Since I started Going Five Hole last October, my Penguin fandom has kind of oozed through more and more in some of my posts. I guess it was obvious when I did a game recap of every Pens playoff game from this past season. Now that I have a Facebook and Myspace page set up and am able to connect to hockey and Pittsburgh fans from all over the world, the one prevalent question that pops up is always this:
"How does a guy who's born and raised in New York become a Penguins fan?"
It's actually quite simple. I fell in love with the logo at a very early age.
I grew up in a house on Long Island, New York with two older brothers who love hockey, so it was an easy transition for me to go from Transformer-loving kid to hockey-crazed little monkey. One brother is a die-hard Islanders fan and the other was a Rangers fan, but became so disgusted by MSG's treatment of Messier in the late-90's and letting him go to Vancouver was the last straw. He gave up all hope on the Blueshirts and began rooting for the Canadiens, a team he's always followed.
Apparently, my brothers failed in converting me to one of their teams.
Back in the mid-late 80's, I remember being excited when the Rangers/Islanders/Devils would play the Penguins. It was my only chance to flip on SportsChannel (remember that?) and see my team and the skating Penguins logo. I don't remember when the first time I saw the Penguins logo was, but I know that my love for the team has been festering for over 20 years now.
When the Pens won their two Stanley Cup's in 1991 and 1992, I was probably the only 10 and 11 year old to have the official Cup t-shirt on Long Island. Hell, I was probably the only person to have one in New York state. See, I had a connection that allowed me to get some great Pens stuff over the years. My aunt,who worked for JCPenney at the time, had a friend who worked in one in Pittsburgh. When my aunt told her friend about her Penguins-mad nephew, she was extremely nice enough to send me Pens-related paraphernalia over the next few years. To this day, I still have the Penguins '91 Cup Wheaties box, the numerous magazines with Mario Lemieux on it, as well as a ton of newspaper clippings and full issues the day after the Pens won both titles. And of course, the famous "One From the Heart" on video. I felt like I was living in Pittsburgh even though in reality, I was about seven hours away.
I didn't have favorite players. I had one favorite player and that was Mario.
Like many young sports fans, I migrated to my teams' biggest star, Mario Lemieux. I was mesmerized at a young age at how he made the game look so easy. When I would play street hockey in the driveway with my older brother, I'd always pretend to be like Mario. Sure, I was playing with a Mylec stick and was about a foot and a half shorter than number 66, but that didn't stop me from trying no-angle and bank shots to score. Mario also followed me into the bedroom. (No, not in a Chris Hansen kind of way). My side of the bedroom was adorned with Lemieux posters and pictures ripped from various hockey magazines. It practically looked like the inside of PenStation, the team store at Mellon Arena.
My trek to Pittsburgh for Game 3 of this year's Stanley Cup was a long time coming. It was my own personal pilgrimage to Mecca. Driving up to the arena, it brought me back to my childhood and all those games watched on television, yet being so far away from Mellon Arena. It took me 27 years to get to Pittsburgh and the day and a half spent there reinvigorated my passion for the Penguins. It was a thrill to finally see the Pens in person where they were the home team (well, aside from a game in Washington last October when half the arena was pro-Pittsburgh) and to be to cheer a goal and not hear myself because the building was rocking.
It's hard to replace your idol. Mario's been gone from the ice for two and a half years now and while Evgeni Malkin has taken Lemieux's place as my favorite on-ice player, Gino will never be able to stir the feelings I had when I was a young like #66 did every time he touched the ice.