Jason Binnie lives out hockey dreams with Pens

  • By Jason Mackey
    Staff writer
    jmackey@observer-reporter.com
October 6, 2012
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Jason Binnie gloves a shot from Penguin Chris Kunitz during practice. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt/O-R
Jason Binnie, right, talks with Penguins winger Chris Kunitz during a practice session Thursday.

At first, the scene seemed strange.A few minutes before the Pittsburgh Penguins began an informal workout last Thursday inside the Iceoplex at Southpointe in Cecil Township, Jason Binnie tugged a cooler full of nine water bottles and a five-gallon bucket of hockey pucks onto the ice.In goalie pads, the Penguins crest emblazoned across his chest.Binnie, of course, doesn’t play for the Penguins, at least not in the same, familiar capacity as those he would be practicing with. And definitely not in one that pays him any money.What he does do, however, is something of a puckhead’s dream: While the NHL and its players are stuck in a lockout, Binnie has been serving as a stand-in goaltender at practice.Binnie also manages the team’s locker room at Southpointe, occasionally does some of the players’ laundry and serves as a de facto equipment manager while the team’s real one, Dana Heinze, can’t have any contact with the players because of the dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement.“I was never one of those guys who was a fan and wanted autographs, things like that,” said Binnie, who works as the retail sales manager at KoSports, a hockey supply store at 426 Old Pike St., Canonsburg. “To me, they’re just guys who are good at hockey. And they’re great guys. They’re especially great to me, so I don’t want to bother them; I just try to keep it very low-key.”Which Binnie does, almost to an extreme. He thinks what he does isn’t that big of a deal. Yet there are plenty of disgruntled dads with dead hockey dreams who might disagree.“It’s always tough to find somebody – when you’re talking about the NHL – who you can trust to come in and take some shots,” Binnie said. “Someone who’s not going to bug anybody.”Binnie has been taking shots and trying not to bug anyone since 2002. That’s when he hooked up with Greg Szazynski through an adult league the two were playing in together.Szazynski, who had developed a reputation for dominating Pittsburgh-area “beer leagues,” had often worked out with Mario Lemieux, including during a lockout that wiped out part of the 1994-95 season. With Szazynski looking to hang up the goalie pads, he brought in Binnie, who played high school hockey at Greater Johnstown High and junior hockey in Vancouver.Binnie was working as the assistant director of operations at Southpointe at the time and knew several area players who could act as practice stand-ins for the Pens.“He’s good to have around,” said Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis, one of a handful of current players at Thursday’s workout. “He helps out. He knows a lot of hockey players around town if we need bodies. He’s a good guy to know around here.”Binnie got to the rink Thursday at 7:45 a.m., nearly two hours before the scheduled 9:30 practice, carrying a travel mug of coffee and wearing Bauer sweatshorts and a navy blue Bauer t-shirt. He placed fresh towels in the team’s locker room. Then he turned off the fans that he had let run to dry players’ equipment. Finally, once everything was ready, he suited up.How does Binnie learn about practice? One of the players – usually Dupuis, Craig Adams or Matt Cooke – will text him, asking if he’s available. He always is.“You never know how long this could last,” Binnie said. “The lockout could end today, or this could go until January. I don’t think the guys are going to skate as much as if it goes until January, but I’ll hang out and help as much as I can.”Ask Binnie who he’s taken shots off of, and it’s tough for him to formulate a top five. But he does have a frame of reference that few have.“James Neal ... he had a much harder shot than what I expected the first time I skated with him,” Binnie said.“(Former Penguins Mark) Recchi was fun, too. He ended up winning three Stanley Cups, so anybody that wins three Cups is fun to skate with.”If any of the players need their skates fixed or other equipment adjusted, Binnie will handle it at KoSports, where he’s worked outfitting area hockey players and fixing skates since 2007.Canonsburg resident Eric Mansmann has dealt with Binnie for the past eight years while his son, Zach, who’s a sophomore on the hockey team at Canon-McMillan, got into the game.“If my son doesn’t see Jason’s car in the parking lot, he doesn’t want to go inside and get his skates sharpened,” Mansmann said.Ironic, because skate sharpening is also how Binnie met his fiancé, Kathryn Michael, a former Division I hockey player at St. Lawrence University: Binnie sharpened Michael’s skates, got her number from her younger brother who worked at the shop, and Binnie and Michael went to a Penguins game on their first date.“He’s great at skate sharpening, so maybe that’s why I called him back,” Michael joked.Their relationship is shaped by hockey – Michael in elite youth leagues and Shady Side Academy’s high school team, Binnie a part-time Penguin-slash-equipment guru – and it strains their time together, as Binnie will often practice in the morning, put in eight hours at the shop, then referee a game or two and play in adult league games at night.But Binnie wouldn’t have it any other way.“When you surround yourself in a game, I know a lot of guys can get tired of it,” Binnie said. “They don’t want to be around it when they get home, but I feel like I’m the complete opposite because I love the game so much.”His fiancé’s take on her soon-to-be-husband’s passon was even better.“He has a lot of fun going out and skating with the boys, taking shots,” Michael said. “He’s like a big kid.”

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