I usually try to keep myself out of these blog posts, but this is one of the rare times.
Of all three professional franchises in Pittsburgh, the one that I have personally had the most joy watching growing up has been the Penguins.
Somehow, in a city that is dominated by the craziness of football, hockey was my first love before football. I don't know why, but it just was (by the way, I love football in the same capacity).
I was born in June 1989. My earliest memories of the Pittsburgh Penguins come from the 1995-96 sesaon. That was also the time I started playing ice hockey. Learning the fundamentals during early Saturday morning stick times at Bladerunners Ice Complex in Warrendale (The highest level I reached was junior varsity hockey in high school before I realized I was more of a defensive lineman than a left winger).
The Penguins 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup years were presented to me in two VHS tapes my grandmother had. 'One From the Heart' and 'Against the Odds.' I watched those so much as a kid, I'm surprised I didn't destroy the tape. They might be the reason why I still keep a VCR in the house. Also, I never returned the tape to my grandma. Sorry, Grandma.
My adolescent years came at a time when the Penguins were bankrupt and possibly on the move. I was in attendance for Game 6 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when the Maple Leafs closed out the series with a game winning goal in overtime. It was hard for my 9-year old self to understand that I could have just watched the last NHL game in Pittsburgh that night. Of course, that never happened thanks to Lemieux.
My parents became season ticket holders during the 2001-2002 season. The season that started a streak of losing ones leading up to the 2004 lockout. We sat in the final row in F18 at Mellon Arena. Unlike the sellout crowds you see today, there would be about 8,000 or so in the stands, and the Steve McKenna lead Penguins were not great, but it was fun.
My all-time favorite memory had to be Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. Now sitting in C12, I couldn't help but look around at the 17,132 fans wearing white chanting 'Let's Go Pens.' The loudest I will probably ever hear that chant. Probably the proudest I've ever been as a fan of the team and the game of hockey.
Those early years of Crosby, Fleury and Malkin were some of the best. Much like the Columbus Blue Jackets are right now, the Penguins were a care free team on the rise, breathing new life into hockey in Pittsburgh and never once have I ever had the desire to leave early to beat the traffic. It has been a decade of nothing but good things for this team.
But since that Stanley Cup win 2009, it just hasn't been the same. Expectations are higher, and attitudes are different.
Nothing stays the same. So many things have changed for the franchise in the last ten years.
A collective bargaining agreement made it that the Penguins and other teams could keep talent. After a long battle, Mario Lemieux finally got the Penguins a new arena, and with a 30 year lease, the first sense of stability ever for a franchise that could have folded or relocated several times in its first 40 years.
Perhaps it's just me being 24, somewhat jaded and cynical about the world, and feeling like the Penguins hockey I've enjoyed for most of my life has been lost. I also work in Pittsburgh sports radio with the company that has the Penguins radio network, so I've seen and heard more about the team than ever before.
The faces around my section at Consol Energy Center have changed since the move over from Mellon Arena. The past few years has brought on a crowd that demands a win every night and a title every season and gets bitter every year it fails to come to fruition. I do not want to say they do not understand hockey, but a few bad apples can spoil the bunch.
Much of what I remembered and loved a lot about Penguins hockey is gone.
John Barbero, the old public address announcer, passed away in 2010. The Consol Energy Center will never be as loud as the Civic Arena used to be, and that feeling that I once had during the 2008 Stanley Cup Final has not returned since.
It is also hard to watch this season as players are on pins and needles, and a coach knows he's on the hot seat if they fall short at any point during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I would kill to have that feeling again as a hockey fan. Mainly because it's been so long, I've forgotten how it feels these past few seasons.