As much as I love the Pittsburgh Penguins, I didn't become a true fan of the team and the sport as a whole until I was 14 years old.
My uncle set it up so Mario Lemieux just happened to be at the Ground Round on Route 19 back in 1989. Our dog had just died, so my parents had my uncle take us to dinner while they buried the dog. Lemieux and Dan Quinn were there and my brother and I played checkers with the two men.
I have bragged about this experience my whole life, but it didn't make me like the Pens anymore. Cartoons and pro wrestling were my favorite things at the time.
Even Dan Quinn coming to our house on Christmas Eve the following year made much of a dent. Honestly, I didn't have a clue who Quinn was at the time. I just know I cried in front of him because my family from California gave me clothes. In my defense, what 5-year-old wants clothes for Christmas.
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You'd think the Pens' Stanley Cup runs in 1991 and 1992 would have made me the fan I am today, but I don't remember watching any of the games. I do remember being obsessed with winning at that time, so I only cheered for teams that won. This led me to tell everyone I was cheering for the Minnesota North Stars when they won a game, and the Pens whenever they won a game. There are rumors that this is the formula that created today's Washington Capitals fans, but I can't confirm or deny it.
No, the moment I fell in love with hockey was Dec. 27, 2000. Diehards don't need me to point out that this was the game Mario Lemieux came out of retirement.
I can't specifically tell you why it took me so long to realize how great the sport was and how much the Pens meant to me. I think it was because I was old enough to realize what an incredible comeback it was and how big the actual moment was for the city.
The team that was almost moved away from the city was getting it's best player back. A player who overcame cancer and various back ailments to play the game he loved. How could you not look at the moment and love every part of it.
To me, it didn't matter that Mario was coming back against my second favorite team in the league, The Toronto Maple Leafs. I wanted Mario to light the lamp and the Pens to destroy the Leafs.
I can still see (without the assistance of YouTube) Mario breaking down the ice, demanding the puck from Jaromir Jagr and burying the shot.
Lemieux was back and he hadn't lost anything. I was hooked to the sport and the team from that point on. If there was a hockey game on, I was watching it, or at least trying to find out who scored the next day.
Needless to say, the Pens have been my favorite team in any sport since that day. The Steelers are great, but I can't look back on them with the same memories the Pens have given me. Even though I wasn't a real fan throughout my childhood, I can remember my dad taking me to games whenever my uncle or friends gave us tickets. I remember being the last people to leave the arena because my dad is one of the most impatient drivers in the world and wanted to avoid traffic. The Igloo would go dark and the two (or three if my brother was there) would just be sitting there with the hopes we might get a broken stick or something. We never did, but it was still cool. We never got tickets to Steelers games, so there are no similar memories when it comes to football.
My love for the Pens also grew as the team sucked in the years prior to lockout and the year following. It would have been easy to throw them away, but it was a great time if you loved going to hockey games for $20. My friends and I would hit up Student Rush whenever we could to see the X-Generation. The team stunk, but we got the best available seats for $20.
The best example was when the Steelers played the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs of the 2002-2003 season. The Pens had an early start and the Steelers were playing that night. The arena was practically empty, so Swan, Johnny and I got seats seven or eight rows from the ice. I had never sat so close at a hockey game!
The Pens lost to the New York Rangers 3-1 that day, but it was an awesome experience with me flinching whenever the puck hit the glass near us.
I think the reason these dark ages in Pens history made me a bigger fan is because I now feel like I have grown up with the team they have now. You tend to feel more attached to a team when you have seen them struggle for an extended period of time and then reward your faithfulness with an extended period of success.
None of these feelings would have ever happened if No. 66 came back on that December day in 2000. Sure, I'd still like the Pens, but this level of love and commitment to the club would not have been anywhere close to what it is now if that moment never occurred.
The Pittsburgh Penguins Theme Song