Flashback to last year: Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins needed a win in Detroit to stay alive. Going into the third overtime, it was closing in on 1 a.m., and the Penguins had just ordered a pizza in the locker room to quell their late-night munchies.
Pittsburghers were pacing around their gamerooms and basements, praying that someone in black-and-gold would be able to summon the strength to bury the puck after 100 minutes of intense, bruising hockey.
Where was I?
On the other side of the world, huddled in front of a coffee shop computer in the lobby of a Hong Kong skyscraper, watching an online broadcast of the game on my lunch break. The feed was understandably choppy, low-resolution and there was no sound. But I was thrilled. Seventy-two floors up, in my office, our corporate firewall blocked video feeds. Miraculously, the game had lasted until lunch.
At exactly 12:00 p.m., I rushed to the elevator, juked my way through the crowded lobby of the second tallest building in the city and found a computer in the corner of a tiny coffee shop. Literally, I said a prayer that the Penguins would score before my lunch break was over, Amen. When the third overtime started, I lived and died with every shot. I screamed at every lose puck to find its way into Fleury’s glove. I jumped off my little stool and slammed my fist on the table when things got physical.
The locals were puzzled at the American barking orders at the blurry, muted screen. Some giggled, others took pictures of my raving theatrics. Part of me was embarrassed, the other part of me wanted an I.C. Light.
I was freaking out.
When Petr Sykora snapped a blistering shot over Chris Osgood’s glove, the broadcast feed from across the Pacific was too choppy and I couldn’t even see the puck go in the net. All I saw was a pile of man love. A pig pile of Penguins. Somehow, we had won.
With a fist-pump, I hit a vocal falsetto of sheer joy that would make Susan Boyle quiver. I woo’ed multiple times. At this point, the locals started to get a bit disturbed. I pointed to the screen.
“Hockey,” I said.
“Woo,” I said.
In the aftermath, I sent an email back home to my buddy Mike P. It read:
Thousands of miles across the Pacific, I couldn’t have felt closer to home.
48 hours later, after the Wings edged out the Pens in Game 6 to win the Cup, I sent Mike a follow-up e-mail with a slightly different tone. It read:
Flash forward to 2009. Same teams, Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals – only this time, I’m sitting in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, swallowed up by a sea of red jerseys. Row upon row of championship banners hang from the ceiling, along with a gigantic inflatable octopus.
During pre-game warm-ups, I felt pretty confident. There were pockets of Penguins fans scattered throughout the arena, all screaming “Let’s Go Pens” at the top of their lungs. I met a father and son who drove 15 hours from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada just to see their hometown hero Jordan Staal play for the Stanley Cup.
Sitting next to them were two baldheaded, blue-collar guys from McKeesport who watched the Pens’ brilliant performance in Game 4 and decided, on a whim, “we don’t care how much it costs, we’re going to Detroit for Game 5.”
Heavily influenced by a quarter-keg of Rolling Rock, they bought $400 tickets online that night.
There were college kids with black-and-gold painted faces, kindergarteners wearing black-and-gold wigs and female fans in pink Fleury jerseys. With so many loud, excited Penguins fans dotting the sea of red in Joe Louis Arena, my question was, “what had made all these people come all the way to Detroit?”
No matter who I asked, the answer was the same: I just believe in this team.
Did the Penguins get completely outplayed in Game 5? Yes.
Did the Red Wings look unbeatable on home ice? Yes, one could make that argument.
Did the Penguins fans in Joe Louis Arena get mercilessly heckled? You bet.
But did the belief of any true Penguins fan worth their salt ever waver? No. They took the insults, they took the beer showers, they held their heads up high and said with a wink, “We’ll see you back here for Game 7.”
Was this you after Game 5? This is hockey. Pull yourself together, mate.
If the rollercoaster nature of the NHL playoffs is too stressful for your delicate sensibilities, the Buccos will be on television all week. True fans know that Game 5 was just that – a single game in a series of seven.
Sure, the Penguins needs to back-check harder in their own zone. Sidney Crosby also needs to figure out a way to escape the clutches of Henrik Zetterberg (hint: slow the pace of the game down, like Malkin does; don’t rush into the offensive zone full steam ahead). Moreover, as I have been preaching all series, the Penguins absolutely must bum-rush Chris Osgood’s crease.
And finally, Dan Bylsma needs to do a better job executing the line changes. Throughout the playoffs, the Pens have been caught with their pants down more times than Jon & Kate’s octuplets.
What, you thought I was about to make a Paris Hilton joke? I’m not blogging on Netscape Navigator, pal.
The Penguins have to fix all of those things, but they’re not fatal flaws. If the Pens have shown hockey fans anything this season, it’s their ability to crawl out of the gutter and into the penthouse in a matter of days. Just ask yourself, how many times have I quit on the Penguins this year?
The Penguins never quit on you. That’s why they’re professional hockey players and you’re still trying to get a date to the ice cream social.
She’s not interested in your Social Studies test, kid. And cut those Jonas Brothers bangs.
The prospect of losing a second straight Stanley Cup on home ice is excruciating. But pain is a funny thing.
For instance, that depressing e-mail I wrote to my buddy Mike P as the Wings were lifting the Cup at Mellon Arena? A year later, I had completed forgotten about writing it. It wasn’t until I went back into my e-mail archives to write this column that I spotted a message with the subject line “My Soul is on Fire” and all the heartbreak of last year came flooding back.
But here’s the beauty of hockey – why it’s much more than sticks and rubber on frozen water: I was quick to forget the heartbreak, but I’ll always remember the euphoria of being in that Hong Kong coffee shop when Petr Skykora went top shelf in triple-overtime to keep the Penguins, and my little piece of home, alive.
The misery of Saturday night has already been replaced by the excitement surrounding Game 6 back at Mellon Arena. The taunts, insults and beeping horns of Hockeytown are fast fading into background noise. And if a new hero emerges tonight at Mellon Arena, Penguins fans around the world will have a new memory to hold onto and pass down to future generations of puck-heads.
I’m a man. I’m 40.
A whole new generation of Penguins fans watched this team grow up over the last three seasons – and now the players seem like part of the family. There’s Bill Geurin – the cool older brother you never had, and Brooks Orpik – the creepy uncle you only see on holidays, not to mention Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy – two undersized guys who don’t think twice about dropping the gloves for the sake of their teammates.
On Wednesday morning, the hockey season may very well be over, and you may be staring at an excel spreadsheet or a Geometry text book pondering how you’re going to make it through summer without the Penguins.
Win or lose, at the end of this week, Penguins fans young and old will be wondering – how am I going to make it until September without seeing my friends every other night?
For such an ugly, black-and-blue game, that’s a beautiful thing.