Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cup of Dreams

I've been putting this entry off for a while so I could be sure I had proper perspective and all facts were at hand. But now I can safely say that on Friday June 12, at approximately 10:30 pm, I had a big giant hairy conniption fit.
My Pittsburgh Penguins defied the odds and won the Stanley Cup. They were the first team since the 1971 Montreal Canadiens to come back from a three games to one deficit to win the Cup. They were the first team in ANY of the 4 major sports (and I mean the original 4 major sports… fuck NASCAR) to win a Championship after being down 3-1 since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series.

I’ve documented my
love of hockey before at my original Darwinfish site and worked through a near emotional breakdown after the Penguins secured funding for their new arena. This was needed to dismiss the very real possibility that the team was going to relocate from Pittsburgh to Kansas City.

This is the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup. Their first 2 came in 1991 and 1992 and even though I was in my 30’s, I really don’t remember much about them. At that time, there wasn’t much hockey on TV. NBC had given up the broadcasting rights and ESPN had not yet picked them up. There was no ESPN2, or NHL Network channel or Internet. I didn’t live in Pittsburgh, so there was minimal local coverage. In fact, I remember going to a sports bar in Green Bay with my folks just to see game 2 of the Finals against Chicago.

It’s different now. A couple years ago, figured I had enough extra scratch that I could get the Center Ice package on cable and get to see every freakin’ game. And even if I didn’t have that, I can get games streamed live to my PC.

Hockey has a tremendous online presence now. You get instant highlights on YouTube, analysis from the local news sites and all of the above from a dedicated world of hockey bloggers. Three of my daily stops are the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s razor-sharp Empty Netters, the hilarious thePensBlog and then PuckHuffers for high-spirited Pens coverage from a female point of view.

So for the last 3 or 4 seasons or so, I’ve just been immersing myself in this team. The lousy seasons they had in the first half of this decade resulted in their receiving some very high draft choices, so this team is stocked with phenomenal young talent.

Sidney Crosby is arguably the best forward in hockey. His first 2 years were just a blur of dazzling goals and pinpoint passes. He was named Captain of the team at age 19, making him the youngest NHL team captain ever. Think about that…19! This kid commands the respect of everyone in his locker room from the gnarliest old veterans on down. What were YOU doing when you were 19? I could barely find my ass with both hands and a funnel. Sid won the league’s Most Valuable Player awards and the scoring title.

After he was drafted, Sid moved in with Penguins owner and former Penguin (and either the 1st or 2nd greatest player of all time) Mario Lemieux. Thus far, he has not made plans to leave. Heck, if you were staying here, would you leave?

Evgeni Malkin, or “Geno” as he is now known to fans and teammates. He was drafted right behind Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. (Both of these two figure into the argument over who is the best forward in the league, along with Sid.) Geno was basically forced by his Russian league team to sign a new contract after he was drafted by the Penguins. He then had to sneak away from his team late one night before training camp opened in Finland. He arrived in the US not speaking a word of English, which made him seem very withdrawn and aloof. Over the next few years, he’s taken great strides to learn at least enough English to get is points across in interviews and his humor comes across endearingly.

My favorite, in the locker room right after they won The Cup, a reporter asked him “How does that champagne taste?”

He answered, “It has big taste,” so now I have a new favorite line.

His parents are now Mellon Arena mainstays and cult heroes in their own right. They seem to have been adopted by the entire city as surrogate Russian parents. They don’t speak any English, but fully understand what their son means to Pens fans everywhere.

Marc-Andre Fleury… “The Flower”… is a 24-year old goalie, but already has 5 years experience, starting his first game in the NHL at age 18. Fleury is one of those “ever-smiling” guys… always happy, always seems to be in a good mood.

I admit that this guy lets in the occasional soft goal, but he made some saves during this playoff run that were as stunning as they were clutch. At least 3 of them would have changed the outcome of a game.

Jordan Staal… “The Gronk”… is another youngster that started in the NHL at age 18. That hadn’t been the plan, as far as the Penguins management was concerned, but the kid was just too solid to send back to the minors. Now he’s 20 years old and will be the 2nd of his 4 hockey-playing brothers to get his name engraved on The Cup.

Staal had a game changing moment in Game 6 of the Finals when he scored a shorthanded goal to kick start a Pens comeback and completely change the momentum of the game, if not the series. Once this kid fully realizes what a physical force he can be, he’ll be unstoppable.

I could go on and on about the players and characters on this team… there are so many stories and legends… but I’ll stop with just one more.

“Mad” Max Talbot… the “Supe-air-Star”. He’s known now as “SuperStar” because of his appearance in a couple commercials for a Pittsburgh area car dealership. You know… the kind of commercial that’s just so cheesy it becomes an instant classic?

See the commercial by
clicking here. (I’d embed it but the embedding function for this video is disabled.)

(Note: I still miss Colby Armstong, (the first guy in the commercial) another goofy “character guy” who was traded from the Pens last season. And I still wonder what it is that Sergei Gonchar (the 3rd guy) is saying right there at the end. At least they knew enough not to give Geno any dialogue.)

Max is one of those high-energy guys that populate the 3rd and 4th lines of hockey teams… a guy whose job it is to dig pucks out of corners, bust ass up ice, hit anything in an opposing jersey. But Max is also clutch. He came up huge in Game 7 of the Finals and I totally called it. All the guy does is score big goals, like the one with 22 seconds left in Game 5 of last year’s Finals that sent it into overtime, (which the Pens won in the 3rd OT)

While he didn’t score all that much, it seemed that all year long, whenever he did score it was to win or tie the game, or maybe get that all-important first goal. He did it in the playoffs too, not to mention getting his ass kicked in a fight that sparked his team into a rally in Game 6 that put the Flyers away for good.

So early in the day before Game 7 of the Finals, I was emailing with a friend who was as anxious as I was. (Because who can think about work at a time like that?) I wrote the following:

“They were out of it in February… 10th in the conference… got waxed by a bottom-feeding Toronto team… fired their coach…
Went on a 5-game road trip with a brand new coach and were supposed to get whipped… won all 5.
Were supposed to squeak into the playoffs… came in 4th, giving them home ice advantage for at least the 1st series.
Were supposed to lose to the Flyers, who had five 20-goal scorers and a more physical team… they out-scored and out hit them.
Were supposed to lose to the Caps and the “best player in the world” and were dismissed after losing the first 2 games. Came back to force a game 7 and annihilated them in the Caps’ own building.
Were supposed to be cooled off by the Playoffs hottest goaltender, Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes. Swept their asses…
Were supposed to be done after losing the first 2 in Detroit and then getting killed in Game 5. Still, here they are in Game 7.

They’ve overcome adversity and “common knowledge” all year. It’s one game. One fluke bounce, one big save, one breakaway. Any play can decide where the Cup goes.
They can do this. We can do this. Sid will “show them his gunfighter’s eyes.” Malkin is going to rampage all over the ice.
My call… look for Mad Max to come up big again. All the guy does is score clutch goals.
If they can just play like they did at home… screw getting last change… just beat on people… keep up the pressure…
The city of Pittsburgh can raise The Cup tonight.”

What does The SuperStar do? He goes out and scores the Pens' only 2 goals of the game.

We were nursing a 1-0 lead midway through the 2nd period when Sid got his knee smashed against the boards and hobbled to the bench. The Pens Nation swallowed hard, wondering if we could hold on without the captain.

Suddenly Max is sprung on a 2 on 1… he looks off as if to pass, then lasers a wrist shot into the top corner. Pens go up 2-0. I was going absolutely ape-shit at home.

The 3rd period was tense. Sid tried to go but could only skate 1 shift. Better to sit, however much it hurts not to play, than to go out there and be a liability.

The Wings scored with about 6 minutes to go in the game, making it 2-1. A 1-goal lead means that any fluke bounce can lead to a tying goal. God, it was intense… like a 6-minute penalty kill. I was sure the Wings were going to put one in and take it to overtime. The boys were up to it though and suddenly there was just over a minute left and the Wings pulled their goalie.

Man, that was a long-assed minute. It seemed like just one face-off after another. The defense was blocking shots and when they weren’t, The Flower was kicking them out.

Six seconds to go… I’m totally perched on the end of my chair, hands clenched around a Terrible Towel, for luck. Puck comes out to the point… shot taken… Fleury kicks it out… Holy Shit! The puck’s going right to (All Star Wings defenseman) Lidstrom just to the left of the crease… 1 second left… He shoots… Fleury dives across the net and the puck hits him in the ribs… Huge save… then… 0:00. Game over. Penguins win The Cup.



I don’t remember exactly what I did, but I know there was howling involved. My neighbors probably thought someone was killing a wolf in my apartment. 17 years of Stanley Cup drought washed away in one magnificent flurry. These kids… these magnificent Penguins were standing on top of the hockey world, after one of the most improbable seasons ever.

I spent that weekend chained to my computer, reading every word of coverage I could find, saving picture after picture of the game, the celebration, The Cup. I probably dropped over $200 on Stanley Cup swag. I was just so happy, common sense just evaporated. I wanted to savor every second of that feeling… and to stretch it out during the rest of the year.

The parade was an unbelievable sight… They say it outdrew the Steelers parade back in February. I don’t know about that, but you could definitely see a younger crowd. I loved seeing the players hopping out of the cars and walking the lines, slapping hands with the crowd.
2009 has been an incredible sports year for Pittsburgh, and the year is just barely half over. I don’t see how it can get any better… maybe the Pirates break .500, but I’m not holding my breath. But it doesn’t matter. I get to walk tall for the rest of the year. If you can’t strut when your teams win the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup in the same year, when can you strut?

3 comments:

  1. Better than the Blue Angels now flying over my house, these little Birds are the Best.
    Love the commercials. How do I get Sidney Crosby into my shower?

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  2. Thanks for your good wishes. This is our 49th!

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  3. I can't believe I screwed that up. YOu know math has never been my strong point. Fix has been made.

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