Dave Molinari was smitten with hockey before such a thing was cool around here. Growing up when the NHL was its Original Six and the Pittsburgh Penguins weren’t even a concept, he had his ear to his AM radio at night listening to games on superstations such as WGN in Chicago.
“Hockey certainly wasn’t big among my age group. I guess it’s given me a perspective that only somebody this old could have,” says Molinari, whose early interest led to a career as a newspaper sports writer. He has chronicled every Penguins season since 1983-84 for the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press and currently the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
He has covered the entirety of Hall of Fame center-turned-co-owner Mario Lemieux’s pro career, and that of current superstar centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He has done it well enough that in 2009 he won the Elmer Ferguson Award, an honor affiliated with the Hockey Hall of Fame that goes to one hockey writer each year.
Molinari, a native of Glassport who has lived in the Mission Hills section of Mt. Lebanon since 1986, qualifies as one of the preeminent authorities on the Penguins. He has reached that point while leaving a trail of giggles and raised eyebrows, thanks to a personality that could be described as grumpy and gruff with overtones of surly bundled in a sharp wit. It shows up frequently in his Tweets (@MolinariPG).
“He has this very dry, sarcastic kind of gloom-and-doom personality, but when you talk to him, he’s really intelligent,” says Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque, a popular member of the 1991 and ’92 Stanley Cup teams.
Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president of communications, worked with Molinari at the Press years ago and gave the introductory speech in Toronto when Molinari was feted with the Ferguson Award. McMillan told a story from their much younger days of driving to Toronto for guys’ weekends. Fans of Canadian beer they couldn’t get in Pittsburgh, the group of friends would make a stop at a Molson brewery, where Molinari would drop to his hands and knees to kiss the sidewalk. The story had the desired effect, even on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
“He was howling,” McMillan says. “(Former NHL tough guy) Tie Domi could barely stand up.”
It’s not that Molinari isn’t serious about his craft. He is a stickler for details. Ask where he went to high school and he says, “Elizabeth Forward, no hyphen.”
There have been sacrifices. He spent his 30th birthday in the French-language Quebec outpost of Trois Rivieres for an exhibition game. He turns 60 on October 2, a night when the Penguins have their final preseason game of the fall, at Carolina.
He has worked out of dozens of NHL arenas.
“Some of them were rat holes, but the Forum in Montreal was truly a cathedral of the game,” Molinari says of the former home of the Canadiens in one of hockey’s meccas. “I don’t think I ever walked into that building even for a morning skate where the hair on the back of my neck didn’t stand up. There was just something about that place—the history of it.”
Amid all the games and practices and travel, Molinari and his wife, Debbie, have raised three children in Mt. Lebanon. Kelsey, a Penn State graduate like her old man, just started grad school at Oregon. Jeremy is a sophomore at Robert Morris. Jessica is a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School.
Even before he settled in Mt. Lebanon, Molinari was often at the Mt. Lebanon rink, which in the 1980s and part of the ‘90s served as the Penguins’ practice and training camp facility. He was there in September 1984 when Lemieux skated in a Penguins jersey for the first time. “After 30-some years, I still don’t claim to know him all that well,” Molinari says. “He’s been such a private guy from the time he got here.”
Lemieux lived in Mt. Lebanon his rookie season with the billet family of Tom and Nancy Matthews and later lived on Lynn Haven Drive. Many Penguins lived here in the 1980s, although now they have scattered and are gravitating north with the opening of the Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, the team’s new practice facility.
Times have changed. Molinari keeps churning out the stories.
“There are teams that go for decades just kind of being middle of the pack, and I’m guessing that gets to be kind of boring and certainly challenging for the beat writers,” he says. “The Penguins have certainly had their share of mediocre years, but I’ve covered three Cup winners. I’ve also covered a couple of teams that were literally the worst in the league. So it’s always interesting for one reason or another.”
Molinari’s personality shines through in his Tweets:
After the Penguins’ big summer trade to acquire sniper Phil Kessel: “Here’s a real shocker: (Coach) Mike Johnston is glad to have Kessel on his team.”
On free agent defenseman Christian Ehrhoff: “Have heard from some who call Ehrhoff soft because he got injured. Assume that means should have had a thicker skull to avoid concussions.”
From the June draft, where the team had no first-round pick: “Penguins are now just a half-dozen picks from actually participating in the draft.”
On format changes to overtime: “Sorry to hear that the NHL apparently won’t be adopting a rock-paper-scissors format for overtime tiebreakers, after all.”