Jonathan Northall's favorite Penguins player is Sidney Crosby. "He's so good for the sport," he said.
By Kim Lyons Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
While the Penguins most devoted fans are undoubtedly in southwestern Pennsylvania, there is a merry band of devoted "brinzers" --British yinzers-- who follow the team religiously, even though it means watching live games in the middle of the night.
The British Pens Fan Club is a core group of five hockey nuts, who have connected with fellow Penguins fans across the pond, and across the world, via social media. With more than 2,300 Twitter followers (@BritPensFanClub) and 380 Facebook likes, the group isn't enormous, but it's growing, says founding member Jonathan Northall.
"I was talking to the two Robs (Howe and Aherne, the group's two other co-founders) and we were a little disgusted because we knew there were hockey fans in the UK but there was nothing happening," Northall said.
In the United Kingdom, soccer dominates the sports scene, but there is a bona fide century-old ice hockey league, and, Northall says, a strong, core fan base. The British Pens fan club has only been in existence since January, but the three founding members have been Penguins fans since the team's glory days of the 1990s. Rob Aherne's job at the time working at a pub meant arriving home in the wee hours, and finding the Stanley Cup Final of 1992 on late night television. He was hooked.
Rob Howe hails from Sheffield (whose ice hockey team, it's worth noting, is called the Sheffield Steelers). Howe describes Sheffield as a steel town much like Pittsburgh. Sheffield also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the actual Stanley Cup: The bowl of the trophy was purchased there by Lord Stanley in the early 1890s.
And, Howe has a background in hockey writing. His past jobs include writing for NHL Weekly Hockey magazine, and as Penguins beat writer for InsideHockey.com. Howe also was secretary of the British Ice Hockey Writers' Association for a time.
On the club's first-ever podcast in January, Howe detailed how he convinced his wife to allow him to name their youngest son for the Penguins' current star player. The deal was if the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, the child's middle name would be "Crosby," but the year was 2008.
"He was born the day after we lost Game 6," he said. "It's probably because I was still in tears that I was allowed to get Crosby in there." Of course, the proviso of the Pens winning the Stanley Cup was met a year later, so he held up his end of the deal.
Northall said he had a Penguins shirt, origin unknown, which piqued his initial interest in the team. "I thought it was a really cool logo," he said. "It's a good thing it wasn't a Rangers shirt or a Flyers shirt, or things may have been different."
The Penguins don't officially recognize any fan clubs, but spokesman Tom McMillan said the team has heard of, and tweeted with, the British group.
"You're always amazed and in some ways, flattered, when you hear about groups that not only are in other countries, but with people so devoted that they stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning listening to games," McMillan said. He added that he's aware of Penguins fan groups in Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, but given the number of players that represent those countries in the NHL, it's not that surprising.
"But to follow a sport that's not really mainsteam in your country? That's impressive," McMillan said. "It's like those of us in the U.S. who are fans of English Premeire League Soccer. It takes some dedication."
The British Pens fans are using social media to tap into the already well-established camaraderie among other Pens fans.
"There's connectivity among people there that didn't exist before," McMillan said. "You see it here with the big screen: It's not a great way to watch the game, but people love to be together in that atmosphere."
Aherne and Howe have both attended Penguins games, but Northall has yet to visit Pittsburgh. "I do hope to get to a game sooner than later," he said, "even if we just got a small band to come over together."
The Robs and Northall are joined in their Penguin-centric efforts by James Bird and Katrina Gordon, who help out with social media and their podcast. The group works hard to keep the momentum going, and Northall said the response from Pittsburghers has been tremendous.
"To get to 2,000 Twitter followers, we never really imagined that," he said. "Just to be included with our fellow Pens fans, it's an honor. We're just fans like any other, except it's a little harder for us to get to the games."