- When a fan moves away and adopts a new home team, the path back takes something special
Editor’s note: With the Penguins opening their season, tonight, along with a defense of their Stanley Cup, we thought this would be the perfect time to share one fan’s journey back to Pittsburgh Penguin fandom.
GRAND BLANC, Mich. — When you’re a 12-year-old boy growing up in northwest Pennsylvania in the early 90s, you were either a Penguins fan, or you didn’t watch hockey.
My fascination with hockey began one day when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I found a goalie stick in the Wesleyan Methodist Church’s parking lot and thought, “what the heck is this thing?”
I started watching the Pens, and immediately fell in love.
Those early 90s teams were amazing. We had Mario turning defensemen inside out, Jagr was a scoring machine, and Ulf Samuelsson was laying huge hits on opposing players. Everybody had their favorites, and mine was goalie Tom Barrasso. He was big, he was quick, and he was tough. He was the player who started my love of goalies, and more importantly, Pittsburgh hockey.
When I graduated high school, I decided to serve my country. I ended up being stationed in southern Georgia where hockey ranks just below, well, pretty much everything. It was a difficult couple of years, and I got away from professional sports during that time. I’d catch a Pirates game on TV every now and then, but they never showed any hockey games, least of all the Pens. I got out of the service and moved to Michigan for work, the Detroit Red Wings had just won back-to-back Stanley Cups in ’97 and ’98; and a few years after moving to Michigan, they won again in 2002.
The “Hockeytown” era was only beginning. I started watching some games with friends, and got pulled onto the Red Wing bandwagon. It was hard not to.
I lived less than 50 miles from Detroit, and it was pretty clear that hockey wasn’t just a sport up here, it was a way of life.
I started playing hockey a couple times a week, even got on a few teams. I wasn’t a bad goalie for not playing that long.
After I was here a while, I started to really admire and appreciate the city of Detroit. In some ways, the city reminded me a lot of Pittsburgh — a blue collar town built on the backs of proud, tough people who knew what hard work was all about.
I’m fortunate to work with people up here who still have those values. They’d seen some heartache but they were fighters. And they love their city. And they had some of the most passionate, proud fans I’ve ever seen.
Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood instantly grabbed my attention. He wasn’t the biggest guy out there. He wasn’t the loudest or even the toughest, but, he played with heart. He played with passion. And on a team full of superstars, he was the unwavering, stoic guardian of the pipes.
I became a big fan of “Ozzie.” I watched every game I could to see him play. And, one day in 2000, I went out and bought a Chris Osgood jersey. It was the first piece of non-Pittsburgh merchandise I’d ever bought. And, to be honest, it felt a little dirty. Like I was cheating on my girlfriend. I mean, I’m from PA; isn’t this bad? Should I be doing this? I think I even went to the store at 11 p.m., which made it feel even dirtier. I was at the checkout, and I was waiting for one of my hometown friends to jump out and yell, “Gotcha!”
Much to my friends’ dismay, I’d proudly wear my Osgood jersey while in town for visits. It made for some fun late night debates. Needless to say, my hometown friends weren’t too fond of my newfound allegiance.
Around 2003, a good friend said to me, “You gotta check out this Fleury kid the Pens have in goal now, he’s amazing.” I started watching some Pens games when they were on TV.
I’d never seen a goalie like him before. His movements were so smooth that he seemed to float effortlessly through the crease like a ballerina on skates. And a glove so quick, a would-be goal scorer would be raising his arms in celebration only to look back and see that “the Flower” had plucked his shot out of thin air. His glove was where egos died.
I’d never seen anything like it. The seed had been planted.
Over the next few years, I kept tabs on Fleury and the Pens — even went down to Joe Louis Arena one time when the Pens were in town to see the Flower in person. I wore my Osgood jersey and my trusty Pirates baseball hat. I had been warned by my Michigan friends that “the Joe” was no place for a visiting team’s colors, and boy, were they right.
The reaction from the Detroit faithful towards the Pens and their fans that dared to enter the hallowed halls of that arena was shocking. They hate the Penguins. I mean, really hate the Penguins. Chants of “Crosby sucks” filled the arena, even a couple of fights almost broke out between opposing fans. It was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had at a sporting event.
I felt a little embarrassed wearing a Red Wings jersey. I didn’t want the Pens fans to think I was one of them.
I always considered myself an Osgood fan first, and a Red Wings fan second. It was hard seeing the abuse the Pens fans were taking.
In 2008, the Wings and the Pens met for the first time ever in the postseason. The hockey world got the finals matchup that seemed to be made in hockey heaven.
A veteran Red Wing team full of Hall-of-Famers against a group of untested kids. Osgood vs Fleury. Yzerman vs Crosby. Datsyuk vs Malkin.
I watched most of the games at a friend’s house, and it looked like it could have been a Detroit sports museum. The Wings took the series and the Cup.
I knew I should have been happy as I celebrated with my friends, but it felt like a forced happiness. I was happy that Ozzie was able to get another cup, finally able to silence all of his critics that said he was too old — too slow. It was his redemption.
But, my heart was heavy for my friends back home. It felt wrong to be on the other side. I thought about my friends back home and I knew how upset they were, and I wished I was there with them.
In 2009, I probably watched just as many Pens games as I did Wings games. My wife even remarked with a smile one time, “You’re watching the Penguins game? Are you switching sides?” All I could do was smile back at her.
That year, the hockey gods blessed us with the rematch everyone wanted in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a daunting task. Could the kids pull it off this time? Or would the mighty Red Wings add another banner to their already crowded rafters?
I watched again from the same friend’s house as the previous year. But, this time, I felt more uncomfortable and out of place. I didn’t belong there, in these colors, cheering against the Pens. I had already made my mind up that this wasn’t who I was, or how I was raised. The steel city was pulling at my soul. And when the final seconds ticked off the clock, and Fleury made that last save to secure the Penguins Cup win, my heart told me where I belonged. I left the party quickly and went home. With a big smile on my face, I watched the highlights of the game.
I spoke to my friend back home about the feelings I had, and how ashamed I was for turning my back on my city. I felt like a traitor. I wanted to come back, but I wasn’t sure if they’d welcome me back. I didn’t want people to think I was jumping on the Penguin bandwagon, or that I wasn’t a real fan. I feel like that’s what I did with the Wings.
But I’ll never forget what my friend said to me. He said, “You’re not jumping on the bandwagon, we knew you’d be back, we just saved your seat.”
On the night of June 12, I was on the edge of that seat, as the Penguins attempted to close out the Stanley Cup Finals against the San Jose Sharks. And when the final horn sounded, I felt the jubilation of what it means to be a Penguins fan. To be a fan of the city of Pittsburgh. The city I’ve loved since I was a kid playing hockey in that church parking lot, pretending I was Tom Barrasso making a huge save in the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s good to be home.
Thanks for saving my seat.
Josh Fox is a Titusville native, and lifelong hockey fan. He currently lives in a suburb of Flint, Mich., far away from his now beloved Pittsburgh Penguins.