“For one of the first times in my life, I’m speechless.” — Bill Guerin at the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup victory parade.
Billy, I know how you feel. It’s hard to put into words what the Penguins’ scintillating, dramatic, too-nervous-to-sit-on-the-couch Game 7 Stanley Cup win means to a new generation of Pittsburgh hockey fans, myself included.
Like so many other Penguins fans of the Internet generation, I grew up imitating Mario Lemieux on cold December evenings out in the driveway – winter flurries dusting the asphalt, porch light flickering, rollerblades click-clacking until someone’s mother called them in for dinner.
When the snow piled up in January, my friends and I would head to someone’s unfinished basement or laundry room and play “knee-hockey” with miniature plastic sticks until our kneecaps were raw and our backs were just as sore as Mario’s. One buddy of mine even had a little TV/VCR in his basement, and we’d play tapes of the 1991/1992 Penguins and try to recreate our favorite goals, like Lemieux’s one-handed breakaway finish or Jagr’s spin-o-rama.
Inevitably, we’d recreate the fights, too.
Every single goal would be accompanied by someone’s Mike Lange impersonation. You simply couldn’t score a goal in street hockey, knee hockey or videogame hockey without putting an exclamation point at the end of the sentence – a …buy Sam a drink, or a …lookout, Loretta.
Pittsburghers who grew up in the golden era of the early 90s found it just easy to love the 2008-2009 Penguins. Throughout the season, they followed the “hockey code” to a T. They stuck up for one another on and off the ice, in good times – like when featherweight Miroslav Satan dropped the mitts after a cheap shot on Kris Letang in Game 3 against Carolina – and more importantly, in bad times, like when Evgeni Malkin spazzed schoolyard-style on Henrik Zetterberg in the dying seconds of the Game 2 loss to Detroit.
From top to bottom, the Penguins played the game the right way.
But what about those who didn’t grow up playing the sport? How do you account for the thousands of students, men and women, who would stand in 4-hour lines in the dead of winter to secure $20 Student Rush tickets when the Penguins were still a struggling young team?
During this Cup run I asked me buddy Mike P, who has never touched a hockey stick in his life, why he loves the Penguins more than anyone I know. He thought about it for a second then shrugged. “These guys seem like they could chug a beer and have a great time with me at my crappy apartment,” he said. “It feels like they’re my friends.”
Yeah, the Sidney Crosby lifted the Stanley Cup last week, and that’s a huge deal. But there is a lot more to this team than just wins and losses. Whether volunteering at children’s hospitals, personally delivering pizzas to the Student Rush line before games, or making cheesy car commercials, the Pens endeared themselves to the Pittsburgh fans every step of the way.
So it came as no surprise when I received a text message from a buddy last Saturday night that read, “Dude. Pens. South Side. They brought the [expletive] Cup!! I’m hyperventilating.”
That’s just what the Penguins do. They’re cooler than Jeffrey Lebowski sipping a White Russian in a snowstorm.
To young Pittsburgh sports fans, the Steelers probably seem like larger-than-life superheroes. The Penguins, on the other hand, seem like cool big brothers. We loved them, and they loved us back.
Back in April, when I first started this blog, I wrote an article that made the case that the Penguins weren’t as talented this year, but they were tougher and more resilient, and therefore better equipped to raise the Cup (even without Marian Who-ssa?).
In the face of a mountain of domestic disputes and gun violence in the NFL, a referee gambling scandal that the NBA swept under the rug, and a plague of steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, it’s nice to know that there’s still one sport out there where guts, resiliency, commitment and heart are the traits of champions.
From knee hockey in Nova Scotia to Stanley Cup Champion. All you need is a little belief.