The Heinz History Center hosted a media preview of their new “It’s a Great Day for Hockey” exhibit yesterday. As I stood in the midst of a far-too-life-like Mario Lemieux wax statue and the Stanley Cup, in addition to piles of Pittsburgh Penguins artifacts, one thought was unavoidable. The current Penguins core will soon enough be immortalized by museum exhibits and fond memories.
And I offer fair warning: enjoy everything now. It will end sooner than you think.
As I heard the voice of Mike Lange and his iconic calls of the great moments in franchise history, a good bit of my childhood flashed before my eyes. I know exactly where I was when Lemieux toyed with Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque, weaving around him as he stickhandled the puck through Bourque’s skates to score in the 1992 Wales Conference Final. I know where I was when Lemieux and Mark Recchi teamed up for the empty netter to end the 1991 Wales Conference Final and I know exactly where I was when the Penguins racked up eight goals in Game 6 to win the 1991 Stanley Cup.
It wasn’t until the eighth goal that our house full of people believed it would happen. Finally!
In 1992, my grandfather and I had to travel to our next job (even at 15-years-old, I worked with him in the summer). So with a full stock truck and a trailer in tow, we drove through Pittsburgh just a few hours after the Penguins beat the Chicago Blackhawks. Revelers honked their horns and waved. Even Pap honked back.
Man, that old Civic Arena used to shake with unbridled fan intensity. We would come home from games with sore hands and a sliver of a voice. To hell with traffic, we didn’t exit until well after Elvis left the building.
But then crowds changed. Winning was expected. The noise level plummeted as fans waited for a Mario or Jaromir Jagr highlight. I remember remarking–“It’s not as much fun coming to games, anymore.”
It was 15 years before that rickety barn originally built for operas and culture shook again.
Trust me. When you’re a fan, the gravy train always has miles ahead. If any player can be great well into his 30s, it’s Sidney Crosby. As long as the Penguins still have Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, they have a chance. Kris Letang is playing the best hockey of his career. Matt Murray is back.
All of the above is probably true. But that doesn’t necessarily make the Penguins Stanley Cup favorites. Ask older Penguins fans, Chicago fans, and LA fans how quickly it ends. You don’t get time to prepare. You don’t really get to say goodbye.
In 1993, as that dirty scoundrel David Volek beat Tom Barrasso from so far away it could have been from the 814 area code, the Junior Prom was ruined. We all neglected our dates anyway, but when that red light flashed, many of us fell hard into our chair. A few hit their knees.
Trust me, it all ends sooner than you think. Enjoy it now.
Enjoy all of it. The ups and downs. The losing streaks and the winning streaks which will probably lead to a playoff chase through March. The Buffalo Sabres figure to make a run, too. There will be nine teams and only eight spots.
Embrace the angst and the worry, but don’t ignore it in some whistling past the graveyard attempt. Go through the bad, too. That makes the victories so much better. Those of us who reveled in 1991 and 1992 had to endure watching Lemieux get beat to a pulp for years, be surrounded by journeymen NHL players and as legend has it–a coach who didn’t know the 1987-88 Penguins had to win the final game of the season to make the playoffs, so he played for a tie in overtime.
Lemieux bailed him out with a miraculous breakaway goal against the Washington Capitals, with one minute left in overtime.
Go on the journey with the team. Don’t wait for the next Crosby goal, or eagerly wait for a player to make a mistake so you can tweet at a hockey writer–See! I’m right, he sucks!
The first Penguins dynasty ended in a flash. The 2009 team never again lived up to its potential. And so here we are. The museum PR joked there were only two Stanley Cups when the Heinz museum first opened the Penguins exhibit. Now there are five. No one can know if there will be a sixth but we do know this same group which provided No. 4 and No. 5 will soon be done.
And so it’s time for fans to savor Crosby and the Penguins last great runs. These runs always end before you realize it and if you’re not careful you’ll miss it.