From One Steel City to Another

“You’d have to be here to believe it!”

January 22nd, 2016. For most Penguins fans, just another home game against the Philadelphia Flyers- obviously important for bragging rights and playoff positioning, but nothing out of the ordinary. For me, it was the first time I’d stepped into Consol Energy Center, the house that Mario and Sid built; the first time I’d seen in person the ice that had long been almost mythical, on the other side of the computer screen. After almost 6 years of dreaming and supporting them from afar, I was in Pittsburgh, watching a Penguins game. I’m not ashamed to say that as I turned a corner and saw the ice from up on the concourse, I teared up.

Consol Energy Center
The ice at Consol Energy Center.

I started watching hockey back in 2010, thanks to the efforts of my very good friend Ellie who convinced me to come and see our adopted hometown’s professional team, the Sheffield Steelers. I’d been to games as a child, back in Manchester (in the UK, not New Hampshire!) when the Manchester Storm were drawing big crowds to the Nynex Arena, but hadn’t really taken in the game- I was a small kid, I just liked the atmosphere and the music. When I first saw Sheffield at the age of 22, something clicked- it was the perfect combination of elegance and brutality, skill and determination. This was the sport for me.

I watched a few NHL games, mostly picking random teams to try and find one that I liked. I still remember the first Penguins game I watched, against Tampa Bay- I vaguely knew the Lightning’s name, but I hadn’t heard of the Penguins. I was entranced. It was 2010, the year after the cup win but still firmly in the Bylsma era- this was an up-tempo, high-offense team with a core of incredibly dynamic players. They played the game beautifully, and I remember them completely out-skating Tampa Bay. I flirted with a few other teams for a while (including Vancouver- thankfully I didn’t go any further down that road, given how badly mismanaged that franchise has been) but by the time Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens had stonewalled the Crosby and Malkin-less Penguins in the 2010 playoffs, I was a committed fan.

During that offseason I spent a lot of time researching the team. I had been attracted to the Penguins because of the way they played- after spending some time on Wikipedia, I became entranced with the city and the team’s history. The towering legacy of Le Magnifique; Mario’s incredible return from cancer; how he saved the club and kept it in Pittsburgh; the back-to-back Cup wins; and of course, Sid the Kid and his impact on the city. The story of the Penguins was, to my eyes, one of determination, triumph in the face of adversity and a passionate love affair between the team and the city.

As the next season rolled on, including Crosby’s incredible 25-game point streak and of course, the Winter Classic, I continued to read about Pittsburgh. The opening shots of every home broadcast showed me how beautiful the city was, and HBO’s 24/7 documentary leading up to that fateful evening at Heinz Field convinced me that this was my team. The similarities between my own adopted hometown of Sheffield and Pittsburgh began to mount up- both are ex-steel towns, both have coped with the decline of the steel industry by moving into higher education (Sheffield has two universities, Pittsburgh has four) and technological innovation; our hockey team (established in 1991) is called the Steelers. Even my university’s team colours are black and gold (the only thing spoiling this is that my Steelers’ team colours are, annoyingly, orange and black!) I dreamed of visiting the city, of watching a Penguins game, eating at Primanti Bros’, seeing the view from Mount Washington.

As the Penguins sputtered through that horrific 2012 series against the Flyers I was up until 3am watching every game; the same the next year when Fleury ceded the net to Thomas Vokoun and the Pens advanced all the way to the Conference Finals before being stoned by Boston. I watched Crosby’s struggles with concussion and his effervescent return against the Islanders on November 21st 2011 (that backhand goal, and Sid’s passionate celebration!) I couldn’t hope to count the hours I’ve spent (usually in the small hours of the morning, huddled in front of my computer with headphones on) watching games online, following along on Twitter and going to bed either joyful and animated or sullen and angry (depending on the result), before waking up for work the next morning.

Late last year, I decided to take the plunge- to make my pilgrimage to Pittsburgh and finally watch a Penguins game in person. I went via Austin, spending a few days with a friend there, before taking an afternoon flight to Pittsburgh through Dallas. I was staying with some AirBnB hosts up in Grandview, who’d arranged to pick me up at the airport; as we drove back, late at night, they graciously agreed to take a detour through the Fort Pitt tunnel. The city unfolded in front of me, covered in a light dusting of snow, and I had to pinch myself- I was really there.