Penguins or Golden Knights? The battle for a hockey fan’s heart heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs

 

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Mario Lemieux hoists the Stanley Cup on May 25, 1991, after the Penguins defeated Minnesota to win the first Cup in franchise history.

On May 25, 1991, I sat in an oversized chair in a small room off of the Las Vegas Hilton SuperBook and wept uncontrollably. I was not quite 32 years old, but I saw something I’d never thought I would see in my lifetime.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had won the Stanley Cup.

I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and, as a diehard sports fan, rooted passionately for the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins. My favorite NBA team was the Lakers. The reason was that the star of the Pittsburgh Pipers in their first year in the ABA was Connie Hawkins, and he’d go on to play for the Lakers.

Heck, for a while there, my favorite tennis players were Vitas Gerulaitas and Evonne Goolagong. Why? Need you ask? They played for the Pittsburgh Triangles of World Team Tennis.

So you probably get the idea I’m a Yinzer through and through, and the Penguins always had a special place in my heart because of how awful they were. The Pirates won the World Series when I was an infant, then again when I was 12, and again when I was 20. There were plenty of division titles in that span. The Steelers, of course, won four Super Bowls in six years and are one of the NFL’s great franchises. Heck, the Pipers won an ABA title.

But the Penguins were not only God-awful bad, they were a horrid franchise. They routinely traded draft picks for over-the-hill veterans. During the 1970s, a fellow Penguins fan once said that the Penguins were the only team in the NHL that tried to build through the waiver draft.

They once had a coach, Pierre Creamer, who did not know on the final day of the regular season that his team needed to win, not tie, in order to make the playoffs. Mario Lemieux was the one who ordered the goalie pulled in the final seconds so the team could try to make the playoffs.

Not only were they bad on the ice, the business side of the team was a joke. Its doors were padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service in 1974. They were comical.

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Syl Apps Jr. was a star in the Penguins’ early years.

But in 1991, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, beating Minnesota four games to two, taking Game 6 8-0 to win the first of what is now five Stanley Cups in franchise history.

I’m Penguins through and through.

And now, the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs are about to begin, and I can’t tell you whether I’ll be rooting for the Penguins to win the Cup, as I have for the previous 50 seasons, or whether my passion will be with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

I’m a Golden Knights’ season ticket holder. My wife and I sit in Section 13, Row H, right by the goal where the Knights shoot twice. I put my season ticket deposit down on the first day possible.

I did so not expecting to be a Knights’ fan, though. I’m a hockey fan. I have loved hockey for as long as I remember. When I lived in Vermont, I remember covering future NHL star John LeClair play high school hockey and enjoying it so much.

So by getting season tickets for the Knights, I figured I’d see some entertaining hockey and guarantee myself a good seat for whenever the Penguins came to town.

I was a Penguins’ season ticket holder when I lived in Pittsburgh, but I’ve actually lived in Las Vegas longer than I did Pittsburgh, where I was born and raised and graduated from college. I saw the Penguins play on the road against the Canadiens, Sabres, Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Bruins, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Flyers, Capitals, Panthers, Blackhawks, Minnesota North Stars and Dallas Stars, Kings, Ducks, Coyotes and, the one you probably may forget, the Cleveland Barons.

I was looking forward to Thursday, Dec. 14, on the day the NHL schedule was released last year. That was the day the Penguins would play the Knights at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

I was asked repeatedly by friends in real life and on social media who I’d be rooting for, and the answer was quick and easy: The Penguins.

Of course it would be the Penguins. I’d liked and died with the Penguins since they entered the NHL in 1967. How could I find myself rooting for the Golden Knights?

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Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stops ex-Pittsburgh teammate Patric Hornqvist.

That night, though, something happened. It was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s return to the VGK lineup after missing 25 games because of a concussion. Fleury had been a Penguins’ franchise icon and won three Stanley Cups with the franchise after having been the first overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

He was left unprotected because the Penguins, as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, were always up against the salary cap. Fleury was making $5 million and he’d become the backup to Matt Murray, who was younger and cheaper.

On the day of the game, I wore a Penguins polo with a Golden Knights jacket and a red 2010 Team Canada jersey with 87 CROSBY on the back. I was supporting the Penguins with that choice, but not rubbing it into the faces of the Golden Knights by wearing a Penguins jersey.

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Sidney Crosby warms up before the Penguins-Golden Knights game at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Dec. 14, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Iole)

In the warmups, I annoyed my wife (which is not hard for me to do) by freaking out about seeing Crosby.

“I can’t believe I’m sitting here watching Sidney Crosby in Las Vegas,” I said, repeatedly, often to no one in particular.

It was a great game with a compelling atmosphere. There were many fans from Pittsburgh, including two of my high school classmates I hadn’t seen in 40 years. It was a fast-paced, high-intensity game and the fans were into it on both sides.

I was rooting for the Penguins, until ….

OK, this takes some explanation: It was 2-1 Knights with about five minutes left in the game and Fleury was outstanding in goal. There was no rust, no ill effects from his long layoff. He looked very much like the guy who’d led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup in 2009, clinching the win with a remarkable save on Nicklas Lidstrom in the final five seconds.

Fleury made a huge, potential game-saving save for the Knights with about five minutes left. And for the first time, I roared. I cheered the Fleury save, as I had so often in the past. This time, he wasn’t wearing the Penguins’ jersey and in fact was beating the Penguins by playing so well.

My wife looked at me and said, “I thought you were rooting for the Penguins.”

And I admitted it was hard for me to root against Fleury given all that had gone on.

The Knights have gone on to have a stellar season since that point. They clinched a playoff spot on Monday by beating the Avalanche, 4-1. Fans erupted at the end of the game.

They’ve got the most home wins by an expansion team. They have the most road wins, the most points, the most everything.

It’s an easy team to root for, because they play so hard. I worry about them in the playoffs because they’ve gone so hard every night, I wonder how much they’ll have left. Other teams cruise through the regular season and raise their games in the playoffs. It’s hard to believe the Knights have much more to give, given how hard they played all season long.

Guys who were expected to be fourth liners, like William Karlsson, are suddenly stars. Karlsson has 40 goals, putting him fourth in the NHL behind only Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Laine and Evgeni Malkin. Karlsson entered the year with 18 goals in 183 career games. This year, he’s got 40 goals in 76 games and will probably get the Lady Byng, and should get votes for the Hart Trophy and the Selke Trophy.

He’s typical of this team, a guy not expected to do anything who flourished in a big way.

I’ve often had friends tell me they had two (or more) favorite teams in a league, and I could never understand it. Now, though, I do.

It won’t be a problem, unless the Knights and the Penguins meet in the finals. Then, it will be a problem. It will make me have to make a choice, and it’s a choice I don’t want to have to make.

I love the Penguins, and I have for 51 years.

But I love the Golden Knights, too, and look forward to rooting for them for however many years I have left.

Picking between them, though?

Well, I’ll delay that one until the last moment necessary.

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The legendary Bryan Trottier finished his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he was part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams.

2 comments

  • Great story Kevin. I used to sit in D-10 with you, Spanky, Stan, Jimmy Mannella and whomever else might have joined us. They may have been bad most of the time but I had fun. We used to send those song suggestions up to Vince, Watching Harry the Whale with his BATTLES HIP shirt and Ace playing his horn, it was good times. I shed a tear also when the Pens won their first cup and I definitely was cheering on the Knights as my second favorite team and I wanted them to win the Cup so bad once the Pens were eliminated and it would have been the greatest since it would have been against the Capitals. I think they were worn out as the finals rolled around but it was a great season for the Knights.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d send you this little note and it’s good to see that you are doing what you love and do it well. I read your stuff a lot. Take care, and Let’s Go Pens/Knights!

    • Great to hear from you, Tim! I loved our time together at the Penguins’ games. That was so much fun. Hope you are well and thanks for reading my story!

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