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Q&A: Off the ice with Penguins’ Tom McMillan

By Phillip Poupore, Point Park News Service:

Tom McMillan has made a career out of taking gambles.

The vice president of communications for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team began his career working as a sports reporter for several Pittsburgh newspapers, including the Tribune-Review and the Post-Gazette. He covered the local teams, as well as events including the NBA Finals and the Olympics. His main focus became hockey, as he covered the Pittsburgh Penguins during the team’s back-to-back Stanley Cup winning seasons in ’91 and ’92.

It was during the ’92 Final that the newspaper industry went on strike, which left McMillan unemployed. Despite being unsure of his next step, he went off on his own. He created his own weekly reports on the Penguins and he branched into radio work. Despite having no experience in public relations he accepted an offer from the Penguins to run the team’s media.

McMillan, a history buff, also wrote a book, “Flight 93: The Story, the Aftermath and the Legacy of American Courage on 9/11,” that tells the harrowing story of what happened on Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Somerset County on 9/11.

Tom McMillan is the vice president of communications for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Photo courtesy of Tom McMillan.
Tom McMillan is the vice president of communications for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Q: What memories do you have of 9/11?

A: It was the first day of training camp and the secretary didn’t say a word to me. She just pointed toward the TV in the conference room. As I walked in, we saw the second plane hit the tower. At that point people weren’t sure what to think, but it seemed like an isolated attack until the next plane hit. I’ll never forget the moment after that plane hit the Pentagon. I looked outside and it was like Pittsburgh was evacuated. It was a mass exodus, thousands of people went home.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Flight 93?

A: I wanted to read about Flight 93, but I found there wasn’t a book on the subject, so I decided to write one. It became a labor of love. It was certainly out of my comfort zone, but this was exciting and challenging. There was also a fear of failure.

Q: What is something you are passionate about?

A: Sports to most people is a diversion from everyday life, but when you work in sports you need a diversion from sports. History is my sports. I was drawn to the Flight 93 crash site early on, and it became a very special place for me.

Q: How has your job changed from the moment you took the position to now?

A: The job is completely different than when I took it over. Just in the technology alone. Back then you had to fax news releases to the media. There was also no way to directly speak with the fans but to go through the media. Now there’s social media.

Q: What was the best part of working for the Penguins during the Stanley Cup winning season in 2009?

A: Being on the ice the night the Penguins won the Stanley Cup and getting my name on the Cup. When they told me that my name was going on it, I had to sit down in my office with the door closed for a while and damp the tears from my eyes. As a kid I never imagined anything like that.

Q: What is the best thing you’ve ever done?

A: Writing the Flight 93 book. Sometimes you dream of an accomplishment, but other times you do something you never even dreamed of. There is a satisfaction to be able to do that and to be a part of history. In 100 years after I’m gone, someone can pick it up and learn. It’s just very humbling.

Q: Is there any advice you can give that helped you succeed?

A: The lesson is everyone has different personalities. I enjoy trying to take a challenge. I go out of my comfort zone to see if I’ll succeed. I could still be covering hockey for the Post-Gazette. You just have to make the best of what happens. I recommend people try that. I didn’t know if I could write a history book. There were three or four times I was ready to quit and throw my laptop in the river. You have to understand you might fail and not be afraid to fail. A lesson is to take opportunities when they are presented.


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