(Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Penguins)
Look at that kid's face.
There he is, at Mellon Arena to watch the final Penguins home game of the regular season and, in what has become a Penguins tradition, Shirt Off Our Back Night. It's essentially a bigger deal fan appreciation night than most teams have. It began during the low ebb of the team's post-Mario blues in the late '90s and early '00s to get fans to come to the arena. The incentive? Penguins players literally give lucky fans the jerseys they are wearing. It's the luck of the draw, really, what player's jersey you get if you're one of the selected fans, but it's a neat promotion nonetheless.
When that kid went to Mellon Arena last night to watch the Penguins battle the Philadelphia Flyers, how could he have known he'd be picked to get a player's jersey? Further, how could he have known that he would get the Jersey of All Jerseys: that of Penguins captain, face of the NHL, and Pittsburgh's second Hockey Savior Sidney Crosby?
Look at that kid's face. He had no idea. And he has no idea how to handle it.
The thing is, that kid and his reaction could very well be of a 10-year-old, a 20-year-old, or a 50-year-old. There's something about being on the ice, within breathing distance of a burgeoning hockey immortal who just so happens to play on your hometown and favorite team, that reduces fans to wide-eyed, mouth-agape mush.
That photograph should be hung somewhere prominent when the new arena opens in a few years. It represents everything great and pure about being not only a Penguins fan or a Crosby fan, but a sports fan. And, above all, it's a reaction like that one that should be -- needs to be -- the defining image of why it was so important to save hockey in Pittsburgh.
By the way, the Penguins won the Atlantic Division last night. It's the team's sixth division title and first since the 1997-98 season. The team is also poised to take the number one seed in the Eastern Conference for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This after only two seasons ago finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference and second-to-last in the NHL with 58 points.
It took Mario Lemieux five seasons to take the Penguins to the playoffs and seven seasons to win a division title. It took Crosby two and three.