Thursday, October 13, 2011

things i learned from a Pens fan

When I was just starting to really get into hockey, I was working at Starbucks and I knew a guy named Rob. He was my field merchandiser and he would come visit our store about once every two weeks, and I looked forward to that, because he would bring with him hockey stories, encyclopedic knowledge, and arguments. He was a third-generation Pens fan, born and raised in Pittsburgh, and he will always be the embodiment of that rivalry for me--which is why I will always think of the Pens/Caps rivalry as tight, competitive, and a highly argumentative, but not toxic hostility.

Kinda fun.

Not that that means it's okay when the Pens beat us, or anything, because it's really fucking not. Caps are still the best team in the world. Take it to the bank. Put it in your account. But that doesn't mean that poor, misguided fans of other teams don't have something to offer. Here are some things I learned while happily yelling at Rob back and forth across the sales floor during business hours:

1. "I require my teams to win a championship every five years."

Every time I got on him about the Pens' "lost season" last year, with their two biggest stars out and their chances at winning the Stanley Cup, he would smile and shrug, and that used to infuriate me, until he explained his rule. His teams get five years to win a championship, whether football, hockey, what have you. Now after that five years is up, he's got a problem, but he's certainly not going to panic over not winning the Stanley Cup ten consecutive times in a row.

I wish I was that patient.

Then again, Caps hockey has a way of making you patient, doesn't it? I know we've had antsy and disgruntled summers the last few years after several ugly playoffs exits, but on the other side of things now, I'm glad George McPhee decided not to blow up the team. So we couldn't make it happen the last few years--none of that is going to matter if they do make it happen this year. They don't get forever, but they get at least one more chance.

2. Mario Lemieux is a badass.

I don't care if you're a Caps fan, I don't care if you're a Flyers fan, I don't care if you're a moose living in Ontario--Mario Lemieux is one of the most significant hockey players of all time, and he is fucking amazing. My car is named after him. It's very unfortunate that he happened to be a Penguin, but regardless--88 goal season. First Stanley Cup for the franchise. Excellent, very hands-on owner since then.

Now if people start saying that he's better than Gretzky, then we've got a problem. But he is what he is, and he does happen to be one of those players that any team would have loved to have, unlike most of the people that gets said about.

3. Grinding.

In one of the first hockey conversations I ever had with him, after I'd made a few good points he said this to me: "You have a knowledge of hockey, I'll give you that. But you don't have a knowledge of grinding."

It was true.

Once again--my team's the Capitals, and as good as we are, we haven't exactly been known for our grit in our current incarnation. Run and gun, outscore the opponent, dazzle them till they can't see straight--it was an effective style, but not one that was particularly long on blood, sweat, and tears. Then came last season--with its zillion overtimes, where seemingly every game had us coming from behind, never playing with a lead, never comfortable. Sure, it didn't end the way that we would have liked it to, but there were a lot of moments last season when I was very proud of the team--doing things the hard way, getting down and dirty, coming out on top at the very last minute.


And you know what, it's actually pretty damn satisfying to win that way. Who knew.

4. "Let's run down there and fuck one of them. No, let's walk down there and fuck 'em all."

This is a highly work-inappropriate story that Rob told me one day, about watching Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux when Jagr was just coming into the league and Mario was near the end of his career. He told me about how Jagr was all energy and talent, like a puppy, and how Lemieux would have to rein him in, try to settle him down.

He related this to a young bull and an older, wiser bull who were walking on a ridge one day and looked down and saw a bunch of cows in a field. The young bull got excited immediately, turned to the older bull and said, "Let's run down there and fuck one of them!" The older bull stopped him, told him not to, and then explained, "No, let's walk down there and fuck 'em all."

Basically I am pretty sure this is a more exciting version of the tortise and the hare :|

5. Nothing matters but the playoffs.

This was another one that was hard to get through to me for awhile--I would constantly try to make bets with him for regular season games, point out our record against them in regular season games. He wouldn't bite--would counter with our playoffs record against them, our playoffs record overall, our lack of Stanley Cups--which as a Caps fan, is the single most annoying thing to have pointed out, but he was right.

The Caps have had great success in the regular season, and that's been something to cling to--but let's face it, at this point, we're all living for April. Rob's right--when you're one of the best, it doesn't matter if you find yourself with the puck in front of an open net if you can't put it away--and it doesn't matter what you do the rest of the year if you can't finish it.

Ken Dryden says that a good rival is necessary in order to be really great, really remembered--they push you harder, make everything seem more dramatic. I like Pens games. Not because I like the Pens, but because I like the way they play us, and I like the way we play them--I like the intensity, I like the skill. Do I think the Pens are a better team than us? No. But I like that there's someone close enough to make it an argument.

Let's go Caps.

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