Malkin ‘Em Look Silly

Those crazy sports writers have done it again. They have kick-started the Russian machine.

Let me just say that I’m a fan of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ron Cook. Other than Gene Collier, he is the only local sports writer whose “writing voice” doesn’t sound like my great-grandfather trying to tell me a funny joke he heard at the VFW.

Cook’s article in the wake of the Penguins’ Game 3 showdown in Montreal, titled “Malkin needs to come alive,” caused quite a stir amongst die-hard Pens fans.

I am not a media watchdog. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to write a sports column every other day. Hell, I can barely tie my own shoes without employing the bunny-ears technique. However, I have to say that it is incredibly disappointing when a good writer like Cook not only calls out a star player in the middle of a deadlocked series, but does so in such a vague, veiled manner. Cooke phoned-in the column so hard that Verizon is going to charge him roaming fees.

He wrote:

“Malkin gets more of a pass in this town than, say, Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who will spend today and Tuesday reading and hearing how he was thoroughly outplayed by Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the Canadiens’ 3-1 win in Game 2….But it will get ugly for Malkin fairly quickly if his scoring drought continues.”

“Yo, Ron. I’m really happy for you. I’mma let you finish. But Geno is one of the best Penguins of ALL-TIME. Of All-Time.”

The reigning Stanley Cup playoff MVP gets a pass in this town? Certainly not from the local sports writers who cover him, who alternate from accusing him of pouting when he is going through a slump, to patronizing him like he’s some sort of comic-relief foreign TV side-kick when he is playing well.

Thankfully for Penguins fans, Malkin has a knack for making his detractors look silly. In January, Cook wrote the infamous “Sulking won’t cure Malkin’s slump,” which contained the derogatory phrase, “Can you say Jaromir Jagr?” Days later, Geno responded with a hat trick against the Islanders that jump-started his best stretch of the regular season.

Last night, his game-winning power play goal changed the complexion of an entire series. There are only four or five guys on earth who can do what Malkin did – beat a red-hot goaltender with a slapshot from so far away that I thought Geno was grabbing a hotdog at the concession stand.

Just when you were on hold with 93.7 The Fan to give Geno a piece of your mind…Zing. The net exploded.

The goal was Malkin’s fifth of the playoffs. For comparison, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk have six. Vancouver’s Siamese-superstar Sedin twins have six combined. San Jose’s sniper-extraordinaire Dany Heatley has one.

Malkin’s 10 postseason points are on par with Art Ross-winner Henrik Sedin, who went up against the LOLs Angeles Kings and shaky goalie Jonathan Quick in the opening round, while Malkin’s opposition has opted to play dump-and-retreat-hockey.

Yet the Pittsburgh media—hungry to stir up website hits and the angry calls that are the life-blood of a 24-hour talk radio station—would have you believe that Malkin, whom they love to point out makes nine million dollars this season don’t cha know, is underperforming compared to other NHL stars.

Pure fallacy.

Do you know what the real is difference between Malkin and those aforementioned superstars? Kane, Datsyuk, Heatley and the Sedins play alongside other All-Star talent. Malkin plays alongside rental-players and an ever-changing rotation of one-million-a-year wingers who can barely finish a Filet o’ Fish.

Cook is right about one thing: It is telling that four of Malkin’s five goals this postseason have come on the power play. When surrounded with adequate talent, he shines. In big moments, he shines so bright you need to borrow Grandpa’s shades just to watch the TV.

Nice, guy.

As the Post-Gazette’s own excellent Penguins blog Empty Netters points out, Malkin has now scored seven game-winning postseason goals in only his fourth year in the NHL. Crosby has five. Ironically, Jagr is the franchise’s leader in playoff game-winners with 14.

It took Jagr 11 season to reach that mark.

Somehow, despite winning two Stanley Cups and five NHL scoring titles in the black-and-gold, Jagr was turned into a villain in this town.

Why? Because that narrative sold papers.

Penguins fans should pray that the same story isn’t pushed on Malkin, who doesn’t have the luxury of playing on Le Magnifique’s wing.

Mr. Cook, I admire you, but can you say Jaromir Jagr? Inflammatory headlines should be the territory of blogs, remember?

For those that question Geno’s heart, just remember that the 23-year-old has a Hart in his trophy cabinet.

The Igloo’s Last Stand

Playoff hockey.

Let that sink into your cranium for a moment. Savor it.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve just about had my fill of old, bewildered sports journalists stumbling over the words “wake and bake.” “dope,” “hanky panky,” and the always unpleasant “residue.”

I feel like I’ve been having “the talk” with The Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur for the last month. Thanks a lot, Steelers. Fortunately, like Big Ben told his stylist at Supercuts, we can put the whole mess behind us.

Just when you thought the mullet had been vanquished from Pittsburgh sports…

The Penguins start their defense of the Stanley Cup, and their Mellon Arena farewell tour, tonight at 7 p.m. Mario’s big screen is back. The white out is back. Beards are back. And, as soon as the first puck touches the back of the net—triggering either an explosion of fist pumps or an eerie cathedral silence, depending on which team scores—that one-of-a-kind playoff hockey atmosphere will ripple through every bar, basement and living room in Western Pennsylvania.

We will live and die with each blocked shot, rebound, scrum, and with each battle in the corners. Some of us will choke up during every national anthem and blame our glassy eyes on an unusually bad pollen season. We will scream, dance on couches, ruffle pillows in frustration to our wife’s dismay, and passionately reason with our television screens to “shoot the damn puck.”

They can’t hear you, bro.

We will see someone passing us on the street wearing a Brooks Orpik jersey, and we will give our them a knowing wink. We will sit in class, or at work, smiling vacantly, pretending to pay attention, whilst in the back of our minds thinking “7 p.m., 7 p.m. 7 p.m.”

During the dark times, white clouds will billow over Oakland like in the old days of the coal stacks from all the Marlboro smoke. The domesticated among us will take the dog for a walk to calm the nerves between periods. Many of us will use said dog as a therapist.

“Rufus, I just don’t understand why Goligoski won’t pull the trigger. WHY?!”

For those of us lucky enough to attend one of the playoff games, we will walk up that winding hill to the area, and something will take us back in time to our first Penguins game. Maybe it will be the smell of exhaust fumes from the cars along Centre Avenue trying to find parking. Maybe it will be the sight of an old Ulf Samuelsson or Paul Coffey jersey.

Maybe it will be the saxophone guy, or the sun going down over the silver dome, or crank of the turnstiles and the smell of five decades of stale beer and nachos embedded in walls of the place.

Maybe it will be the first glimpse of the Stanley Cup banners and Lemieux’s hanging number 66 through the mouth of the entrance to B16, or C10, or F32.

Maybe it will be when the lights go down, or “please rise and remove your hats,” or that brief moment before the drop of the puck when 17,000 people collectively decide, “Let’s get crazy. For two hours, let’s forget we’re lawyers and plumbers and regional managers and lose our freaking minds.”


Whatever takes you back to your first time at the arena, savor it. Remember holding your dad’s hand to cross the street, looking up at the sea of black-and-gold jerseys in the crowd surrounding you.

Remember the shrill call of the cotton candy guy.

Remember that stranger that gave you the errant puck he caught.

Remember waiting for autographs in the parking lot in the blistering cold.

Remember how every single player stopped to sign the back of your ticket stub.

Remember driving home, falling asleep to the deep, smokey sound of Mike Lange recounting the game.

Remember every perfect blemish. Because there will never be another cathedral of hockey, burnt-orange pews and all, quite like the Igloo.

Thank you, Edgar J. Kauffman, for building your opera house on the hill. And sorry if we got a bit rowdy. It’s just our nature.

It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh. Believe.

Mellon Arena photo courtesy Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Why We Bleed

I can’t think of a more inglorious form of transportation to a football game than the “Mall Bus.” The PAT 51S Park-and-Ride bus from Century III Mall had the shocks of a Kazakhstani mule cart and a prevailing odor that can only be described as “mystifyingly funky,” like the back of a college dorm mini-fridge. But a decade ago, the mall bus was my favorite automobile in the world, because it transported my buddy Mike and I from the South Hills to the North Shore for Steelers games. I would have taken the mall bus over a Cadillac Escalade in those days, at least on Sundays.

On the morning of January 22, I woke up on a basement floor using a jacket as a blanket and an unopened bag of Doritos as my pillow. I was 15 and in my formative years, and so was the Steelers’ dynasty. Kordell Stewart was still the franchise quarterback, Jerome Bettis still had knees and the Steelers were still the good guys of the NFL. The team was the NFL equivalent of Hulk Hogan. They took their vitamins and said their prayers, or so we believed.

“Kids, if you say your prayers and eat your pasta, you’ll have arms just like the old Hulkster.”

Their opponent in the AFC Divisional playoffs that afternoon was the despised Baltimore Ravens, led by the deplorable Ray Lewis, who had recently copped a plea bargain in a double murder case involving two friends; and running back Jamal Lewis, who had recently been busted for trying to set up a cocaine deal on his cell phone, which he would end up serving prison time for in 2003. Yes, the bad guys were coming to Pittsburgh for a war of attrition. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and surveyed the basement.

Playstation controllers and cardboard Snyder’s ice tea canisters were strewn about the floor. The whole place looked like a hangover re-imagined by Toys R’ Us. My buddy Mike was snoring on the couch, still in his tennis shoes. He had the word “Balls” written in Sharpie on his forehead. Everything seemed to be in order.

Suddenly, the door at the top of the stairs creaked open and a chant echoed down the stairwell. I got a fee-ling…

Mike snapped out of his sleep, sat up and returned the volley: Pittsburgh’s goin’ to the Super Bowl!

Mike’s dad came tumbling down the stairs twirling a Terrible Towel. “You boys better get a move on. Bus leaves at 10,” he said, noticing the marker scrawled on his son’s forehead. “You know, you guys really need to find some chicks.”

Rule no. 305 of growing up in Pittsburgh:
If you fall asleep with your shoes on, you are fair game.

And with that, we donned our Steelers jerseys and set out for the long walk along a narrow strip of grass on the side of Route 51. We clutched the tickets that I had scored from my grandfather, a season ticket holder since the downtrodden 1960s era. It was bitterly cold and the sky was the color of charcoal, without any promise of snowy ambience. However, the city was humming and the passing cars honked when they spotted the Terrible Towels hanging out of our jacket pockets. After twenty minutes of trouncing through weeds and McDonald’s wrappers along the side of the highway, we reached the parking lot of Century III Mall.

The red-and-black 51S sat idly, breathing white smoke out in the middle of the big asphalt sea. When the bus’ accordion door opened for us, even more smoke came pouring out—a stratus cloud of body heat and unfiltered Pall Malls. A guy who sat near the front always slipped the driver a $5 bill inside a handshake to let him smoke out the window.

The bus was packed, lined with mostly older Steelers fans who wore giant headphones as big as ear muffs, and as we crept to the bench at the back of the bus, Myron Cope’s frenetic falsetto wail escaped from pocket radios in every aisle.

We sat down and waited as the bus’ engines rumbled and the door groaned to let more people on. Our stomachs did back-flips as we silently chewed on the unthinkable—Ray Lewis celebrating with the rest of the criminals on our home turf. Him smiling; waving a Terrible Towel, mocking the crowd. Our hearts raced in tandem with the humming bowels of the mall bus.

Finally, the bus lurched forward, and everyone exhaled. I shot my buddy a knowing glance. We felt as though we were a part of something big. The mall bus rolled through the hills on the pothole-laden path of righteousness.

Hours later, I would jump up and down in the stands and hug strangers as a choir of 70,000 sung “Hey, Hey, Hey Goodbye” to the Baltimore Jailbirds. For days, my buddy and I would recount the whole glorious scene at the school lunch table. In painstaking detail, we would describe Ray Lewis’ blank expression and distant eyes as he walked into the tunnel a defeated man, plastic cups and yellow beer raining down on him.

A week later, we were sitting at the back of the bus again in the Heinz Field parking lot. It was dark and silent. The Steelers had just been stunned by the underdog New England Patriots 24-17 in the AFC Championship. Mike and I didn’t say a word the whole ride home, until finally we stopped underneath a streetlight on the walk home from the mall to catch our breath.

Mike thanked me for taking him to the game, and then he said something that seems incredibly relevant today. “I’m not sad for us–for the city,” he said. “I just feel bad for the team. They deserved a Super Bowl.”

We stood in the glow of the street light for a while and watched the cars pass by.

Now, I look back on those days and remember even the soul-rending pain of the AFC Championship game with great fondness. I wish I could feel that strongly about the team again. Because the truth is that the pride of Steeler Nation was never about the six gold rings. It was never defined by glory. It was all about believing, from the bottom of our black-and-gold hearts, that we were cheering for the rarest thing in sports: The Good Guys.



Little did we know in the fuzzy afterglow of the Roethlisberger-to-Holmes “Immaculate Extension” just how close we were to having that grand illusion shattered. This tumultuous off-season begs the question: Will the next decade of Steelers football be about winning Lombardi trophies, or winning back the hearts and minds of Steeler Nation?

I worry not for the Steel Curtain generation, who have witnessed decades of fine men wear the hypocycloid badge, but rather for the kids at the back of the mall bus. I worry that they’ve seen one too many offensive “Tweets.” One too many compromising cell phones pictures. I worry that, for the next generation, it will be just a game. Just a spectacle. Just a mangy bus. Not black-and-white, but shades of gray.

Let Us Repeat: Why the Penguins are Just Fine

“The way we’re playing now, we’ll be out in the first round.”

Had that quote been uttered by Sal from Brookline in between two outdated rock tunes on Mark Madden’s drive-time show, no one would care. Unfortunately, it came directly from Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik.

It’s been a rough week. The Penguins rolled over for the Detroit Red Wings and blew yet another lead against the Washington Capitals, all the while giving away more rubber than a free health clinic. Everyone is freaking out.

Even your dog is disgusted.

Oddly enough, the only ones who seem unfazed by the Penguins losing 6 of their last 8 games are the Penguins themselves.

“Maybe I’m in the minority here—I’m getting tired of hearing that we played hard and we should have deserved better,” Orpik told reporters in the wake of the team’s shootout loss to Washington.

Wow. When was the last time you heard a peep of discontent coming from the locker room? It is easy to take Orpik’s comments at face value and be concerned about the chance of a repeat Cup run. After all, the Penguins are a combined 0-9 this season against their closest competition in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals and New Jersey Devils.

That’s a big @!*#^ deal.

But there is much more to the story. For one, Orpik’s comments are shaped in part by his bitterly disappointing Olympic experience. Team USA “played hard and deserved better” against Canada in the gold medal game, and Orpik is probably tired of feeling patronized about how gosh-darn hard the Americans tried, and how he should feel proud about his silver medal. This isn’t Little League. That’s not how hockey players operate.

Unfortunately, Orpik is running into the same nauseating positivity in his own locker room. He feels that his teammates shouldn’t be all smiles after losing crucial games in the midst of a tight Atlantic division race with New Jersey. Fair enough. That’s solid veteran leadership.

However, as Penguins fans, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year in large part because of their ability to have collective amnesia about tough losses. Their friendship carried them through even the toughest moments.

Remember how you felt after Ovechkin’s hat trick put the Capitals up 2-games-to-none in the Eastern Conference Semifinals? Remember that helpless, sickening feeling you had as all those red hats came raining down?

You were using your Any Time Minutes to call all your buddies to tell them it was over.

Remember how you felt when the Red Wings chased Marc-Andre Fleury from the net at Joe Louis Arena in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals? That Saturday night, Pittsburghers fell asleep with visions of Steelers training camp dancing in their heads. By Friday, they were carrying tin-foil Stanley Cups through the South Side.

You went from this, to this.

The Penguins were able to pull themselves together while we were busy writing them off. Why? Because they have a sense of humor. Because, despite whatever happens on the ice on a particular night, they have one of the tightest locker rooms you will ever witness in sports.

Take last night for example. Guess who was by Evgeni Malkin’s side as he nervously accepted the 2009 Dapper Dan Sportsperson of the Year Award? His teammate Max Talbot. All you need to know about the strength of this team—from coach Dan Bylsma’s incredible ability as a motivator to Malkin’s immense heart—is right here in this video:

<iframe width=”480″ height=”289″ frameborder=”0″ src=”http://penguins.nhl.tv/team/embed.jsp?catid=19&id=63997″></iframe&gt;

Feel free to question Malkin’s tenacity and Bylsma’s uncompromising, offensive-minded philosophy. I, for one, encourage it. The Penguins only seem to raise their game to another level when everyone outside of their locker room has given up hope. They thrive in the face of adversity.

No one knows that better than Orpik. Which is why his comments should be taken with a grain of salt. Some heard it as whispers of discontent, a sign that the locker room is weakening.

I heard a leader beating a war drum, trying to wake up the troops from their post-Olympics slumber.

Come playoff time, this team will be ready, motivated, and most importantly they have the horses to repeat. Let’s see how excited the Capitals are to play the Penguins in May.

Remember what happened last time? This guy needed his mummy.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Existential Crisis

I used to not trust any male over the age of eighteen who said they didn’t follow the NFL. If you’re old enough to get drafted, you’re old enough to know that you’re supposed to like football. That used to be my personal philosophy. Anyone who dismissed football on intellectual grounds was just plain weird to me.

“Oh, but it’s just a bunch of millionaires throwing around a ball,” they’d say.

Then I’d muster up all sorts of red-state indignation and tell them that if they didn’t like it they could GET THE HELL OUT, and then I’d delete their number from my phone and tell them to go read a Russian novel for fun and cry about it.

Ironically, I am now the one who is sad and on the verge of an existential crisis. My boys keep letting me down.

We may never know exactly what happened in Milledgeville, Georgia, last Thursday night, but we do know that the Steelers’ 28-year-old quarterback was hanging out with an entourage of sorority girls at an establishment that does not I.D. its patrons. And that is extremely disappointing. I’m not here to moralize. After all, who am I? I’m just a guy who woke up this morning awfully sad. I truly hope that Ben is completely innocent, as his lawyer vehemently contends.

After all, I need a ray of sunshine. The NFL has been letting me down lately.

For instance, on the very day that the Roethlisberger news broke, the New York Jets agreed to restructure Antonio Cromartie’s contract, giving him 500k up front so that he could settle five—count ‘em five—paternity suits. The 25-year-old cornerback has seven children by six different women in five states. Even Bam Morris wanted to call Antonio to tell him to get his life together.

Think that’s ridiculous? Wait until you hear the Jets’ PR-slap-happy corporate no-speak statement about the deal, courtesy of general manager Mike Tannenbaum:

“We’re going to work with Antonio collaboratively to make sure we do everything organizationally to make sure he has the best opportunity to be successful.”

Neato! I had to take a shower after reading that sentence. Was that even human language?

My point is this: how ironic is it that NFL organizations spend millions of dollars on public relations and media training in order to tell the fans what they should think, yet they don’t seem to spend much effort teaching their own players to think. To act like men.

I woke up this morning and it all just seemed a bit silly. When Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone to win Super Bowl 43, I sprinted through the streets of Oakland and screamed happily into the faces of fellow Steeler Nation compatriots for two-and-a-half hours. People were climbing to the top of streetlights and hugging strangers and crying like a war had ended. A lot of people had T-shirts on that said “Believe,” with a Steelmark diamond dotting the i, and in that moment, it seemed like we were all apart of something bigger than ourselves. We believed.

And now, in the throws of the crusty, pulsing hangover from Ben’s Dudes Night Out, I feel that same strange/ashamed feeling I get whenever I look back and actually watch old WWF clips. What the hell was I watching? Who was I rooting so hard for? The truth is that I throw pillows and scream at my television and argue with people on the internet and paint my face like The Ultimate Warrior because I feel very strongly about guys who celebrate $91 million contracts by buying 25 bottles of $350 champagne for guests at a nightclub, as Mr. Julius Peppers just did. These are my boys, and deep down inside I want to believe in them.

That’s like rooting for The Million Dollar Man Ted DeBiase.

Were the smarmy Russian lit majors right all along for having a conscious objection to America’s game? Is it really just a bunch of spoiled millionaires chasing after a ball? Am I rooting for the heels? What does it all mean?

Miller Lite is the official beer of this existential crisis.

I wish I had answers. All I know is that in the wee hours of Friday morning, whatever happened in that club-with-a-VIP-room-yet-no-ID-scanner, Ben Roethlisberger broke what is referred to in television as the fourth wall. He stared into the camera glass-eyed, three-sheets and wearing a bizarre, clearance rack Ed Hardy shirt, and he became too real. He became too much like us.

Like Tiger Woods, Ben shattered the grand illusion we had of what life is like for a titan of sports. We cannot suspend our disbelief anymore. Them, like us, get shot down. Get too drunk. Send ridiculous text messages. Hurt. And are stunningly human.

In the wake of this past Super Bowl, after the ultra-serious, perpetually sober Peyton Manning stormed off the field in a huff, I actually praised Ben Roethlisberger for his nonchalant explanation of his game-winning drive in Super Bowl 43.

Roethlisberger said that he was “just playing playground ball.” That statement, so gloriously naïve and raw and awe-shucks awesome in the buzz of the “Six-Pack,” ripples with a lot more meaning today.

What happens—and how Steelers fans feel inside—when training camp rolls around in a few months has less to do with what really happened in Milledgeville, Georgia, and more to do with what happened to us when we heard the allegations. Everyone on talk radio and in the bakery and at the bus stop seems to have already slammed their gavel on one side or the other.

What’s going on with this world? Will this ongoing drama leave a mark on the Steelers, an organization defined by Pfc. Rocky Bleier’s sacrifice; and Myron Cope’s charitable towel; and Troy Polamalu’s parking lot football games? The questions are daunting.

I hope with every fiber of my being and every thread of my Terrible Towel that the only thing Ben Roethlisberger is guilty of is poor judgment.

Strangely enough, the only thing I can think of right now is an old story about Jack Lambert in the week leading up to the 1980 Super Bowl. The tale was originally recounted by the legendary Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, who was following the Steelers in Pasedena:

Lambert and a few teammates were having a beer at the hotel bar when a gang of young co-eds approached. One of them spotted Lambert and asked, “Hey Jack, do you believe in astrology?”

There was no response. Lambert just sat on his bar stool and stared into his pint glass.

“What’s your sign, Jack? You know, astrology.” Finally, Jack Splat turned around and responded to the young hipsters.

“Feces,” Lambert said. And that was that.

It is easy to think of Lambert as an old, grizzled veteran. As a true professional. As a man who didn’t want to be bothered. Who had no interest whatsoever in buying the whole sorority house a round. The sad truth is that Lambert was the same age as Ben Roethlisberger, 28, at the time. Where have you gone, Jack Lambert? And more importantly, no matter who is telling the truth about what happened in Milledgeville, where as a society are we going?

WWJD?

Pen is Mightier: Crosby > Ovechkin

On the night before the Men’s Olympic hockey tournament began, the NHL Network premiered Sid the Kid vs. Alexander the Great. The show was filmed documentary-style and featured surprisingly personal footage of both superstars as they prepared for their inevitable (or as it turned out, inevitabLOL) Olympic showdown.

Ovy took time out from his busy modeling career to film the TV special.

As expected, there were the usual PR-lacquered platitudes and completely non-threatening jibes that Pittsburgh sports fans have become so accustomed to that the words barely even register anymore—ala elevator music. Titillating sound bites like, “He’s a great competitor” and “I won’t think twice about running him over.”

The real action was in the B-roll footage. While Sid the Kid’s idea of a good time seems to alternate seamlessly between playing hockey, talking about hockey and meticulously taping his hockey stick, Ovechkin is like Rasputin on Ice.

At various times in the show, Alexander the Great steals an equipment cart and drives it around the arena like a stuntman, sings in a rock band with Something About Mary hair, poses dourly for fashion shoots with similarly surly models, and acts out pretty much every single fantasy ever conceived by middle schoolers in the midst of a Mountain Dew binge.

What are the odds this kid grew up to be that guy in the Ed Hardy t-shirt that tried to pick a fight with you on the South Side last weekend? A whole generation of jagoffs were weaned on Jolt.

In one clip, Ovechkin is on his way to the premier of his clothing line in a stretch Hummer limo accompanied by a crew of what can only be assumed are either American used car salesmen or Russian sports agents, as well as a bullpen of stunning, evenly-spaced blonde and brunette models. After witnessing the revelry, a Russian sports journalist asked Ovechkin which type he preferred.

“Redheads,” Ovechkin grinned.

The panache of this guy! Sometimes I half expect him to take the ice with a Winston dangling out of his mouth and a ditch-digger shovel for a stick like Cool Hand Luke. Then I remember that that’s exactly the way I’ve been manipulated to feel.

You see, it’s all part of the NHL’s narrative. The producers of the show even included a segment featuring a real, live Canadian Mountie endorsing Crosby as a wonderful role model for the youth of the country, like Sid was running for Mayor. Hell, the tag-line of the program, snarled ominously by a throaty, pack-a-day disembodied narrator was – “Pick a side: Who’s better? Who’s cooler? Who has the best shot at Olympic gold?”

It was all a big set up for the biggest heavyweight title fight since Hulk Hogan vs. The Macho Man at WrestleMania V.

Kids, consider this a lesson about picking the right role models.
When you spend your youth idolizing the man above, you grow up to be a blogger.

Now all the hype seems kind of silly. Let’s review the fortunes of Alex Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby in the past two weeks: Ovechkin’s week peaked when he hit Jaromir Jagr so hard he made him sprout his old mullet, then the Russians flamed out in spectacular fashion to the Canadians 7-3, which culminated in Ovechkin smacking a video camera out of a female fan’s hands on his way out of Vancouver.

Crosby, just eight months removed from becoming a Pittsburgh legend, became a national hero by scoring an overtime Gold-medal-winning goal that will be recreated daily, around the clock, by every Canadian kid firing pucks at a net, garage door, or dryer from Vancouver to Newfoundland.

Despite Ovechkin’s awe-inspiring raw talent and unparalleled shooting power, the two superstars seem miles apart after this Olympiad. Even the Washington Capitals’ internet message board patrons are having an identity crisis, conceding that “Crosby is better than Ovechkin” (right now). How did this happen?

Pressure. During the Olympics, the sports media could barely get through a sentence without mentioning the word. How can Crosby be so unfathomably good in the face of it? How could such a powerful Russian team be so thoroughly dismantled? How could Ovechkin—seemingly the most fun-loving guy in sports—knock a fan to the ground in frustration without even a word?

It’s easy to just shrug and chalk it all up to the intangible nature of “pressure.” Some relish it; thrive off of it. Others grip their sticks a little tighter.

Just don’t go reveling in Ovechkin’s misery too heartily. There are two sides to every story. Just as Sid is often painted as a one-dimensional workaholic—which of course is largely fiction—we don’t always get to see the other side of his great rival either. Or perhaps in Pittsburgh, we choose not to see it.

This person, for instance, will probably always see Ovechkin as a villain.

Last summer, Ovechkin explained to Sovetsky Sport’s Pavel Lysenkov how much the Olympics meant to him by means of a simple story. According to Ovechkin, he was preparing to go sailing on teammate Alexander Semin’s yacht along the coast of Siberia when they made a quick stop for supplies in the middle of nowhere:

“So we stopped at this small village to go to the local store. And imagine that—we’re in the heart of Siberia in an ordinary store. There was this woman behind the counter cutting some fish. I came in and asked for water, chocolates and sandwiches. And she looked at me kind of strange and asked me: ‘Is it you or not?’ I replied: ‘Of course it’s me.’ She said: ‘Give me a smile.’”

The woman recognized Ovechkin by his trademark missing front tooth and freaked out. Ovechkin, too, was blown away by the power of the moment.

“But I couldn’t catch my breath there [in that store]. I just felt what Russia is about, how dear and big it is and how we—hockey players and the national team—are loved here. When you think of people like those you want to win the Olympics twice as much.”

Heavy stuff. Which is why Crosby’s coup de grâce in Sunday’s heart-stopping Gold medal game was so fascinating. It wasn’t very cerebral at all. It was automatic. Cold.

While those watching from the sofa could hardly compose themselves enough to keep the remote in their sweaty palms, Crosby was surgical.

With the Gold medal, not to mention four years of anguish or euphoria on his stick, no. 87 buried the puck behind the sensational Ryan Miller without even thinking. He didn’t even look up at the net. Didn’t need to. He had already made the shot millions of times. Sunday was just the culmination of years of hard work in a cold, empty basement in Cole Harbor when the only one cheering the game winner was Crosby himself.

Would you even be surprised if Sid still goes home after real games and shoots pucks at Mario’s guest house garage? I wouldn’t.

Until Ovechkin learns to harness his off-ice swagger and bravado in the big moments, he will always be the one that kids imitate during breakaway contests, while Crosby’s name will be the one that rings through the streets and the basements and the empty arenas whenever kids across the world imagine that the game is on their sticks.

At just 22, Crosby casts an awfully big shadow over any NHL superstar.

For ‘The Garden’

At 4:30 in the morning, most reasonable human beings can’t even find the strength to muster a curse word. Poets may claim that there’s something hauntingly beautiful about the way the low moon sinks over the purple hills of Western Pennsylvania. But when the alarm clock is going off at 4:30 a.m. in the middle of February, it’s just plain haunting.

Growing up, this was my weekend routine. Blame Mario.

In the darkness outside my bedroom window, my father’s 1988 Ford Bronco slept under a quilt of snow.  In my parents’ room, the alarm clock pulsated to Steely Dan. In mine, Metallica.

For myself and so many other Pittsburgh kids growing up during the Lemieux Era of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Saturday mornings weren’t for sleeping in and watching cartoons with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. They were for shoveling a Snickers bar into your mouth on your way out the door to shovel your parent’s truck out of the snow just for the privilege of making it to the rink on time for “suicide” skates at the plumber’s crack of dawn.

With hockey exploding in popularity after the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in ’91 and ’92, all the reasonable practice slots at the handful of rinks around Pittsburgh were taken by high school and college teams. So, for all those mangy Pittsburgh kids trying to grow up to be like Jaromir Jagr, and consequently, trying to grow out an imitation of his astoundingly full-bodied hockey hair, weekend practices started at ungodly hours. It was brutal fun.


The price we paid to “Be Like Yagz.”

My father and I would hop into his Bronco and the vents would kick out a mean gust of cold air. The equipment bag in the back of the car would smell of something unholy. Often we’d pick up a teammate and he would pile his own soggy gear into the trunk and the stench would elevate to preposterous levels.

Then we’d wind down the pine-lined back roads and cruise down the dark highway singing Back in Black tunes—white breathes pluming out from our zipped-up North Face jackets like we were smoking Marlborosand playing drum solos on the dashboard to keep warm.

After about 20 miles, just as the stale heat finally started to kick out of the vents in fits, we would see it. The big white dome on the hill; The mecca of hockey. The Rostaver Ice Garden. In reality, it resembled a third-world airplane hanger, but to every young hockey player in the ‘burgh, The Garden looked like our own Civic Arena.

The rink was home to countless youth teams in Westmoreland County, as well as high school teams like Elizabeth Forward, Thomas Jefferson and Serra Catholic. Pittsburgh-born NHL-exports like Ryan Malone and R.J. Umberger played there. The Penguins even held summer training camps at The Garden in the ’70s.

Inside, the place had the ambience of your grandparent’s living room. Two stands of austere wooden plank bleachers and four walls lined with the sort of golden oak paneling last seen in Ward Cleaver’s den. The dressing rooms were not proper locker rooms with amenities like “heat” and “hooks,” but rather frozen meat lockers furnished with a couple wobbly benches. It would be so cold in the winter that visiting teams from upper-crust towns like Mt. Lebanon and Fox Chapel would bring their own portable generators in order to maintain a certain standard of living.


No offense, Fox Chapelites.

For us kids, the primitiveness of it all seemed to somehow add to the fun. We took pride in the squalor and called it “home ice advantage.” We wore our bruises like tattoos and our fledgling mullets flapped in the wind as we skated. Younger players would lose a baby tooth naturally and lie about how it got knocked out. “Got hit with a puck,” they’d grimace.

Anything that could bleed or bruise was a badge of honor. We looked at an alternative hobby like Little League baseball as if it was band camp with Gatorade and spandex pants.

The game of hockey—and especially rag-tag old rinks like The Garden—taught us young players plenty of life lessons.

Like preparation. As in: don’t take central heating for granted and always wear three layers.

And tolerance. As in: the referees might have to brandish flasks to keep warm, so accept your punishment in the penalty box and don’t argue, regardless of the ref’s blindness.

And class. As in: sometimes, you need to buck up and shake the hand of the adversary that tried to check you through a piece of Plexiglas just five minutes before.

The Garden taught us that if you get knocked down three times, you get up four times, and you run the gauntlet again. The place was a haven of working class toughness. Of uncomplaining resiliency. Of no-questions-asked. It was a modest holdout; a stronghold on a hill that stood for something intangible that seems to be slipping out of our grasps in 21st century—both in this city and beyond.

This past Sunday afternoon, the wooden dome of the Ice Garden came crashing down during intermission of a youth hockey tournament that featured teams from as far away as Canada. But, characteristically, The Garden didn’t go down without putting up a fight. The trusses didn’t give way before wailing and creaking and trying to hold out—giving the 100 or people in attendance time to escape the building. Miraculously, no one was injured.

The near-tragedy might spell the end for the 45-year-old rink, and that is a real shame for the thousands of Pittsburghers who grew up playing there. Fortunately, there will always be hockey in this city. There will always be venues for 5 a.m. practices—some shiny and humanely insulated and freshly painted, with heated locker rooms and benches with cushions and snack bars that serve edible food.

As the Rostraver Ice Garden lies in a heap of tangled wood and steel and snow, it’s important not just to remember the cathedral of hockey that once stood—how it peaked over the snow-capped hills of the Monongahela Valley, or how it’s classic wooden dome made other rinks seem like frozen-over Wal-Marts. It’s more important that we remember the characters and warmth and lessons that once lived under that big arched roof.

And will continue to live on, no doubt.