks were the norm, Bill Irwin was christened “The Goon,” whose backstory involved him being a player so violent that he was kicked out of every league he played in.
The character lasted only a few months and never roe above “jobber” status.
8. The Title Belt Locker Room Honor
The Chicago Blackhawks and the Arizona Coyotes were among the teams famous for handing out a WWE championship belt to the player of the game in their locker rooms.
(The Carolina Hurricanes had one too, but no one knew why.)
In 2015, Kris Versteeg of the Blackhawks had the most touching moment of their Cup parade when he handed the belt over to the son of their late equipment manager Clint Reif.
9. Ted Irvine
Irvine was a winger for the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues from 1963-77. He had 331 points in 774 games, and is an honored member of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame.
Wrestling fans might also know him as the father of the Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla, Chris Jericho.
“You know, your dad’s your dad; you don’t realize how cool it is he played in the NHL,” Jericho told us in 2010.
And finally …
10. Mr. Perfect
If you’re going to end a list of wrestling and hockey connections, there’s only one way to end it: With Mike Modano and the Perfect Goaltender.
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