Lasting memory: Fans who are driven

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All right, let's say it ends tomorrow night; what will you remember?

Maybe Max Talbot, goading Philadelphia's Daniel Carcillo into a fight with no apparent purpose and even less success, but somehow sparking a five-goal blitz that eliminated the Flyers right there in the house on South Broad Street.

Maybe Sidney Crosby, leading the Penguins into a second consecutive Stanley Cup final with reliable brilliance that sometimes devolved into common petulance against the Red Wings.

Maybe Evgeni Malkin's marvelous springtime point spree, the greatest in the NHL playoffs since Wayne Gretzky's stunning 1993 cadenza.

Maybe Marc-Andre Fleury snatching that Alexander Ovechkin shot out of the air like a cat pawing a moth near the porch light, clearing the way to a Game 7 dismissal of the Washington Capitals in the best series of the four.

But I'll remember something else this time, something so indispensable to the kind of drama these Penguins playoffs have engendered that it is very often taken for granted, particularly by people like me, people who are getting paid to watch.

The fans.

This, more than any playoff spring in memory, has been the season of the Pittsburgh uberfan, jamming the circumference of the Arena, turning the whole concept of devotion literally inside out in front of the giant TV monitor at Gate 3, spiking the ratings for conventional television well beyond conventional parameters, turning Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup final into an acoustical nightmare from which not even the Red Wings could awake.

I'll remember the toll it took on Bill and Melanie McVeagh, by which I mean the Turnpike Toll, which they actually can't remember because they got E-ZPass, but it's something like $38 round trip.

"That's why we got E-ZPass, so we don't have to wait in line when we get to Pittsburgh," Bill said on the phone yesterday from Flourtown. "I think we're the only season ticket holders who live in the eastern part of the state. When the playoffs come, we might take [11-year-old] Katherine out of school a half hour early, get on the Turnpike at Norristown, and the car knows the way. Sometimes we'll get there just as the game's starting, and our section, E20, breaks out in applause. They'll say, 'We can't believe you drove from Philadelphia.' Actually, the last three games, we drove right back after the game so Katherine could go to school."

Bill grew up in Point Breeze and went to Central Catholic. His wife is from Somerset. They've lived in Philadelphia's near north suburbs for 22 years, but loyalties like theirs don't fade.

Listening to Bill and Melanie's reasoning for what some would characterize as a fine madness, you can't help flashing back to Game 4 of the Carolina Hurricanes series, which started with former Pittsburgher Bill Cowher cranking the Hurricane siren in Raleigh, grinning like the headmaster at the Mt. Pilot School for the Easily Amused.

A different strain of loyalty.

Bill McVeagh said he has been acutely aware of the Cowher flap, but wasn't drawing any contrasts. He's just a guy with a wife and a daughter who are only too willing to trade 11 hours of Turnpike for three hours of Penguins hockey.

Because look, it's the playoffs.

"I'd be the first person to say something like that, that it's crazy," Melanie said, "but if you're a true sports fan, this is the World Series of hockey, the World Series of your sport. It's like when we drove to see the Pirates in the playoffs; you go because you never know when it's going to happen again."

Ain't that the truth.

Katherine goes to sixth grade in a building crammed with Flyers fans, but never really had a chance to be one. She has converted a few. Going to Penguins games almost since she was born, Katherine has long known the club's roster up one side and down the other, but she's still so young that she once cracked up Section E20 by asking on the night of Mario Lemieux's comeback, "Hey, who's the new guy?"

As it happens, the McVeaghs get a little slice of breathing room in these finals, with the games not starting until 8:15 at the earliest, so tomorrow looks very doable.

"Katherine gets out of school at 3:05, actually 3:02, so we'll pick her up and head out," Melanie said.

"We just look at it as an opportunity," said Bill. "I mean how many times are you going to have a team go this far?"

Katherine got to see the Stanley Cup last year. Didn't much care for the team skating with it, but the memory is eternal. So that's what I'll remember about this spring, the people in the building, outside the building, in the Penguins jerseys in Philly, D.C., Raleigh and Detroit, following every wobbling puck from here to Vancouver. They're fabulous, even the ones taking liberties in my inbox. When it comes down to it, after all, if it weren't for them, what the hell would I be doing?

"One thing," said Melanie.


"Don't make us look too weird."

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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