I was born in Brooklyn, but spent most of my time growing up in Staten Island. I remember walking in to a Palmer Video (later bought out by Blockbuster) and seeing an ad on the front counter for a chance to enter to win hockey tickets. The entry box was your average, run of the mill box, but at the top right where the slot is for the form was a picture of Mario Lemieux holding the cup over his head. I was only six, maybe seven, but I knew just by looking at that picture that it possessed everything hockey. I went home and made a hockey stick out of my mom's kitchen mop and a flimsy piece of cardboard. The thing couldn't handle moving a 'puck' (which was in fact just compacted duct tape), but I liked it and treated it like a real hockey stick.
I'd yet to see a game on our basic tv package, which didn't even have cable. in fact, I didn't even have a remote for the television. But, I began reading anything I could get my hands on, listening to anything that would talk hockey (sports radio 66 in NYC). For a kid who grew up in a baseball structure, hockey was something I had for myself. I'd go out and play baseball like all the other kids in the neighborhood, but come home and read hockey digest and know I was the only one. I organized my hockey cards by team, then re-organized them by last name, then organized again by position. I don't know what drew me in, but I was just mesmerized by it.
Eventually the fam moved out to NJ, where I'd steadily converted my father and sister to hockey fans too. I'd only lived in the house for a week, and now I had a driveway to play in. So I went out and bought a pair of roller blades and a stick after saving up my allowance cutting the lawn and such. I was using the garbage can as a net before my neighbor introduced himself and told me all his kids were grown up, but he still had the old hockey net. I was beside myself.
That thing took so many shots off the post and in to the net that I'm surprised it didn't turn to dust. It didn't matter though. By this time I'd converted some neighborhood kids to hockey fans, and their older brothers had jobs and money so they bought stuff like goalie gear, pucks, gloves and a net. All I had to do was subject myself to open street hits, but it was well worth it. My last, loose baby tooth came out when I took an elbow to the face (i was short then), and I thought it was the greatest story to tell. I'd go up against the bigger kids, with hopes I'd have a black eye or bruise to brag about.
You'd think living in New York and moving to New Jersey would either make me a Rangers, Islanders or Devils fan huh? No. I stuck with my man Mario. And although I jumped on the bandwagon after the Stanley Cup, I told myself "This is the team I want to follow for the rest of my life."
We finally got cable, and living in the central NJ area allowed us to get Philly, NY and NJ games. So really, 32 games a year we could watch the Pens. My father and I bonded the most over hockey. We'd argue over who was really the better player, Jagr or Lemieux. During games I'd wear my Lemieux jersey and dad would wear his Jagr jersey and we'd cheer on the team as if they played 10 minutes away. I went to Devils games and got booed for cheering for the Pens, but I didn't care. I knew one day I'd make it out to Mellon.
My father eventually became very sick, and the concept of following hockey while he went in and out of the hospital became more of a task than a hobby. Needless to say, I fell out of things for a good two or three years. Dad passed in 2005, and I found myself getting a bit choked up watching hockey games, even if I had to watch Jagr on the Rangers. I got in to the habit of listening to the games on WXDX.com, particularly enjoying the post-game show. It made me feel like I lived in Pittsburgh and I was actually IN the city's conversation.
I came to this realization at my job about two weeks ago that I was doing something I hated. The hours took up my life, took me away from family and kept me from doing what I loved. I considered my financial status, having horded up a few paychecks in advance, and decided there was no better time than now. I made up my mind and packed a box and left. I never felt so good.
So finally, this past weekend, after securing tickets the morning they went on sale, and job free for the first time in 8 years, I took the 7 hour ride from Freehold, NJ to Pittsburgh, PA for opening night. My sister and I drove out, talking about Dad the whole way down. How much he'd love it, how much he loved the Rolling Stones and horse racing and whatever we could think of talking about. Hell, we had enough time to do it.
I showed up to my hotel, just outside of Pittsburgh, Friday night at 11:45PM. I was so psyched to be there, I drove to the arena just to allow myself to believe it was real. I couldn't make it out much in the dark, but I saw the dome. I saw the signs, and I knew it was there. I went back to the hotel to sleep for 4 hours before excitement shot me awake to the scene of the sun coming up.
My sister and I got up early, to check out the city and walk around a bit. We went to PNC park, around Heinz Field, and up to the top of this overpass thing (sorry Pitt natives for not knowing the name!) that allowed us to see the entire city. We took our share of pictures, as we pretended not to look at our watches to see the time pass.
We arrived at Mellon Arena around 3:30. I wanted to be the first one there, and was I ever. We walked in to Pennstation, where i proceeded to buy over $200 worth of merch. By now it was only 4:00, and the arena didn't open till 6. So, I waited near the parking lot area, talking to my sister and watching players like Ryan Malone and Colby Armstrong come in to 'work'.
Fans began to really swarm around 5ish, so we got on line at gate 1. The anticipation kept growing and growing, as minutes felt like hours and the hour felt like a day. Finally, the locks were taken off and we charged in like banshees.
Oddly enough, the song playing as we walked in kinda made us chuckle. Dad loved the Rolling Stones, and the arena was blasting "Shattered". Too ironic.
You guys know how the story ends. Pens beat the Ducks, we cheered and screamed till our throats bled and drove back to the hotel to watch more highlights of the game we were just at on every news station we could pick up. It was ideal.
I really don't know where I stand with a job right now, but I couldn't be happier. For those of you who are Pens fans and reading this, I know it probably seems ridiculous. But I just wanted to express how much a team can really mean to someone. I know for your guys potentially losing your home team months ago was detrimental, but it was critical to my existence. I needed it because it was a goal for me to attain. I'd made the decision to make it out to Pittsburgh this year so I could see the infamous Mellon Arena before it was no more. I have the exact plans to do the same when the new place is built.
Till then, the season never looked so good, I've never been happier, and I finally feel like I've reached a pinnacle in my life. If you've ever doubted how much a team meant to someone, then let my story stand as evidence.
Here I am, on top of the world in my head...