June 26, 2009
Penguins mania pushes Hockeytown aside

[CHICAGO, IL] -- Stop. Zip it. Don't go there!

Sure, the Pittsburgh Penguins have claimed their first Stanley Cup in the Sidney Crosby era, but before we anoint them as the next great NHL dynasty, let's see how this plays out first.

In the salary-cap age, there are too many things that sabotage the kind of run that the Edmonton Oilers had two decades ago. Until Crosby and company hoist at least two more Stanley Cups in the next few years, the dynasty talk is just that - talk.

As for the best hockey town in the United States, well, let's pass the torch right here, right now.

So long, Hockeytown, Michigan. Hello, Pucksburgh, Pennsylvania.

Detroit was worthy recipient of the title over the years, but no city in the US of A deserves it more than the Pittsburgh now. In the Penguins, the 'Burgh has a talented young team with a steely revolve whose best days are ahead of it, one that plays in a town that has been puck nuts for years, win or lose. In Ray Shero, it has an astute, aggressive general manager with championship genes. In Mario Lemieux, it has a team owner with a Hall of Fame presence. In two seasons, the team also will have its own state-of-the-art arena.

(Ground control to Marian Hossa: When you turned down a chance to play with these guys for five seasons, just what were you thinking?)

Thatís not to say that the Red Wings will fall over a cliff any time soon. The organ-i-zation has too much depth and pride and smarts for that to happen.

Nonetheless, thereís a reason to think that the glory days are behind the Red Wings for awhile. Team captain Nicklas Lidstrom is 39 years old, and for one of the few times in his career, Mr. Norris Trophy looked like it in the playoffs. Forward Kris Draper is 38. Goaltender Chris Osgood and forward Tomas Holstrom are 36. D-man Brian Rafalski is 35. Center Pavel Datsyuk will turn 31 soon. It had to happen sometime, but the Big Red Machine has a lot well-worn parts now.

What puts Pucksburgh over the top is the best sixth man in the league. In Detroit, tickets to even some playoffs games were readily available this spring, which would have been unthinkable not long ago. Meanwhile, the Penguins have sold out Mellon Arena in 188 consecutive games, a streak that began after Crosby came aboard.

In the playoffs, the Mellonheads that donít have tickets watch the game on a supersized TV monitor outside the arena doors. In the final game, NBC turn party-pooper and pulled the plug on the lawn party, but that didnít stop a suburban Pittsburgh couple. They showed the game on a 10- by 15-foot screen outside their home, where a few hundred fans pulled up lawn chairs and whooped it up on the street.

Would you believe that 375,000 people showed up for the championship parade? Or nearly 15 percent of Greater Pittsburgh? On a Monday afternoon? And that only two arrests were made?

"We got off to a bad start, but they stuck behind us," Crosby said of the fans after the Stanley Cup clincher. "They have been so loyal to us for a long time. They deserve this."

When is the best time to rob a bank in the 'Burgh? Easy. When a Penguins game is on television. Local ratings are so ridiculous, nobody would know about it. The seventh game of the conference semifinals against the Washington Capitals was the highest-rated NHL game for any Fox Sports Network regional outlet in the country. In the regular season, the average Penguins game produced a 6.9 rating, the best of any FSN affiliate for the second consecutive season.

No fans travel better than Pittsburgh fans, a fact never more apparent than in final game of the Stanley Cup Finals the other night. What sounded like thousands of them erupted into chants of "Letís Go Pens!" after new cult hero Max Talbot scored the first goal of the game. Mind you, this was at Joe Louis Arena in used-to-be-Hockeytown.

After the Red Wings won it all in Pucksburgh one year ago, the stunned homies applauded politely while the visitors went wild in their house. In Hockeytown, bitter Red Wings fans booed Crosby and the rest of the giddy Penguins while they celebrated on their ice. In the second period, many of them cheered wildly and waved blood-red towels while Sid the Kid dragged himself to the bench after a hard-but-illegal check along the boards.

It was easy to feel the frustration of the Red Wings faithful. Detroit has been down on its luck for years, a depressed city that could use something positive to get excited about for a change. Still, one would expect fans blessed with such a great hockey tradition to show a little more r-e-s-p-e-c-t, as Motown superstar Aretha Franklin would spell it out for them.

Of course, they love hockey in more than Motown and the ĎBurgh these days. Buffalo, Chicago, Minneapolis-St Paul and Philadelphia also have been mentioned as Hockeytown candidates in recent years. For all their attributes, though, none of them has had a sniff of the Stanley Cup in years.

Donít you have to set the standard on the ice before you can be the acknowledged leader off it?

Now that the Penguins have won something, comparisons to the great Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980ís have a sliver of legitimacy to them. The similarities between the two teams are as obvious as Don Cherryís sportscoat. Up front, the Oilers featured Wayne Gretzky, 23, Mark Messier, 23, Glen Anderson, 23, and Jari Kurri, 24. The Penguins have Crosby, 21, Eric Staal, 20, Evgeni Malkin, 22, and Tyler Kennedy, 22. And Eric Tangradi, 20, is on the way. The Oilers had Paul Coffey, 22, on the back line. The Penguins have Kris Letang, 21. In goal, the Oilers leaned on Grant Fuhr, 21. The Penguins bank on Marc-Andre Fleury, 24.

Will the Penguins match the Oilers and their run of four Stanley Cups in a span of five seasons? Maybe, but probably not. At the same, Crosby, Fleury, Malkin, Staal and stud defenseman Brooks Orpik are under contract for at least the next four seasons, so itís not out of the realm of possibility, either.

"We donít want to stop at one," Crosby reminds everyone. "We want to go for more."

For now, we can agree on this much: Thereís no better place than Pucksburgh to make it happen.

Based in Chicago, Paul Ladewski is a Columnist with TheFourthPeriod.com, covering the NHL.

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