Lacing Up: The Future Is Now
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “LacingUp,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Joshua Neal: On Tuesday, Dejan Kovacevic published a column discussing the role of the Penguins with respect to history itself. The Penguins started the season looking like a Juggernaut, taking down two teams thought to be the class of their division. Wednesday, they looked like a completely different club in a relatively embarrassing 5-2 loss to Toronto.
Over the past few years though, the highs have been higher than the lows. As Penguin fans, the disappointments come in early playoff exits. We haven’t missed the playoffs in a long, long time. Not many cities enjoy the same spoils that Penguin fans have within the past 5 or so years. So the essence of the article seems appropriate: move over Toronto, because Pittsburgh is ready to be a Hockeytown, too.
Hockey envy runs thick through the veins of many who have watched the Penguins come from the basement to the forefront of the league in several years’ time. In looking at jersey sales, television ratings, and even at how many people own Penguins sweaters, it’s evident to see that the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh have become iconic in many ways with regard to hockey – both in the arena and across North America.
My viewpoint is simple: the Penguins are a team poised to make their spot in history. The firepower is there, the fanbase is back and they don’t seem to be going anywhere, even after a long lockout. The Penguins have something special here, and Pittsburgh is embracing it. Only good things can come of this, right?
Matt Paul: Wrong. I can think of a lot of bad that can come of it — and already has. Take a stroll in Philadelphia, Detroit, Toronto, or any other NHL city while wearing a Crosby jersey and count the minutes until someone mentions that he was handed to the Penguins by Gary Bettman. Face it, hockey fans everywhere hate the Penguins and, maybe even more so, their fans. DK’s column is the perfect example of why.
The Penguins were playing in front of an empty arena just 10 years ago and were on the verge of moving to Kansas City when Crosby arrived and returned the Penguins to relevance. Since then, the Penguins have bolted to prominence and the organization has gained a reputation of arrogance.
Calling Pittsburgh hockey’s “Mecca” less than 10 years into an admittedly impressive stretch is quite the example of this, wouldn’t you agree?
Josh: It may be a bit of a stretch. Pittsburgh isn’t Detroit, but Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of the same things that Detroit has. Detroit, like Toronto, is one of those cities that has always had hockey (of any kind) coarsing so powerfully through its veins that it’s just second nature.
To me, those cities and hockey are just a given. Pittsburgh wasn’t home to an Original Six franchise. It’s not a large city in comparison to the cities who do have that history. To me, Detroit and Toronto are picture perfect examples of consistency. Detroit’s consistency has them on an impressive streak of making the playoffs. Toronto, well, being consistently bad is consistent as well.
You know what, though? Consistency is great, but it’s boring. The historical cities looked at as “Meccas” of hockey tend to have that in common. Sure, they have a lot of fans – but is it exciting? Are the people packing the seats out of tradition, or are they doing it because they are excited to be there? Arrogant or not, the Penguins have a rapidly growing fan base. I’ll take excitement, growth, and change along with consistency. I can’t speak for all of Pittsburgh, but I’m thinking I’m a lot more excited about my team than a Leafs fan in Toronto, even if they did just trounce us in our barn.
Matt: Right, you are and should be more excited about your team than the Leafs. That’s what defines you as a fan of this specific team. Toronto is a bigger city and has a much longer history, the most recent if which is quite stagnant. But guess what? The Leafs have been consistently bad for years, yet their fans keep watching. They don’t give up the way Pittsburgh fans did in the early 2000s when the team went from a roster filled with stars to a roster filled with duds.
Listen, you and I aren’t necessarily the norm in Pittsburgh. We’ve been fans for a long time, through the thick and thin. Now, I’m not one of those people who scrutinizes the new fans and calls them bandwagoners. After all, I would have been considered a bandwagon fan in 1991 when I started watching the team due to its success. But what will define this new group of fans — and the Penguins fanbase as a whole — is whether the masses stick around if/when the team falls from prominence.
“Mecca,” to me, means the pinnacle, the most important, the holiest. How can a team go from the cellar to the pinnacle in less than 10 years, Josh? It doesn’t make sense. I understand the Penguins are trending upward and the team ownership and management have gone a long way to promote the team to a young audience and to reach out to charitable causes, but sometimes the publicity these things get come across as arrogance. If the Penguins are the second coming, let them be that…but don’t declare it.
Josh: I can see where you’re coming from. When the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, a lot of people had picked against them because at that point they were “too young.” Four years and zero Cups later, the Penguins are just as popular as ever in the television ratings and in their 255th straight sellout between Mellon and Consol. As you’ve said, a lot of that has to do with the team’s relative success.
But at what point does this arrogance become completely empty? At what point does the excitement so far exceed the expectations that fans become disappointed in their team. I know that “disappointed” was usually the first word out of my mouth after these past few early playoff exits. But yet, each year renews itself with that same expectation of bringing home the Stanley Cup. Arrogant? Probably. Spoiled? Definitely.
Perhaps there’s more here than the message itself in the declaration of Pittsburgh as hockey’s “Mecca.” Some cities can’t be that, and some cities simply don’t want to. But right now, beyond the Penguins through the US Junior World Champions all the way down to the youth leagues, that desire is strong in Pittsburgh. The question is whether or not that fire will still burn when the players that brought this new wave of fans in are gone.
The fact that the desire is there now is significant. Maybe it’s a little early to declare Pittsburgh as “Mecca.” But maybe it’s on its way to that status, and maybe the only way to realize it is to explicitly say so.
Matt: I applaud people in and around Pittsburgh for their love of hockey. It truly has grown in this area to an unbelievable level of popularity. That’s fantastic for me, as a hockey fan, as it means there are more avenues for me to watch and participate in the sport I love.
But to declare Pittsburgh as hockey “Mecca,” to me is ridiculous. That title should and always will remain in Montreal or Toronto. Part of what makes Pittsburgh so great for hockey fans is hat the love of the game really does seem to be genuine. The Penguins, as I said above, have reached out to the younger generations to the point that a solid fanbase has been built and likely will be sustained.
That said, who cares if Pittsburgh is “Mecca,” “Hockeytown,” the “State of Hockey,” or some other cheesy name? We as Penguin fans need to get over ourselves and realize that the Penguins are just a hockey team; one of 30 in the NHL, to be exact. There are 29 other teams, all of which have great fans to one extent or another. Numbers fluctuate from year to year and team to team. It’s time for the arrogance to stop and for us to realize that we’re no better than any other fans in the NHL just because our team happens to be loaded with talent now, because, as we have seen, you never know when that talent will be gone and that top-tier team drops to the basement.