You don’t know what goes into a championship run until you’ve experienced it. The amount of toughness and determination by professional hockey players during the two months extra they play is hard to put into words. In fact, I would venture to say it’s impossible to actually verbalize. You can feel it when you see their faces, but words just don’t seem to do it justice.
This year, I was able to experience one of these long runs from the inside. As a part of the Wheeling Nailers run to the Kelly Cup Finals I spent my evenings (when I wasn’t working) at the rink, or listening to them when they were on the road well into June. There is no stress quite like the stress of getting your first Championship Series Graphic done in quick order. There is also no embarrassment quite like forgetting to change the game number from the series before. Until you lose.
Losing in the Championship round is, without a doubt, the toughest experience to be had in this Russian Roulette of a post season. So for a second, I want to think about the San Jose Sharks. The core of players who have been in the NHL for 18 years and their rookies alike feel this sting. It is excruciating. And I can tell you, after seeing the faces and knowing what players are putting on the line to lace up in these springtime games with relative certainty, these Sharks will come back stronger. And look, I get it San Jose that it doesn’t make it suck less, but you finally made it this far. You were two wins from the Stanley Cup when at Christmas you weren’t even in the playoffs. That is impressive.
That’s how I feel about the Nailers. The Wheeling Nailers, who I watched run through a stretch at the end of 2015 where I don’t think they won at home for a month and who dressed less than a full roster at multiple points due to injury, were two wins away from winning the whole thing. These teams, who were out of it or dead in the water in December, found a way to make it that close to winning it all. That’s impressive. It doesn’t make the pain of losing, of getting that close and watching your veteran captain and everything he’s put in just come up short, go away. But it does make it hurt a tiny bit less.
Then, there is the winner. The team that has been called everything from the Isle of Misfit Toys to Sidney Crosby and his band of Merry Men, they won the whole thing. This is my first Final. I’ve been calling it that to everyone who asks. In 2009, I was 18. I was graduating from high school and preparing for college. I listened to the Stanley Cup winning call by Mike Lange on my way home from Penn State’s orientation. Simply put, I wasn’t able to be a part.
But this team? I watched it assembled from the drafting of Olli Maatta where I sat in the stands of Consol Energy Center, to training and development camps, to trades and call-ups. Every move and every face is burned into my memory. Not only that I saw them and remember them, but I covered it. I wrote about the year, its ups and downs. The goal song change, the retirement of Pascal Dupuis, the coaching switch, the rookie revolution, Sidney Crosby’s early struggles and Phil Kessel’s late season surge… all of it. This is my first final in the same way that it is for a lot of people and it’s an experience I’m going to remember forever. I’ll be able to go back on social media, in newsprint and the Stanley Cup Champions patch that will live on one of my sweaters. This is forever.
And that’s another, kind of underrated, part of this whole thing. The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup? Twitter was in its infancy. Facebook was still mostly for kids in school-centric networks while Instagram, Vine and Periscope were years from their inception.
Now? We’re getting Periscopes of players on the ice. There’s snaps of the handshakes. There’s videos and pictures. There’s clips and accounts of Justin Schultz and his trembling voice and hands in awe of his new status, Stanley Cup Champion. From the days of the black and white picture of a flying Bobby Orr to feeling like it’s right here when they’re actually in California. This is how we all feel it. Whether we played 30 minutes like Kris Letang or sat on the edge of our seats for every game, wearing the same sweater and eating the same pre-game meal because it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.
This is Pittsburgh’s moment, all of Pittsburgh in one way or another and no one will take it from this city and from these players who have been through so much. The fourth time the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup comes just before the Franchise turns 50. How fitting, that we get to spend the opening of our fiftieth season by raising a new Stanley Cup banner to the rafters.
But this is the first time for so many of us. One of my classmates I graduated with in 2009 has a daughter. She is the same age we were when Mario lifted the cup over his head in 1991, just a few months old. This is the circle coming back around. In 2009, Sidney Crosby was just 21 when he lifted the silver chalice over his head at Joe Louis Arena. This time in 2016 Olli Maatta, who remarked about almost dropping the Cup due to its weight, lifted those 35 pounds above his head at 21. It’s the first time for somebody, every time. It’s our city, the only one with at least one championship in each of the last six decades not named New York, and it’s our win. Enjoy it, Pittsburgh. Take the Cup to the river and party all summer.