Just before afternoon practice, hockey fan Ben Roethlisberger stopped briefly on the sideline to shake hands with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
"When can I come over for the skate-around?" the quarterback asked kiddingly.
"Any time you want," Bylsma replied.
The exchange was one of several "shake-your-head-moments," as Bylsma described them, during a visit by Penguins officials to Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. Or more aptly, they were sterling silver moments because the two franchises have brought the Stanley Cup and the Lombardi Trophy to the same city.
Other moments included defensive player of the year James Harrison volunteering to become an on-ice enforcer; Benedictine monks seeking out Penguins on a sultry August afternoon; and Mike Tomlin and Bylsma, whose combined major league coaching experience is less than three years, exchanging a quick handshake in the rain after practice. It was believed to be the first time the coach of an NHL champion appeared on the same practice field with the coach of the NFL champs.
"I think it's mutual respect and mutual admiration," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who greeted the
visitors on their arrival and squired them around campus in his personal golf cart.
Bylsma wore appropriate garb -- a Steel City Champions T-shirt noting the six Super Bowl titles and three Stanley Cups won by both franchises. He and other members of the hockey entourage also sported Steelers caps.
"It's been surreal at times," said Bylsma, who didn't become coach of the Penguins until after the Steelers won their sixth NFL title.
It's not everyday when the Steelers, who usually are on the receiving end of unfettered adulation, extend the VIP treatment to a sports organization. But the Penguins were shown fan-like exuberance during their visit. Talk about big men on campus. For the first time, the coach of a Stanley Cup champion shook the hand of a Super Bowl winner on a football practice field.
From a practical standpoint, the trip was arranged so that the Penguins could get some insights into how the Steelers run things. Bylsma and members of his staff watched some film and took in the afternoon session.
But the biggest thing the Penguins wanted to emphasize was the expectation of excellence the Steelers set every year.
"They are one of the premier organizations in all of sports," said Bylsma.
The two teams already have a rooting interest in the other. During the football playoffs, messages of support from Sidney Crosby and other Penguins were shown on the scoreboard at Heinz Field. The Steelers returned the favor with video clips that were shown at Mellon Arena during the hockey playoffs.
"I'm a fan just like everybody else," James Farrior said yesterday after sharing a moment with the Penguins. "I wasn't a huge hockey fan growing up, but I got a chance to see how exciting it was. I admire how hard those guys work and what it took for them to win. It's awesome for the city of Pittsburgh."
Casey Hampton didn't watch a lot of hockey growing up in Texas, but he has been a vocal and visible fan at Mellon Arena.
"You realize how hard it is to get to that level, and [when you do] you need all the support you can get," the big nose tackle said.
"It's crazy. You see how crazy Pittsburgh fans are. Sitting up there, being spectators, you feel like a fan yourself," he added. "I go to quite a few games, and I like because it's really fast. You don't realize how fast it is and how exciting it is until you go."
After the Penguins won the Cup, Tomlin sent a congratulatory note to Bylsma that said, among other things, "Let's do it again."
Penguins training camp opens Sept. 12, two days after the Steelers open their season at home.
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at email@example.com . First Published August 20, 2009 4:00 AM