There are a lot of great Penguin blogs on the Internet. Over the summer we're asking some of those blogs to guest post over here. It's a great way to discover a new blog you may not be reading and it's easier than having to come up with our own material…
Today, Frank from Pensburgh.
I first became a Penguins fan because of a cardboard box. No joke.
Not just any box, you see. Since the floor is mine, I'll explain.
Twas a long time ago (1990ish). My father and I went to a local video store in Staten Island, New York to return some video tapes. At the front desk, right near a sign that read, "Be Kind, Please Rewind," there was an enter-to-win box that, if memory serves, was for two tickets to a Rangers/Penguins game at MSG.
Logic would state that in New York any sort of hockey promotion would be somewhat Rangers-centric, right? I mean, even a little enter-to-win box on the front desk of some lame-ass localized non-chain video store would have the sense to put a New York Rangers player on the box as a picture.
You would think that heading in to a situation like this, and you'd likely be surprised to find out it was Mario Lemieux in all his glory, holding the Cup high above his head.
Something clicked at the time. I don't know what. All I know is that I stood there on line with my dad, likely trying to talk him into letting me rent RBI Baseball for the 100th time (or was it Tecmo Super Bowl?), I was enamored by this guy who just looked like he owned the world.
The image consumed me.
That Christmas I asked for a Mario Lemieux jersey. And a subscription to Hockey Digest. And a Lemieux Starting Lineup (why?).
Living in New York at the time, I often had to explain why I was a Penguins fan. Some kid on my Little League team called me a front-runner. Another insisted the Rangers were the best team in the league and could beat the Penguins "any day." Arguing was futile. The Pens could have lost 50 games a year and I'd still think they were the best team in the world. Cheering for the Pens just…happened.
Exposure to the team was minimal, as you can imagine, but whenever they came to town to play the Rangers, Devils or Islanders (all within radio broadcasting range), I'd listen in to Lemieux, Stevens, Francis, Jagr, Murphy, Tommy B, Ulf, etc. just utterly destroying whoever they played. On the rare occasion where I could actually get to NYC for a game, or the dark, dank confines of Brendan Byrne Arena, the atmosphere made it all the better.
I've often thought about that day in the video store, discussing it with friends from time to time over drinks or tacos. Was it really that simple? Had I, in one fleeting moment while returning some movie I don't remember watching, decided right then and there that I would forever be a Penguins fan? Yes it was. Yes I did.
I suppose that's also how close I almost came to being a Rangers fan. Maybe the store manager was a Pittsburgh native, living out his dreams as a video store manager with the hopes of making it big time in the industry. Whatever the case, many thanks to that guy.
A friend of mine did the same thing with the Miami Dolphins. He received a Miami Dolphins Starter pullover for Christmas from his grandmother. We never really found out why, but have since concluded that she must've walked into a store in Florida (where all old people live of course) and bought the first sports thing she could find. He became a Dolphins fan on the spot. That's his curse to live with. As a Jets fan, I guess I can't really talk…
A few years later when Mario was diagnosed with cancer, I felt like it was one of the most devastating days of my life. I was 10 years old, and I felt like I was just told my best friend was moving away (what else compares when you're 10 years old?). Then came the retirement, which I still have taped on VHS, stowed away in a box with other tapes and *gulp* Betamax. I watched it every day for a week after it happened, pretending it didn't and hoping that repetition would numb the reality of it all. It didn't.
When Mario came out of retirement, it was as if I was reborn. I wore my jersey to school the very next day, racking off random information and talking about his career to anyone who would listen. I played floor hockey that day after school in a gym that was so humid you could see the heat waves from one end to the other. I wore my jersey through it all, sweating like a pig but loving every second of it. I must've shot the puck 2,000 times that game. I'm sure my teammates hated me, but whatever.
We'll fast forward past the second retirement, past the dark days of the franchise and instead land in a spot where Mario came through once again in a big way for me, personally.
Nearly a decade later my father was diagnosed with cancer as well. Through all the doctors visits, hospital stays and chemo he stayed positive, easily the biggest obstacle for anyone in that position. Over the years I'd converted my dad from a "What's hockey?" person into a full-fledged fan. We went to, watched, listened and talked about games all the time. He was the Jagr to my Lemieux, minus the mullet.
Months later when he took a turn for the worse, one of our last outings was to a beach, where we just sat on a bench and talked. He knew what was happening, I was too naive to accept it. We talked a lot of things, hockey included. About Lemieux's retirement, his battle through cancer, his return to the ice and his ability to save the franchise. When he died in 2005, I couldn't bring myself to watch hockey for a while. I think my first game "back" was sometime in January 2006.
I've only been to Pittsburgh once in my life (2007 opener against the Ducks), but I plan on going again for next season's home opener, availability of tickets permitting. Any of you might've been in the bar that night. We may have talked hockey for a few minutes or even hours. I may have even bought you a beer or a shot, something I did for the first hour for anyone who came in wearing a Pens jersey. (It cost me almost $300 by the end of the night, but F it.) If you were there, I hope you were having as much fun as me.
Maybe it's still the kid in me, but I'm confident that one day I'll meet Mario. I don't need to tell him a thing. I just want to shake his hand and, if I can manage to muster up a few words, thank him for being my only childhood idol who didn't let me down by the time I got to the age where I could appreciate more than just a poster on a wall or a jersey in my closet.
"How did you become a fan?" is a question I often revisit on my site. It's good for at least one day's worth of discussion on a random day in the middle of August when nothing of any importance is going on in the hockey world and we pretend to talk about every minor league signing as if it's the single greatest thing to happen since July (which sadly, is often the case). I look forward to the stories that come from that. Many became fans simply because mom and dad grew up Penguins fans. Others did it out of spite, perhaps because an older sibling liked the Flyers or Capitals. And sometimes you just get a random story completely out of the blue.
That's how I became a fan, and that's what this team has meant to me over the years.
Now, how about you?