I love sports. I check the postgazette.com sports section multiple times a day and supplement my local news with a heavy dose of ESPN.
I am the volunteer coach for a club-level collegiate lacrosse team in my town because I yearn for competition. Sometimes, when I'm at a professional sports event in person, I get a little weepy during the National Anthem, a little rowdy during player introductions.
Because I was born in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have been and always will be my first love -- but I have Canadian blood in these veins, too, so a certain part of my soul belongs to the ice.
My grandpa, a man whose allegiance to the sport he once played and loved is a strong part of my memory of him, started me on hockey from a young age. We would head over to my grandparents' house once a week for a family dinner, and if it was hockey season, a game would always be on television.
As luck would have it, this influential time of my life was spent watching the likes of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. How could a 7-year-old resist the lightning-fast, high-scoring entertainment of the NHL's premiere team back then?
One of my fondest memories is of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals in 1991 -- Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Minnesota North Stars.
My parents were out of town, so my big brother and I spent the night with Grandma and Grandpa at their home in the South Hills. They let us stay up to watch some of the game, but as responsible baby-sitters and family caretakers, they made sure we knew before long that it was bedtime. Grandma made sure we said our prayers, then tucked us in and turned off the lights.
Now, my brother was a trouble-maker from the start. He was tall and blond and engaging -- remarkably like Zack Morris on "Saved by the Bell." I don't recall ever talking through any ingenious plan, but it is safe to assume my brother had been scheming all along. How else could one explain the small radio that suddenly appeared in the upstairs room of my grandparents' home?
With no hesitation we grabbed our blankets off the matching twin beds and huddled on the floor, keeping the volume low so as not to arouse suspicion.
We cheered on our beloved Penguins, willing them to their first NHL title. We clenched our teeth with nervousness, went through superstitious rituals, cursed the North Stars any time they seemed to gain momentum. But of course the game was well in hand: 3-0 at the first intermission, 6-0 by the second, 8-0 when all was said and done. But to a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old listening in secret, it was the most exciting, nerve-wracking and thrilling game that had ever been played.
Perhaps we didn't contain our excitement well enough, as suddenly the door opened and the hallway light poured in, catching our bedtime disobedience red-handed.
My grandpa, who looked remarkably like John Wayne in his younger days, was never known for being gentle. He believed in hard-working, well-behaved children who listened to their elders. And like many men of his generation, he communicated most of this not through words but through a quiet strength and resolve that mostly elicited great respect, but sometimes caused a subtle fear.
When Grandpa's frame blocked the hallway light and hovered over our late-night defiance, I assumed the aggression of his hockey training would overtake the passivity of his Canadian heritage ... but much to our surprise and delight, his response was one of kindness and joy (and a slight, knowing smile that told us our supposed sneakiness was all for naught):
"Come downstairs, kids. Watch the celebration with me. It's so much better to see it."
Watching those boys skate around the ice raising Lord Stanley's cup while I snuggled close at my grandpa's invitation -- that was a good night. A hockey night in Pittsburgh. A night to fall in love with a team I still follow with much joy to this day, and a night for me to fall in love with the greater thrill of competition and athletics as a whole.
It is in these memories that I find my connection -- I love sports because I love the human element: the drama of dreams being realized, hopes being dashed, success, failure, pressure. And the childlike faith that comes with being a fan.
Liz Snyder of Oxford, Ohio, an independent coffee shop owner who grew up in Peters, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Storytelling" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.