Pittsburgh Sports Year In Review: A look back at a year of change, triumph and reunions in 2023

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – In a city like ours, sports are often at the heart of how we identify ourselves. 

Whether it’s hockey nights in Pittsburgh, Steeler Sundays, or the view from the seats of PNC Park, the Penguins, Steelers and Pirates often affect the collective mood of the town. 

This past year, we saw a lot of change, both on the field, in the front offices and in general. 

Let’s take a look back at the year that was 2023:

Pittsburgh Steelers

For Steelers fans, 2023 was a year where they had a common antagonist – the now-former offensive coordinator. 

From the end of last season through the beginning of this one, their ire was focused on one person, and that was Matt Canada. 

The numbers were difficult to ignore. The team had gone 58 games, roughly two-and-a-half years and the entire tenure of Canada with the Steelers, without 400 yards of total offense in a game. 

With a young quarterback, a young offense and a consistently above-average defense, the post-Ben Roethlisberger era of Steelers football appeared to have a bright future. 

If only the coordinator would be let go. 

Those hopes were dashed early on when the team announced he was expected to return just two weeks into 2023. 

Steelers OC Matt Canada expected to return for 2023-24 season

With just one year remaining on his contract, and the Steelers’ historic aversion to firing coaches with years remaining, it appeared Canada would stay. 

Despite a promising preseason, the offensive success did not translate to the beginning of the regular season. 

Boos, jeers, and chants of “Fire Canada” rang down from Acrisure Stadium, as well as other places across Steeler Nation. 

“They want us to play better,” Canada said. “There’s nothing wrong with their passion and those things … We’re not running away from it. We expect to be better. We’re going to be better. I firmly believe that.”

“They want us to play better”: Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada addresses fans booing him

As the offense continued to sputter, even in victory, the Steelers made another switch to charge the offense – take Matt Canada out of the booth upstairs and put him on the sidelines. 

It appeared to work, at least at first, scoring an opening drive touchdown, but once again sputtering down the stretch of the matchup with the Titans. 

The Steelers would go on to win 20-16, but the offense once again failed to put up more than 400 yards of total offense. 

Finally, after a horrendous loss to an undermanned Cleveland Browns team, the Steelers did something they hadn’t done since 1941 – make an in-season coaching change. 

Steelers fire offensive coordinator Matt Canada

Head Coach Mike Tomlin said he made the decision to relieve Canada of his duties and said the decision was “his alone.” 

After nearly two and a half years and in the first game following Matt Canada’s dismissal, the Steelers’ offense would do what they hadn’t since 2020 – record 400 yards of total offense. 

Steelers pile up season-high 421 yards without Canada, beat Burrow-less Bengals 16-10

That would come in a 16-10 victory over rival Cincinnati, but even with Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan sharing offensive coordinator duties, the Steelers offense has still struggled to put up points. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Steelers’ star edge rusher T.J. Watt was setting records on the field and making memes and history off of the field. 

‘I am completely ok’; T.J. Watt posts viral video of himself falling into swimming pool

In May, as he was cleaning the pool at his house…well, we’ll let his tweet tell the story, but as you now know – he was ok. 

Being able to get out quickly and save his phone probably had something to do with what he and his brothers were honored for later that summer – the first-ever brothers to be featured on a Wheaties box. 

“Built around a uniting love for football, the Watt family is grounded in perseverance, togetherness, and a commitment to doing the right thing when it matters most while serving communities in their lives outside of football,” said Kathy Dixon, senior brand experience manager for Wheaties.

T.J. and J.J. Watt to be featured on Wheaties cereal box

“To be included among the incredible roster of athletes who have been featured over the years is a true honor. We hope this box is a reminder for athletes and people everywhere to persevere – on the field and in life – and always champion what you’re passionate about.”

That spirit continued on the gridiron as Watt would go on to set the Steelers’ career sack record on a Monday night game against Cleveland, making his total 81.5 sacks. 

T.J. Watt breaks Pittsburgh Steelers career sacks record

Just a couple of weeks later, the legend continued as he would record two sacks against the Bengals, giving him 91 career sacks. 

It took him 95 games and he became only the second player in NFL history to reach 90 sacks, joining Reggie White. 

T.J. Watt joins exclusive list of NFL players with 90+ sacks in first 100 career games

White recorded 105 sacks in his first 100 games. 

Even as the Steelers’ overall struggles with inconsistency continue, T.J. Watt remains among the consistently elite. 

Speaking of consistency, it’s been something the offense has been looking for since last year and this current season, well, even aside from the former offensive coordinator, it didn’t start great for Kenny Pickett. 

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Kenny Pickett’s car stolen from dealership with playbook inside

While making an appearance in Monroeville at Bowser Chevrolet in May, his car was stolen. 

Not only was the car taken – his playbook was inside of the car. 

Police were quickly able to locate the car and the suspect. He was taken to jail. 

Over the next couple of months, he would be in and out of courtrooms, and ultimately the charges were dismissed and the suspect would be ordered to pay thousands of dollars in fines. 

Charges dismissed against man accused of stealing Steelers QB Kenny Pickett’s SUV

Another challenge for Pickett this season was similar to one he had since the day he was drafted – attempting to step into a role that had been filled by a future hall of famer for nearly 20 years. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers, since 2004, knew who their quarterback was each offseason and it was Ben Roethlisberger. 

Following his retirement, the Steelers were left with a vacancy at the position and between the signing of Mitch Trubisky and the drafting of Kenny Pickett, the competition to replace Big Ben was on. 

However, just days before Pickett’s car was taken, the former Steelers quarterback made a stunning admission on his podcast “Footbahlin.” 

“I wouldn’t say that I wanted Kenny to necessarily fail. Like, when someone comes into replace you’re like ‘I still feel like I had it,’ I hope he doesn’t come in and ball out,” Roethlisberger said. “Because it’s like, ‘Ben, who?’ right? But, honestly, as you started playing, I found myself rooting more, and more, for you…I think you’re the future of this team.” 

Ben Roethlisberger tells Kenny Pickett, ‘I didn’t want you to succeed at first’

Despite the initial hesitancy, Ben went on to tell Pickett he’s rooting for him and now even has a Kenny Pickett jersey. 

While it remains to be seen if Kenny Pickett truly is the next great Steelers quarterback, future Steelers greats could soon hear their names called in the same city they’re selected to play in. 

The Steelers, along with the city, officially submitted a proposal to the NFL to host either the 2026 or 2027 NFL Draft. 

Steelers, City of Pittsburgh submitting official bid to host 2026 or 2027 NFL Draft

“We have submitted our indication to the NFL office of the Steelers’ and City’s desire to host either the 2026 or 2027 NFL Draft in Pittsburgh,” Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten said in a statement provided to KDKA-TV. 

This is the first time in the team’s history they have submitted a bid to play host. 

Pittsburgh Penguins

Across town, for the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was a year of change and a year that saw a streak come to an agonizing end. 

The Pittsburgh Penguins held the North American record of consecutive years making the postseason, making it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 16 straight seasons. 

As the Penguins season spiraled and the team looked to have their playoff streak in jeopardy, the calls for the general manager to be fired grew louder and louder throughout the fanbase. 

Penguins Perspectives: The People v. Ron Hextall

The Penguins were toiling in mediocrity, falling in and out of a playoff spot as the calendar flipped to 2023, and in April, the unthinkable happened. 

For the first time since 2006, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Pittsburgh Penguins to miss playoffs for first time since 2006 

On the same day, the Penguins dropped a 5-2 decision against the Chicago Blackhawks, and that put their fate in the hands of other teams. 

That team specifically was the Montreal Canadiens. 

In order to stay alive in the playoff race, the Penguins would need the Canadiens to beat the New York Islanders. 

They would get no such luck. A 4-2 regulation win by the Islanders knocked the Penguins out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

Two days after the Penguins were eliminated from postseason contention, Fenway Sports Group the Penguins’ ownership, made the decision to change the hockey operations department. 

Pittsburgh Penguins fire Ron Hextall and Brian Burke 

Brian Burke, the president of hockey operations, and Ron Hextall, the general manager, were both dismissed. 

Now, the search for a new general manager was on and while rumors swirled, there was one name that continued to come up, despite reports he would not be available. 

That name was Kyle Dubas. 

Despite having a stellar track record with the Toronto Maple Leafs and breaking the franchise’s streak of not winning a first-round series, the Leafs ultimately decided to not renew Dubas’s contract and he was, for all intents and purposes, a free agent. 

That’s when Fenway Sports Group made their move. 

Penguins name ex-Maple Leafs general manger Kyle Dubas as president of hockey operations 

On June 1, it was made official. Kyle Dubas was hired as president of hockey operations and signed a seven-year deal to serve in that role. 

Dubas would make multiple front office changes, including bringing along his assistant general manager from Toronto, Jason Spezza. 

With a brand new front office and the Penguins looking to get back to contention with the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang locked up, it was time to make a splash and that’s exactly what Kyle Dubas did. 

Penguins acquire Erik Karlsson from San Jose Sharks in three-team trade 

As the San Jose Sharks began to make it clear they needed to rebuild their franchise, the reigning Norris Trophy winner was on the trading block. 

On August 6, the Penguins, Sharks, and Montreal Canadiens teamed up to make the trade work. 

The Penguins would receive Erik Karlsson, forward Dillon Hamalliuk, and a 2026 third-round pick from San Jose along with forward Rem Pitlick from Montreal. 

Heading to San Jose from Pittsburgh were Mikael Granlund and defenseman Jan Rutta. To Montreal went a 2025 second-round pick and defenseman Jeff Petry, goaltender Casey DeSmith, and Nathan Legare.  

A couple of days later, Karlsson was introduced to Pittsburgh. 

After uncertain summer, Erik Karlsson eager to get to work with Penguins 

“The players that they’ve had here for a long time are still really good players,” Karlsson said. “I’m really excited to step into that group and learn a lot of things and also at the same time, hopefully bring some new things and help them become even better.”

As the Penguins of today looked to get better with the addition of Karlsson, the franchise announced in 2024 that they would be honoring a legend of yesterday. 

Penguins to retire Jaromir Jagr’s number 68 in pregame ceremony this season 

Last month, the Penguins announced they would be retiring Jaromir Jagr’s number 68, joining Michel Briere and Mario Lemieux as the only players in franchise history to have their number retired. 

When the Penguins welcome the Los Angeles Kings on February 18, 2024, they will also welcome back Jagr who will have his number hung from the rafters. 

Jagr wasn’t the only 1990s Penguin to be honored for his career achievements. 

The backbone of the back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 was the man between the pipes – Tom Barrasso. 

Former Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso makes Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2023 

In a goalie-heavy year, Barrasso was inducted alongside Mike Vernon and Henrik Lundqvist. 

Traded to the Penguins in 1988, Barrasso went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups with the franchise and ranks second in wins with 226. 

Despite not making the postseason this past season, the team’s number-one defenseman would be honored for his commitment and perseverance to the sport of hockey. 

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang wins Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy 

The Bill Masterton Trophy is given to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”

After a year when Kris Letang suffered another stroke and dealt with the death of his father, he was still able to play a good portion of the season, as well as recording a four-point game in his return to the lineup. 

Letang was the first Penguin to win the award since Mario Lemieux won it in 1993 when he returned from battling cancer. 

Former Penguins forward Adam Johnson dies in accident during game in Britain professional league 

Tragedy would befall the Penguins as well as the hockey community across the globe in late October. 

During a game in the United Kingdom, former Penguin Adam Johnson was cut by a skate in a freak accident and that would ultimately lead to his death. 

While his time with the Penguins was not long, Penguins players and coaches remembered Johnson as a positive force in the locker room and in the organization both with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre. 

Adam Johnson’s UK team retires his jersey number after the former Penguins player’s skate-cut death 

Less than a month later, the Nottingham Panthers would retire Johnson’s number 47. 

“Every moment helps us move forward — the goal songs, all of it,” assistant coach Kevin Moore said. “His family was on our minds and he was on our minds. We think about him every day.”

Johnson was just 29 years old. 

Pittsburgh Pirates

The banks of the Allegheny River played host to a homecoming of sorts at PNC Park this past summer. 

Andrew McCutchen returning to Pittsburgh Pirates 

Less than two weeks into the new year, the Pirates made a splash, announcing the beloved Andrew McCutchen would be returning to the franchise. 

Cutch had left the team in 2017 when he was traded to the San Francisco Giants. In his time away from the Pirates, he made stops in New York with the Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Milwaukee Brewers. 

However, for all the feel-good stories, Cutch did not mince words once he returned – saying it was not a farewell tour. 

“I want to win, plain and simple,” McCutchen said after signing a one-year, $5 million deal to serve as the voice of wisdom on a club brimming with youth. “I want to win. Specifically, I want to win here. I want to continue to keep playing and to have the chance this year to come back, is special.”

He would make history in June against the New York Mets. 

Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen reaches 2,000 career hits 

It was almost as if it was predetermined. Andrew McCutchen would get his 2,000th hit against the same team he recorded his first career MLB hit. 

The Pirates would go on to win a 2-1 game against the Mets and Cutch became one of 291 MLB players in history to record 2,000 hits. 

Unfortunately, the reunion with Pittsburgh was cut short in September. 

Seen in the clubhouse wearing a walking boot, the team would announce he partially tore his Achilles, and his season was effectively finished. 

Andrew McCutchen done for the season due to partially torn Achilles 

The injury did not require surgery and McCutchen and the club kept the door open to extending the reunion. 

“(His approach) has helped our lineup,” General Manager Ben Cherington said. “It’s helped us and I don’t see any particular reason why that can’t continue.”  

The Pirates believe Andrew McCutchen can help them in 2024 after recovery from Achilles injury 

As of the writing of this story, McCutchen remains a free agent. 

Despite another losing season, the Pirates were not devoid of good stories and historic moments. 

Off to a hot start in April, the Pirates called up Drew Maggi, a 33-year-old journeyman who had made his first major league start this past season with the Pirates, and he recorded his first big league hit after 13 years in the minors. 

‘Continue to grind:’ Drew Maggi records first major league hits after 13 years 

“I know, of all people, that this can end very quickly,” Maggi said. “Who knows where it goes from here? Maybe I never get back up here and that was it. That was going through my head the whole day, so it was kind of like, ‘You know what? I’m swinging. I’m going out hacking.'”

It was all part of the Pirates beating the Washington Nationals in a doubleheader by a combined score of 23-4. 

“I was so happy I got it done, got that weight lifted off my shoulders.”  

It wouldn’t be the only offensive outburst of note for the Pirates in 2023. 

On September 24, the Pirates would set a record never achieved by the franchise in its 137 years of existence. 

Pirates overcome 9-run deficit for first time in 133-season history, beat Reds 13-12 

The Reds built a 9-0 lead over the Pirates through three innings. 

Then, the Pirates would strike – scoring 13 unanswered runs. 

Now, the Reds would mount a comeback in the ninth but strand the tying run on base, giving the Pirates the first 9-0 comeback in its history. 

Finally, the Penguins weren’t the only team in town to see one of their legends get the call to the hall. 

Earlier this month, the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2024 class was announced and among the inductees is former Pirates Manager Jim Leyland. 

Former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland voted into National Baseball Hall of Fame

Leyland’s induction makes him the 44th player, manager, or executive to spend time in the Pirates organization to make it to the Hall of Fame. 

“To end up in Cooperstown, after starting as not a very good player and a minor-league manager, I don’t want to get corny with it, but it’s unbelievable,” Leyland said to The Athletic. “I never had any thoughts of going to Cooperstown unless my son was playing at the Field of Dreams place out there.”  

His 851 wins as manager of the Pirates ranks third all-time in team history, trailing only Fred Clarke (1,422) and Danny Murtaugh (1,115). 

Damar Hamlin

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapses on field after making tackle 

Just two days into the year, the entire sports world ground to a halt and all eyes focused on Cincinnati when McKees Rocks native and Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. 

Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field, was given CPR, and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. 

The game was ultimately suspended and the fans and teams went home. 

A week after collapsing on the field, Hamlin was released from a Cincinnati hospital and began his recovery process. 

“Watching the world come together around me on Sunday was truly an amazing feeling,” he said on X (which was known as Twitter at the time). “The same love you all have shown me is the same love that I plan to put back into the world n more. Bigger than football!” 

Nine days after his collapse, Hamlin began the recovery process with the Bills. 

During the time Hamlin recovered, Pittsburgh came together to help one of their own. 

Steelers players deliver toys, books, and supplies to daycare Damar Hamlin supports

Hamlin’s GoFundMe charity which helps his mother’s daycare center “Kelly & Nina’s Daycare Center” had raised more than $8 million thanks to the generosity of football fans, teams, and players across the globe. 

Hamlin started the charity in 2020 with the goal to raise $2,500 to help the children who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since his injury and recovery, his foundation The Chasing Ms Foundation, has raised millions and helped with CPR training, AED usage, and other cardiac events. 

Damar Hamlin released from hospital in Buffalo, cleared to continue rehab with Bills 

At the time, it was still considered too early to determine whether or not he could return to the NFL, but that did not last long. 

Just a couple of months after collapsing, Hamlin was cleared to resume full football activities. 

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin ‘fully cleared’ to resume football activities

Finally, nearly 10 months to the day, Damar Hamlin returned to the football field. 

He was healthy scratched the first three weeks of the season, but dressed in a 48-20 victory against Miami. 

Damar Hamlin plays in first regular-season NFL game since cardiac arrest 

“I think it was more so about promising to myself than anything else, just showing myself that I have the courage, I have the strength, that I have the pride, everything, all those words, in me to be able to go through something traumatic and to be able to come back from it,” Hamins said after the game, according to The Associated Press.”To be able to still do what I love at the highest level in the world is amazing.”  

So far this season, Hamlin has recorded just two tackles. 

Bob Huggins

WVU’s Bob Huggins resigns as head basketball coach following DUI arrest 

Over the summer, WVU Men’s Basketball Head Coach Bob Huggins was arrested for driving under the influence, setting off a drama-filled summer for the Mountaineers. 

According to the criminal complaint, police found Huggins trying to get into the driver’s seat of an SUV that was blocking traffic and had a shredded tire. He was found to have a 0.210 BAC which is twice the legal limit. 

Less than 24 hours after the incident, Huggins resigned as head coach. 

Assistant coach Josh Eilert was ultimately picked as his replacement, but a legal battle was brewing. 

Former WVU Men’s Basketball Coach Bob Huggins now claiming he never resigned, threatens legal action 

In a letter to WVU President E. Gordon Gee, Huggins’s legal representation claimed “Coach Huggins has never communicated his resignation to you, the athletic director, or anyone at WVU.” 

Meanwhile, WVU issued a response, saying “The university will not accept Mr. Huggins revocation of his resignation nor will it reinstate him as head coach of the men’s basketball program.” 

While Huggins has not been reinstated as coach, he was reportedly placed on probation following his arrest. 

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Here’s to another exciting year in Pittsburgh sports, and hopefully, the start of more championship runs!  

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