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April 13, 2012

Championship Fever

Joe Charlebois

There is nothing that ignites the passions of a city like the home team battling for the sportsman’s version of immortality with a strong run through a playoff tournament and coming out the victor.


I admit that I am spoiled. I have had my share of witnessing that same championship immortality as a native of Western Pennsylvania. When I was in first grade my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. Roberto Clemente, Manny Sanguillen and Willie Stargell will forever be responsible for my continued love of the Buccos, no matter how long their record of losing seasons lasts.


When I was 10 the Steelers won the first of four Super Bowls in a six-year window. The Steel Curtain, Blonde Bomber and Franco Harris led one of the greatest compilations of National Football League talent that the league may – or will ever – see.


Then, in the first days of our bicentennial celebration, The University of Pittsburgh won the National Championship behind the leadership of quarterback Matt Cavanaugh and the unstoppable legs of Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett.


Late in the decade the “We are Family” Pirates once again helped to bookend those championships victories with their second World Series victory in 1979.


While the decade of the 1980s brought nothing but despair for the Steelers and Pirates, it did bring hope with the emergence of a National Hockey League superstar by the name of Mario Lemieux. As the decade closed out, the significance of all three major league teams was once again revived.  Playoff fever was back. The hometown was once again relevant after a dreadful 1980s for Pittsburgh fans.


The Pittsburgh Penguins entered the National Hockey League in 1967 but had never shown a consistency for victories. The Penguins could only claim four winning seasons prior to arrival of Mr. Lemieux. The Penguins of the ‘80s were more or less playing for the hardcore fan. It was easy to get even good seat tickets to games. The Civic Arena – affectionately known as “The Igloo” – would sell on average about 7,000 seats per game.


A sign of hope for Pittsburgh sports fans arrived in the seventh year of the Lemieux era as the Penguins finished first in their division for the first time ever. It was a season marked by rookie standouts and key acquisitions of veteran leadership as the absence of their superstar for most of the season kept success in doubt.


The season coincided with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the subsequent response by coalition forces. The year was 1990 and the country was in a serious mood as President George H. W. Bush prepared the country to go to war with a coalition of countries to stop the aggression of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s and return Kuwait to its people.


That fall I was recalled to active duty as a member of a United States Navy Reserve unit and missed most of the NHL regular season. I was stationed at Naval Air Station, Adak, Alaska, in a support role for the Navy’s civil engineer corps, the Seabees.


Trying to be a fan living thousands of miles away from home provided many challenges. There is a five-hour time difference from the East Coast and the Aleutian Islands, and with our unit working extended hours there was little time to catch up on the success of the home team. We received Armed Forces Radio and Television updates, but for the most part our only communication was through limited telephone conversations with people back home, or the two-day-old USA Today newspaper accounts of scores and recaps.


Even the actual battle of Desert Storm came and went quickly; those who were recalled didn’t. Those recalled to active duty were required to remain in their positions until regular active duty forces stepped back into their roles.


Our unit was no exception. Many members of our battalion were native to Western Pennsylvania and the lack of instant communication tested us with difficulty we tried to follow our team through the end of the regular season as we were “witnessing” a first for the Penguins.


Once April had come, so did the playoffs and the Penguins would face the New Jersey Devils in the first round. Beat them in seven games. Defeated the Washington Capitals in five games and then meet the Boston Bruins for the conference title. We had the opportunity to watch a handful of games if the game wasn’t over before we got off duty, but even that wasn’t enough to satisfy our appetites.


To show just how much the world has changed since Desert Storm, three of my friends in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh tape-recorded some of the New Jersey and Washington games on audio cassettes and mailed them to me so I could listen to Mike Lange’s calls “live.” It was the original podcast!


At that time telephone booths and calling cards were the main way to communicate with those back home, as the internet was just starting and cell phones were for the uber-rich and the size of a carton of eggs. Fax machines with rolls of heat sensitive paper were the text messages of the day; but no one I know carried them in their back pocket.


As May approached I was eagerly anticipating my return home. I couldn’t possibly imagine the level of intensity that the playoff atmosphere created. I returned from Alaska in time for the final two playoff series to a town that was ripe with excitement. Even after the Penguins lost the first two games to Boston in the conference finals, the town would not give up and neither would their Pens. The Penguins would battle back to defeat the Bruins in six games before taking on the Minnesota North Stars for the Stanley Cup.


For a young professional the early 90s NHL playoff schedule offered evening entertainment on a consistent basis as the games were being played every other evening. The Penguins did their best to keep the local watering holes in the black as every pub, bar and restaurant was filled with patrons every other night for over a month. The Penguins, who played in 24 of a possible 28 games that year, had the town “buzzing like bees around a hive.” The city was filled with non-stop excitement like I’ve never seen before. The Penguins would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year defeating Minnesota in six games on the brilliant play of their superstar Mario Lemieux.


Now with the NHL playoffs once again underway this season, the excitement is growing. In 16 cities throughout North America the thrill of victory awaits. There is nothing like being in a town with hopes of a championship on the line.


Even if you aren’t in your hometown, you can catch the excitement on television, tablet, cell phone or computer!


Times may change, but the excitement doesn’t.


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