Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, sports were a big part of my upbringing. Actually, just one sport. Football. The Pirates were just something to do for fun on the weekend. Grab a few tickets for a couple bucks a piece and wait until Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay came up to bat. There was one another team though, one that always seemed to evade the conversation of the locals sports fans in my area. It was hard for the struggling hockey team to ever get any attention with the Steelers in town. I played football. I played baseball. And I didn’t really care for either of them. I had no passion. It was just something that I got in the routine of doing after school. My family and most of those in my area did not know anything about hockey nor did they have the financial means to support putting their children into such an expensive sport. The Penguins were just a bad sports team in town that was going to get sold and no one really seemed to care. This is how life could’ve unfolded if it weren’t for the saving grace of Mario Lemieux. The Penguins would’ve moved to Kansas City, depriving myself and many of the other younger fans the chance to discover this great game. One day, everything changed. The Penguins were the worst team in the league prior to the 04-05 lockout and had the best chance (6.3%) at winning the draft lottery for some really good Canadian kid along with Buffalo, Columbus, and the New York Rangers. A few days prior to the lottery was the first time I had ever heard the name “Sidney Crosby” and little did I know that he would have such a prodigious impact on my life. For some reason, I became really interested with this Crosby kid. Who was he? Why was he such a big deal? And why the hell is everyone talking about hockey? I began watching his highlights and for someone that knew absolutely nothing about hockey at the time, I could just tell he was putting pucks in the net in ways that should not be possible. From that moment on, I wanted him in Pittsburgh more than anything. By the time July 22nd, 2005 rolled around, I was obsessed with the idea of the Penguins getting this phenom. With more suspense than a Stephen King movie, I waited for the lottery results to come through on KDKA. We won.
The first Penguins game I watched intently and in its entirety was Sidney Crosby’s debut. I was clueless to nearly all of what was happening, but I knew I loved the sport right then and there. A bunch of big guys moving at incredible speeds surgically putting the puck around defenders while even bigger guys beat each other up just for looking at their star player wrong? This was definitely for me. I began to casually watch the games whenever I could, looking up rules to figure out what the heck the referees were talking about, and discovering the other star players that weren’t on the Penguins. I wanted to know everything that I could. For the next two years I continued this trend, so by the time the 2007-2008 season came knocking, I was a competent, hardcore fan. I watched every single game, every single night, and I could tell you the line combinations and defensive pairings off by heart. I bought myself a pair of $50 Bauer skates, a cheap Reebok stick (Crosby curve, of course), and spent the majority of my leisure time putting dents in my garage door. I was hooked.
I started having friends over to watch the games and sure enough they fell in love with the sport just as quickly. We saved up enough money to buy two cheap nets and a Martin Brodeur street goalie set from the local sporting goods store and set them up in my friend’s garage. We set up sheets of plywood around the garage walls, spray-painted lines along the goal mouth, and created our own little arena. For the next several years, we got to the garage every chance we could, and played until our parents came and drug us out. Hockey created a special bond among our group of friends. When we weren’t playing, we watched the games together, talked about them all day in school, took trips to the store just to look at all of the expensive sticks we wanted to have one day. None of us realized it at the time, but hockey created some of the best memories and friendships we would ever have in our lifetimes. We experienced the lowest of lows that year when our young group of stars fell short of the Cup by two wins to the seemingly villainous Detroit Red Wings. However, I’m kind of glad it turned out that way in the end, because I learned one important difference about hockey compared to other sports. Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Chris Osgood. I hated these guys, each and every one of them, but damn did I respect them. I was crushed, tears trickling down my face, but I watched those two teams who had battled shift after shift for months and tried to kill each other for the last couple weeks shake hands when it was all over. I could see the mutual respect in their eyes and I watched the team in red celebrate with the Cup and tried my best to be happy for them. Hockey was different. The mutual respect among hardcore fans in the community was truly something special and I wanted to be a part of it. One year later, we met that same Red Wings team again. We won the Stanley Cup, on their ice, in one of the loudest arenas in hockey, in the closest margin of victory you could imagine. Once Fleury knocked away the final Lidstrom shot and the clock hit double zeroes, there was no bitterness or resentment from the home crowd. They stayed and they cheered throughout the entire Cup presentation. No boos, no beating the traffic, just cheers and respect for the prodigious trophy. That 2009 Stanley Cup victory was one of the best moments of my life. Going from being an absolute novice in the sport to becoming a self-taught diehard of the Stanley Cup champions was incredibly rewarding. Watching Crosby grow from a first overall pick with a plethora of potential to an MVP and Stanley Cup champion in only a few seasons was something I knew I would always cherish. The way people talked about Lemieux and the old Steelers teams like they were a part of them, I always wanted that; and this was my team. From the moment that trophy was raised, I knew I was going to be cheering for these guys for the rest of my life. Hockey wasn’t just a sport I would follow, but it would be a big part of my life in more ways than one.
My story of coming to know and love the sport of hockey because of Sidney Crosby is just one of many in Pittsburgh. According to a 2011 survey of 545 Pennsylvanians by Public Policy Polling, the Penguins were the most popular team in the entire state among 18 to 29 year olds. Among these young fans, the Penguins received 29% of the vote for their favorite team. The Steelers, widely regarded as the having the best and most passionate fans of any franchise in all of pro sports came in second at 22%. However, the Steelers are still the most popular in the state among ages 30-45, 45-65, and 65+. In plain english, the children of those diehard Steelers fans are becoming diehard Penguins fans. Hockey taking over football in a football city like Pittsburgh is absolutely unheard of. This historic shift obviously did not happen by accident. Along with the 400+ consecutive sellouts and most active social media community among all NHL teams, this spike of inspired young diehards can be traced back to the drafting of Sidney Crosby. If that lottery ball just falls a little differently on July 22nd, 2005, maybe I never discover this game that my life revolves around, maybe none of the other young fans do either, maybe the Penguins never sell out another game, maybe Pittsburgh doesn’t grow into one of the meccas of youth hockey in the entire country. Luckily we will never have to ponder these glum alternate realities. Sidney Crosby started a revolution that is evolving Pittsburgh into one of the best hockey towns in the world. He introduced me and thousands of kids like me to hockey, and hockey changed my life. Just for this reason, I will always be indebted to number eighty seven. I’ll always be open to helping new fans learn the game and welcome them with open arms. I’ll do whatever I can to help grow hockey in areas where its not so popular, because I just might introduce the next great hockey player to the sport. My kids will know of him, just how great he was, and thanks to him I’ll be able to put them into the game at a young age. Sidney Crosby took a sport that was struggling to stay relevant in the city and made it into the most popular sport among young fans that Pittsburgh has ever seen. No player will ever mean as much to Pittsburgh as Mario Lemieux, but to many of those in my young generation Sidney Crosby will always be our version of Mario. Our savior.