Monday, July 16, 2007

A Fresh Start

I have been a Season Ticket Holder for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey club since the beginning of the 2002-03 season. Back when that happened I was able to call up the team and have them practically beg for my money. Hockey has been on the outskirts of the average fans sports conscience well since the beginning of the decade. With that said, and the Penguins in a fire-sale rebuild everything mode I pretty much had my choice of location in Mellon Arena.

As the seasonwent by the city of Pittsburgh realized that the Penguins weren't quite the same without Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux's health would continue to be a recurring problem. 14,000 people back in the start of my Season Tickets was considered a solid crowd. Mostly though, from 2002 up until the lockout, Mellon Arena usually had about 11,500 die-hard hockey fans. College students gobbling up 'Student Rush' tickets which guaranteed them the best seat for $20. It would have that their $20 would almost assuredly get them right by the glass. I watched the rebuild unfold, as Craig Patrick dismantled a once solid team as the financially handicapped Lemieux group barely held it's head above a sea of red ink.

I stuck with it, I never once wavered in my support of the Penguins. I got the team's skating Penguin logo tattooed on my arm to cement my allegiance to the team that I so lovingly support. People came and went, mostly for the influx of bobblehead promotions the team coaxed fans in with (I never did quite understand why Morozov got one and Melichar didn't). However, it was never about the trinkets and collectibles that were being handed to me as my ticket was scanned... it was about believing in the cause and supporting the team through the dark ages.

Right before the lock-out Ryan Malone and Brooks Orpik were dubbed the future of the team. Malone dazzled in his rookie season, giving us faithful visions of a 40-goal power forward. Orpik showed the leadership capable of wearing the 'C' on his jersey and the bone-jarring hits that brought many fans thoughts of Ulf Samuelsson dancing through their heads. The final game of the season had a banner that read: "Captain Crunch and Mr. Clutch: The Future is Now". Then a true dark cloud came storming in over the hockey world.

The 2004-05 season would not exist, except for all across the small towns in the US and Canada that boasted AHL franchises. The fans were teased with promises in the media that the lockout would soon end. Reports came weekly that either brought utter joy- the sides only have to cross the T's and dot the I's- or deep sorrow- the negotiations have reached an impasse, no salary cap.

During this time I had the hockey season of a lifetime as I traveled quite a bit to our minor league affiliates in Wilkes-Barre, PA and Wheeling, WV. Once there I would get my 'hockey fix' and not only enjoy the game but meet some of the nicest people in my life. I was blessed to fall into the lap of Carol Plevick, the manager of the Econolodge in Wilkes-Barre, who essentially was my adopted mother there. She drove me to the games, gave me discounts on my stay in the hotel, and took me to dinner where I sat within ear shot of the team. I was applauded for my efforts to support the team by the likes of Darcy Robinson and Shane Endicott and received more autographs than I had any business receiving. I had dinner conversation with GM Craig Patrick and later that night received a hug from the man who was the architect of our Stanley Cup championships as I left the restaurant. The lockout was a dream come true but there was still a void- that being the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Once the lockout was resolved with a salary cap I once again had the surreal feeling of witnessing the team win the lottery to draft the next Great One- Sidney Crosby. Having never seen him play I only went by what I had read on the kid. He was praised as the one capable of toppling Gretzky's records and receiving the torch from 40 year old Mario Lemieux. He amazed us in training camp that September, making us Ooo and Ahh. He meshed greatly with newcomer John LeClair and the returning Mark Recchi. Mario Lemieux looked like his old self playing with FA signing Ziggy Palffy. Even the enigmatic but highly efficient Sergei Gonchar had Penguin fans throwing fits of joy.

The 05-06 got underway and the Penguins got out to an 0 for 9 start. The season never got better after that and the team was on it's way to being the worst in the Eastern Conference (and only slightly better than St. Louis). I recall traveling to Buffalo for a 5 pm start against the Sabres. I rode the Greyhound up with Lynn and as I anxiously waited for the game to start I couldn't help but wonder why Lemieux wasn't taking warm-ups. I had no idea that I had saw his last game ever the night before, a loss to the very same Sabres.

I also got to experience the worst of my 22 years- being stranded in a bus station in Washington DC. After witnessing the Penguins humiliate the Caps 6-3 before heading off to the Olympic break my friends John and Joe Craig and myself headed back to the station in a cab. The snow had already began to fall while the Pens were on their way to a victory and it forced us to be stranded for a mere 17 hours. It was pure torture as I couldn't shut my eyes to sleep as I constantly was looking out for potential criminals trying something funny with me.

All that aside we were able to take away at least 1 positive from the year other than Sidney Crosby's 102 points- the play of Colby Armstrong. I had seen Colby play during the lockout and was immediately drawn to his style of play. He was tenacious, in your face, a dilligent and hard-worker. But also one with a timely scoring touch. He would go on to prove that during his first 47 games with Pittsburgh. He instantly became a fan favorite in the Steel City and with that John and I decided to make a banner in his honor.

Prior to the 06-07 season we decided on "Army's Pit" as the moniker we would give our section of F-19. With pre-season over and done we proudly displayed the Pit for the Penguins season opener with the Flyers. The Pens would go on to win that game 4-0 and never look back. 06-07 was a magical season with so many emotional highs that I couldn't even count them all. The playoff defeat in 5 games to the Ottawa Senators was hard to swallow but is a necessary evil for our young group of guys. In order to experience championships you must endur defeat. Surely there was a lot of defeat during the 05--06 campaign but they now should be that just more playoff-savvy. The sky is the limit in 07-08.

GM Ray Shero has brought a fresh perspective that was lacking with Craig Patrick. Near the end of his term Patrick often made non-sensical waiver pick-ups (Jon Sim) and trades that were not only bad all around but were made worse by his emphatically high opinion of them. After dumping franchise cornerstone Alexei Kovalev for 4 relative unknowns he deemed the Penguins better than they were with Kovy. Many called for Patrick's dismissal, lambasting him as stale and bored. With the 05-06 season being the disaster it was it made the decision to replace Patrick with the up-and-coming Shero that much more simple.

Shero has made shrewd moves, the most of all being the acquisition of Gary Roberts at the trade deadline. Roberts insisted he would only accep trades to Toronto or Ottawa to be close to his daughter. However, with blue-chip defensive prospect Noah Welch as bait Shero was able to entice the Florida Panthers. From there Roberts accepted the trade and became a driving force behind the Penguins success down the stretch. Even when the Pens were basically dead in the water against the Senators in the first round Roberts continued to be a freight train wrecking anything in his path. With Roberts re-signed and Mark Recchi coming back at a reduced role the Pens have the veteran leadership necessary to keep the young players inspired.

It is said Shero targeted Paul Kariya and Scott Hannan but once he lost out of them went with the Plan B of Petr Sykora and Darryl Sydor. Both are solid veterans who should prove vital to the team. Sykora has scored everywhere he's gone (to the point Jarome Iginla is the only player more prolific at scoring in their draft class) and lead the Oilers in scoring last season. Sydor is a rock defensively and should aid in the maturation of Kris Letang. With him back there Marc-Andre Fleury should feel that much more secure.

With the continued emergence of phenom Sidney Crosby as well as Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal this team has an embarassment of riches. There's no reason this squad shouldn't be thinking about the Stanley Cup and even if they fall short in 07-08 there's no reason to think they won't always be in the hunt for the foreseeable and long-term future. This is why I am blogging about my team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. As a proud Season Ticket Holder in my 5th year and humble co-creator of the Army's Pit I feel that writing about the Penguins in blog-format will be some of the funnest times I've ever had being a journalist.

If you are reading this- enjoy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Joe -

It's good to hear your thoughts on the Penguins. The future looks really bright for them. Are you satisfied with the team after the player moves this summer, or do you think they still need to add anyone? Re-sign any of the players they didn't qualify, for instance? Pick up any of the UFAs that are still available and might be a bargain at this point?

Looking forward to getting back to the Pit in a couple of months.