Although this column very rarely pretends to speak for all Penguin fans, today it can assuredly speak for many when it simply says, we're sorry.
We're sorry we bought into our fears, sorry we lapped up all the negative press, and sorry we assumed the worst. We didn't want to do it. Really we didn't, but the team just made it so easy.
You see, o' Captain our Captain, fans are an interesting breed. You may not think it to look at them, but more often than not, fans know they're being sold a bill of goods. Nobody in Southern California truly believes the so-called Mighty Ducks of Anaheim can win the Stanley Cup any time in the near future any more than Royals' fans in Kansas City believe that they will be hosting the World Series ever again. But that doesn't stop the faithful from going to the games. It doesn't stop them from believing in their team.
The truth is, fans know what's going on. Fans understand that they are one leg in the triangle of professional sports (albeit the one that perennially lays flat on its back in a masochistic effort to support both rich players and richer owners). Still, despite the money that is regularly siphoned from the pockets of the many directly into the tax shelters of a few, most fans remain pretty forgiving. They're demanding, yes, but all they truly want is someone to meet them half way. You don't have to win every game, you just have to try to win every game. (The notable exception being when you are deliberately tanking games to get a young Canadian talent with the number one pick in the draft.)
Most fans aren't stupid, 99% of them know they will never play professional hockey, and the truth be told, most fans gladly accept that. Fans want you to play so they can cheer.
You always hear pundits always say, let an athlete go lay bricks for a day and it'll change his tune about how hard he's got it, but that undervalues the work that both athlete and brick layer put in every day.
Let a pro athlete go lay bricks for a decade. Let him go jockey a broom, a desk, or a jackhammer for a dozen hours a day, every day, for ten years. Let an athlete know what it's like not take a sick day because he can't afford to miss the pay, then he'll have an idea of why that one night in the middle of the season can mean so much to one family in the upper tank. Then he'll know why fans can turn on a team so quick.
Yes, professional sports are a 365 day a year job, but professional athletes are on stage for barely a third of thatwhich is precisely why Penguin fans were so willing to put a match to their season tickets after opening night. Because, in this economy, hockey tickets are a luxury for many people and a little effort during the first game of the season is hardly too much to ask.
The Penguins had a horrible off-seasoncorrection, another horrible off-season in an ever-growing list of horrible off-seasons. Only this one came after one of the worst professional hockey seasons in Pittsburgh in nearly two decades. But then, as if to add insult to injury, the team spent the summer giving its fans no reason to think this year would be any different than the one that came before it.
Marty Straka, Robert Lang, Craig Patrick, Alexandre Daigle, Rick Berry, if fans weren't scratching their heads in amazement, they were shaking them in disappointment. The continued lack of an actual enforcer, Alexei Kovalev's non-existent contract extension, the would-be, should-be, might-now-never-be new arena . . .
Even bringing back the Skating Penguin, the one, lone gesture that could be construed as an olive branch to the fans, even that could just as easily (and probably more rightly) be viewed as merely a marketing and merchandising gimmick.
The organization spent the last six months setting expectations so low for this bunch that opening night success should have been achieved with little more than the Penguins being able to stand upright on the Igloo ice. But even that proved to be a struggle come game oneand the players seemed more than willing to accept their failure before the first period was even over.
That's where the boos came from. That's why talk shows dripped acid, why reactionary diatribes flew off the newsstands, and why the sellouts haven't happened yet.
Hockey is about resiliency and pride, it's about heart and hard work. The fans show it every year by wiping the slate clean and paying at the gate. Yet this season they show up to find the team looking as if they picked up right where they left off?
Thankfully, one game does not a season make and hopefully the games that followed prove that the team is out to show what they're really made of.
The Penguins seem to finally be willing to realize that home losses mean an uncertain future in the town, and perhaps this team can get past the idea of being a group of individuals and become just that, a team. One that has both potential and skill. One that might succeed in spite of its budget and its building.
So please, Mario, accept an apology from those of us willing to give it.
We can't promise to resist journalism designed specifically to sell papers and we can't swear we will look past your every mistake. We can't promise not to call into talk radio stations specifically to rail about the power play, the defense, the goaltending, or all of the above. But you need to know that we want to believe.
We want to believe in you and we want to believe in Pittsburgh Penguin hockey just like we do at the start of every year.
All this team needs to do is give us a reason.
Brother Karsh appears at LGP.com weekly during the season and believes that you should never give up on a hockey team before they give up on you.