I was going to blog about the huge (and ridiculous) amount of injuries that my favorite team, The Pittsburgh Penguins, but decided against it at the last moment. I thought it would be too easy to talk about what ever other blogger and person with an opinion would be talking about after the news of the injuries of Jordan Staal and James Neal broke yesterday. This would then degenerate into me becoming frustrated with the rash of bad luck and injuries that the team has had the last two seasons alone.
Nope. I would not do that and allow that to happen. So at a time when it would be easy to get down because of all the bad news, I have decided to go in another direction. I thought it was finally time to rant about what it is like to be a Pittsburgh Penguins fan in Nova Scotia. No, not just during the Sidney Crosby era but during the Mario Lemieux era and as well as during the dark era when the team was fighting not for wins but respectability.
I became a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins when I was a young boy. I wish it was due to some epic and amazing story that changed my life but that is not the case. It was due to my dislike of the Montreal Canadiens. You see, my mother’s boyfriend is a huge Montreal Canadiens fan and during the time I was growing up you had three teams in Liverpool, Nova Scotia that the majority of people cheered for. They were the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins and I despise each of them. After a recent Montreal win when I was 9 years old in 1986, I decided I would cheer for the next team to beat Montreal. The next game on tv was Montreal and Pittsburgh and they accomplished my goal. So I rewarded them by becoming a fan and Mario Lemieux has been my favorite player ever since.
During this time it was tough to follow the team in Nova Scotia as they was no direct link to the franchise for this area. We had maybe one, or if we were extremely lucky, two Penguin games on television a month. This was also of course way before the internet allowed us to have easy access to follow our favorite team, so I sat down with the Chronicle Herald newspaper every day after school and read up on the NHL standings, leading scorers and the Penguins box scores.
The only place I could buy Pittsburgh Penguins merchandise in Nova Scotia was at sporting good stores and the one I visited most was Cleve’s Sporting Goods in Bridgewater which is a half hour from here. I remember buying my first Penguins hat which was corduroy and an all black Penguins t-shirt. I was so happy to finally have some gear to support my team. Although I did get teased alot in school for liking a team that most kids didn’t even hear of before and the ones that did said they sucked.
When I was in Junior High and my first year of High School something changed though and it changed in a big way. The Penguins were putting together a good team without many people taking notice in this province, well except one kid in Liverpool that is. I remember watching the NHL draft when the name Jaromir Jagr was announced by the Penguins in 1990. I knew about the guy but always remembered the name as it was one of the most unique on the team’s roster.
This was alo the time that Mario Lemieux started having the issues with his back and it was hard on me. Mario was my hero and I was hit hard by him only playing 26 games that season but their was a silver lining through it. The Penguins had witnessed the emergence of “The Option Line” with John Cullen, Kevin Stevens and Mark Recchi all being in the option year of their contract and all putting up career years stats wise.
The team remained competitive with the line flying and Tom Barrasso and Paul Coffey upping their game and leadership. Rookie Jagr was putting up respectable numbers but at times was showing signs of brilliance. I was torn between my enjoyment of how well the team was holding up and my disappointment not to see Mario on the ice and putting up huge numbers.
At the trade deadline we all know how Craig Patrick made the trade to bring in Ron Francis, one of the most underrated and under appreciated players in the history of the NHL. Even though we lost Cullen and Zalapski, we were able to bring in a perfect number 2 center behind Mario and an infamous defenseman in Ulf Sammuelsson. The team also made other moves to bring some depth and I was not expecting a lot of the team in the play offs. Was I wrong.
Mario, even in immense pain, elevated his game not just one level but 3 or 4 in the play offs. When the Penguins defeated the Bruins convincing in the play offs, I knew something special was happening. Barrasso was as solid as any goalie in the NHL at the time, the team was getting balanced scoring and Mario was out of this world. WHen they played Minnesota and dropped the first 2 games, I was in shock and had people literally taunting me about it. Seriously. When “the goal” was scored by Mario on Jon Casey, I had a smile so big you wouldn’t fit it in a picture.
This was the first time Penguins merchandise became a little mainstream in Liverpool. Hats, shirts and posters were cropping up at stores and I was happy to see it. I was also able to wear my white Stanley Cup shirt to school to quiet the taunters. The Penguins even at that time were not a well liked team in my area. People felt that they were catered to because of Mario and that the NHL bent over backwards for them. Geez, sounds like what people say right now eh?
A repeat Stanley Cup championship cemented the Penguins as a mini dynasty in the NHL and also cemented the team as being more available to me in many forms in my home town. TSN and CBC slotted more Penguin games into their NHL coverage and I was ever so thankful for it.
The team would endure many tough seasons after these two Stanley Cup wins that saw Mario retire, Jagr traded to Washington and Francis moved out of the Burgh as well. The team would see losing seasons more frequently and all their best players leave to go to more competitive teams. Hell, I remember when Dick Tarnstrom led the team in scoring with 52 points in 2003-2004. And yes, he would request a trade to get out of Pittsburgh as well.
The lean years were tough as again the Penguins faded away from the hockey coverage by our sports networks and of course, so did the merchandise. Even with Mario in the ownership box, it was a very tough time to be a Penguins fan and I was worried about the team. Would they ever be competitive again as they were when I was in high school and then it happened.
I remember Draft Day 2005 as if it were yesterday. I was a team supervisor at Lightbridge Inc and my team did dealer support for American client T-Mobile. I knew that it was the draft in which that Crosby kid that was from Cole Harbour, which was only a little over 2 hours away from where I was, and I wondered who would get him. I made a decision to stream the draft on my work station pc in my office pod as I was writing weekly rep evaluations and when the Pens secured the first pick I was in shock.
I called the operator on the bridge of the call center floor, who was also a Pens fan, and yelled “Jody!!!….We got him!!!!!” I then left my pod and went to the bridge and talked to Jody about how exciting it was to have landed “The Next One.” I was very intrigued with watching how the recent high end draft picks that landed Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and now Sidney Crosby would pan out for the team. They had a good young core and to me it seemed like what I read about the young, upstart Edmonton Oilers starting their climb.
Since the arrival of Nova Scotia’s own Sidney Crosby to the Burgh, it has been like a new world has been opened up to this province. Sid is a polarizing figure as many people either love him or hate him. When talking to those who hate him it is always because “He was crammed down our throats for years” or “He is a whiner.” I seriously want them to get some more material. They accuse Sid of being immature but are being as immature as they are accusing him of being.
When the Penguins played in back to back Stanley Cup finals against the always heavily favored Detroit Red Wings, I was told for two years that they couldn’t get it done, that Flower was not a winner, that Crosby was not a winner and that Detroit was just too good. See I saw it very differently, as I saw the Penguins growing with that first loss in the finals and the young team processing what had happened. I knew the second face off with Detroit would be different and I had to defend this against many people when the Pens were taking their steps towards their third Stanley Cup.
I saw something happening with the team and especially Fleury as they were poised to not just win game 7 but also the Stanley Cup. I have never seen a goalie that never brings the results of a previous bad game with them into the next game. You never know with Flower if he let in 6 goals the game before or had a shut out and I love that mentality. Game 7 was huge to me and I was working as a phone rep at a different call center at the time. I remember I was off at the same time that CBC would start coverage of the game. I begged to get off early but it fell on deaf ears but one of the supervisors, Angela, said she would drive me home to catch as much as possible, as it was a half hour walk for me. I got in the door in time to hear CBC due to a montage with KISS’s “Rock N Roll All Nite.”
I turned to my brother and said “That is a sign dude. There is no way they are losing tonight.” See, I am a KISS fan and it was more than just a coincidence that KISS was used, it was a sign. I was on the edge of my seat the whole game and let loose a yell that they probably heard in Pittsburgh when the game ended and once again the Pens were everywhere.
The Penguins are plentiful right now in Nova Scotia. We regularly get games on TV every month, you can go into any random gas station and find Penguins baseball caps and I can now go to Halifax shopping and see many random young kids wearing Penguins shirts. They are not just my little secret anymore and I am ok with that. We have a great group of players that I am glad that more people are getting to see play.
My journey as a Pittsburgh Penguins fan has never been easy as I have always been a black sheep amongst my friends, family and everyone around me but it has rewarded me. You are thinking “How have you been rewarded?” Well, it is quite simple. I was able to witness the most talented player in the history of the NHL, Mario Lemieux, in his prime and doing things that will never be done again. I experienced a team win three Stanley Cups when I was told by everyone that they would never do it. I was given the chance to see a local boy from Nova Scotia that I first heard about when he was 10 years old go on to win almost every major award he could before he was even 25 years old.
But mostly the Penguins have given me a chance to find a team to call my own that was not of the expected crop that was available. I am not from Pittsburgh but I freaking bleed black and gold. I feel like I have a Pittsburgh Penguins logo tattooed on my heart. I could have cheered for a team like Montreal or Toronto that had thousands of fans in my town and been one of many. Instead I chose a different path. One that saw me be one of very few but one who grew up with a team that endeared itself to me.
I am Jason. I am from Nova Scotia. I am a Pittsburgh Penguins fan. I am proud.