Tuesday, May 20

The Stanley What?

It's kind of funny how I follow sports. When I was young (quick, look away before I get dated), the first two sports I started to follow were baseball and hockey. At the time, I still lived in mid-state New York, so I didn't have much of a chance to really pick my teams. I still remember the run the Mets had in June 1990 which got me into baseball for the first time; of course, it ended up going nowhere (and yes, I was one of those people who buys the VHS of how a baseball team's season turned out .... I didn't know any better) and I ended up abandoning them for the Expos in 1994 - because hey, someone's got to root for the team whose season got completely blown up.

- This isn't what I meant this post to be about at all, but that's one of those things you do when you're young and naive, right? I never really got attached to the Mets; they were my dad's team, but when a whole litany of guys who I never met and didn't know anything about and didn't even see until 1996 lose their shot at wrecking the Braves' streak of division titles, where do I sign? In retrospect, I'm a Nationals fan because the Braves suck, and Skip Caray was only annoying to me. (You really had to be there to appreciate the Braves' announcers sense of inevitability; it was maddening, because they were right. Since TBS showed approximately 190 games a year, it wasn't like we could get away from them, either.) Once I got a bit older, either I started appreciating dry humor or they just started getting lit in the booth, I don't know, but by that point it was pretty much sealed that I was rooting for the Expos. In retrospect, I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

Of course, I started following hockey because my favorite animal was (and is) the penguin. Holy cow, there's a team whose mascot is my favorite animal! Where do I sign?! It didn't hurt that this was the time when the Penguins were last hoisting the Cup; do I remember that? Not really, but I can always kind of fake it. Of course, I was around for the '91 and '92 Cup wins and then I bailed - not by choice.

- Moving to the South kind of changes your perspective; I dropped hockey and picked up football. I never really got into the NFL, but I think it goes without saying here that I picked up the college game just a bit.

I'm not a bandwagon fan, honestly. I would follow the Penguins in the paper when I could, and when I thought about it. You can sustain on a sports schedule that goes like this: MLB, college football, college basketball, repeat. I had pretty much everything I needed there, so sure, I'd kind of follow the Penguins, I'd watch the games when they were on (yes, glow puck was a terrible, terrible idea), but that would be about it. I didn't really get involved in the game much beyond that point; how could I? I was way too far away to go to any games, interact with any fans - what else was I going to do?

Of course, now that I've moved back to an area where they actually notice hockey (and I've met people who care about the sport), things have changed. I bought Center Ice Online this year, which was a pretty decent deal. Most nights there were games on that I could watch, and I remember enough about sports to know that you don't change allegiances without a damn good reason; laziness doesn't cut it. So I got back into watching the Penguins.

- This, of course, ignores a couple of key points: 1) I'm sure alt.rec.sports.Penguins.Penguins_Rock.Tom_Barasso_is_my_daddy was a hopping place at the time, but I didn't know about it and would probably have been killed had I found it, and 2) I was in the exact same situation with the Expos and kept on following them. Not to mention I had a great opportunity to dump the Expos when all of the systematic gutting of talent, systematic gutting of revenue, owner bailout, systematic gutting of the fans, moving-but-not-moving, eventual relocation, stadium issues, and other general stupidity was going on, but I didn't. I'm not bitter about that at all.

For me, this Penguins team was more than the sum of its parts, and it didn't quite feel like it would be their year. Marc-Andre Fleury scared the piss out of me early in the season; there were a few weeks where I was more confident in Dany Sabourin than I was Big Rebound Fleury. (Thank god he's fixed that since he came back, otherwise I would've probably blown a few blood vessels by now.... in my brain.) Ty Conklin somehow survived for a month on smoke and mirrors. Crosby still isn't close to the player he's going to be, but it's awesome trying to figure out what he sees, what he's intending, even if it doesn't work. I think Malkin is the best all-around player on the team right now, but it's damn close (Crosby just needs a little bit more of a scoring touch, which is really nitpicking, not that I care).

The staggering thing about this season is how much fun it's been; I've thankfully missed a lot of the stinkers (that 8-2 loss against Philly felt a hell of a lot better at about 5 PM Sunday, I'll be honest), but I've seen more than a few "where the hell did they come from?" goals, and I say this with missing the Winter Classic - although I did watch it on replay.

- If Gary Bettman was competent I could easily be talked into believing that he wanted the game to end with Crosby putting in a shootout goal to win the game. Thankfully, he's a moron.

I would've been happy with a Stanley Cup Quarterfinal appearance up until about the end of February. This was probably my "wtf?" moment of the season; I was in the suburbs of Kansas City for work training, and I really didn't get cell phone reception down there, but I could get online during downtime. I was following the trade deadline deals, seeing that we would go down to the deadline with a fair amount of deals but the big prize (Marian Hossa) not going anywhere. I dropped out of espn.com and a couple of other sites around the deadline, mainly because we were picking back up with the training. About 45 minutes later (without getting online), I take a short walk around the office and check my phone; turns out I have a text message from my Carolina Hurricanes fan friend (....you get the idea): "YOU got Hossa."

I really didn't think the Penguins were going to make any moves at the deadline; after all, most of the team was young - especially the real talents - so why go after someone who's only going to help for one season? I was talking to some of my hockey friends later on that night, and I basically said it was Eastern Conference or bust. Right now, I'm happy. Given how things could've turned out, getting a chance to play for the Stanley Cup with so many core players so far away from reaching their likely peak is kind of cool.

- It's always weird when you're fans of guys younger than you. I'm starting to see it in college football, but in hockey it's damn near bizarre. What am I doing with my life?

Would I like to see the Cup raised in Pittsburgh again? Better believe it, if only because of the parallels between when I was young and where the team is now, plus if Mario takes the Cup for a run down the ice ....well, that's kind of cool. Still, I'm not going to be too disappointed if it doesn't happen; it's not like team's going anywhere.