Where did we lose our way?
When I was maybe 10, I won some Pens tickets in a drawing and went to a game against the Hartford Whalers with my dad. The Civic Arena was half full and reeked of stale Iron City beer, smoke and sweaty men.
There were five fights on the ice and two brawls in the stands, including some drunken Yinzers picking a fight with some French-Canadian tourists who (poorly) chose to purchase a Hartford pennant. You got the feeling that a lot of the spectators, who had a decidedly blue-collar flavor, went to the game because there wasn’t a boxing match that night.
The stand were full of loud, brash guys, all chain-smoking and pounding down Iron City like it was going out of style. It was so very visceral and real, and when the referee missed Kevin Dineen hooking one of the Penguins, the crowd screamed bloody death and murder, unleashing a hailstorm of paper cups, popcorn and scorching, lurid profanity onto the ice.
It was Mario Lemieux’s freshman or maybe sophomore season, and when he touched the puck, there was an electric buzz, and that buzz was called “hope.” Hope that someday the Penguins might make the playoffs, or maybe just win, just once, in Philadelphia. Hope that jobs would return to southwestern Pennsylvania. Hope that something would replace the plague of blight and unemployment and malaise and failed gentrification and lost jobs, before it turned into lost generations.
These were men who built the roads and skyscrapers and jails and trolley tunnels and hospitals, the airports and mines and highways. They were bartenders and firefighters and city workers, and they worked hard. When they bought a ticket, (our upper-bowl seats on the blue line were $13 face value), they expected players to play as tough as them. It wasn’t a place for women or families. It was Man-Entertainment, mantertainment.
And then, somehow, we lost our way. Because some beancounter looked at beer sales.
If people would pay $7 for a 32-ounce Iron City that was probably cold once, they’d gladly pay $9 for an ice-cold 12-ounce Yuengling craft beer. And if they’d pay $3 for some tortilla chips with a splatter of cheese, well, we could charge $9 for artisanal Mexican street-style nachos with organic chorizo and locally sourced cheese.
But why stop there? Let’s have a light show before and during the game (just like the NBA). Let’s have pop music at deafening volumes between every play. Let’s make an atmosphere where Dad can bring Junior, and Mom, and Little Suzie, and not have to worry about Little Suzie learning a bunch of new swear words.
Let’s market the league and the team on TV, on the radio, and slather ads all over leveraged social media spewing into inboxes and Timelines. Let’s have skating girls between periods.
And while we do that, let’s downplay the fact that this is a sport where 220-plus-pound men carrying spears riding on knife blades hit each other skating 35 miles an hour. Downplay the physicality of the game, the players playing with stitches, freshly missing teeth, broken bones.
Let’s repackage it as Family-Friendly Entertainment, and after our family of four has coughed up $20 for parking, $400 for tickets, $150 on food and snacks and $25 on a big pointy foam finger, we can say we did a good job, because look how nice our corporately subsidized, taxpayer-funded entertainment facility is.
So what if taking a family of four costs more than a mortgage payment? We have the biggest Jumbotron in the tri-state area and state-of-the-art locker rooms that look like suites at the Excalibur.
The players do just enough to keep the joint full in the regular season, and every team always sells out the playoffs, so if we can just get a couple playoff games, our corporate balance sheet will be OK.
And then we lost our way some more.
And to the fans who built the team, that stuck with the Pens when they walked in the desert, well, that $13 ticket won’t even get you in the parking lot now.
Those fans are at home, watching on HDTV, or at their favorite corner bar where the Iron Citys are $3 on Thirsty Thursdays and a cute barmaid smiles at them with each round as they dissect every shot, every power play, every mounting playoff loss.
The crowd still rains black death at every muffed call (or ANY call disfavoring the Pens), but no matter how loud they yell, the referee can’t hear them through the plasma TV.
And when the fans, hosting an epic Game 7, see their heroes turn in a mailed-in, lackadaisical effort, is it any wonder they get up and leave, turn their backs?
When the Penguins fell to the Red Wings on Civic Arena ice in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, the fans recognized them with an eight-minute standing ovation because they had left it all on the ice. They might have come up short, but they gave everything they had.
We have lost our way. Let’s hope we find it again, soon — players, fans, owners, managers, all.
Chris Adams grew up in Friendship, graduated from Peabody High School and now sells cars in Columbus, Ohio.