I hope that you guys, as well as my friends at PSAMP and the Pensblog, don't mind if I take an opportunity to do a bit of Pittsburgh sports writing that goes a bit outside the realm of the Pirates.
Less than six weeks after I got to Duquesne in the fall of 2003, a terrible Pittsburgh Penguins kicked off a season that was doomed before it even began even though they were just 2 1/2 years removed from the emotional return of Mario Lemieux nearly spurred them to a Stanley Cup in 2001. Coming off of a 65 point season that had earned them the first pick in the 2003 draft, the Penguins would only earn 58 points in the season that would lead into the lockout that nearly killed hockey forever in North America. And still, I paid for a student ticket on October 10, 2003 just to see the Penguins kick off the season with a goalie that was just two months older than me for no reason other than that I was a Penguins fan and perhaps Marc-Andre Fleury could give us all a glimpse of the future.
Fast forward the clock by nearly seven years, and the same Marc-Andre Fleury just spearheaded the Penguins' disappointing second round loss to the Montreal Canadiens, culminating in a Game 7 loss that closes the building that I'll always remember as the Civic Arena forever. And as much as it hurts to see the Penguins go down to a team that I know (well, at the very least that I believe) that they're better than, my overwhelming thought is this; "Has it really only been seven years?"
The two memories of the Penguins that I have from my four years at Duquesne that override every other hockey memory are these: Marc-Andre Fleury making 46 incredible saves in his NHL debut against a bad Kings team that simply overwhelmed the Penguins to give the 18-year old a loss that no one thought he deserved in his NHL debut on that October night in 2003 and the draft lottery in the summer of 2005 that ensured that the Penguins would get to draft Sidney Crosby, the kid I remembered reading about in Sports Illustrated on a couple of occasions. I could expand the list (Crosby's shootout goal to beat the Habs and breakaway goal in OT to beat the Flyers on back to back games early in his rookie year, Michel Therrien's famous 'They soff, like, I never see a bunch of defensemen soff like this' speech, or even their five-game loss to Ottawa in 2007's first round right before my graduation), but those two moments stand out more than everything else during my time as a real Pittsburgh resident.
I bring this up because like everyone who goes through their mid-20s, college seems like it was yesterday for me. I can't believe that it was seven years ago that the Penguins' best hope was a kid goalie that was barely old enough to be a freshman in college, that no one in Pittsburgh had envisioned Sidney Crosby or Sergei Gonchar in black in gold or had ever even heard of Evgeni Malkin, that no one knew if hockey as we knew it would even exist after the season ended, or that no one knew if the Penguins would survive the lockout even if the NHL did.
In those seven years, the Penguins have transformed from a laughingstock on the brink of oblivion to the class of the NHL. To a team that loses in the second round of the playoffs and goes home sorely disappointed. To a team that I'm proud to be a fan of even after such a crushing loss. I think back to where I was seven years ago and where I am now and it doesn't feel like that much time has passed. Maybe that's because I just don't want to acknowledge the realities of growing up, but part of me says that if the Penguins can make such a dramatic transformation in such a short period of time, well, then so can the Pirates.
And that, for the countless number of people that ask me the question every year, is how I keep going as a Pirate fan. Thank you Sid, thank you Geno, thank you Flower, not just for the Cup last year and the memories that it created, but for the reminder that no situation, no matter how dark, can ever be hopeless.