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Give me my hockey back

October 4th, 2012

Up until 2005, I wasn’t much of a hockey fan.

Yes, I knew of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and some player they had, named Mario Lemieux, who was one of the best to ever grace the ice. I also knew of the Buffalo Sabres, but none of the players really jumped out at me as being that special (for the record, I like the Sabres, just not as much as the Penguins).

My passion for sports got into high gear around 2005, when I started to become more of a Pittsburgh sports fan. But, of course, how could I say I was a Pittsburgh sports fan without knowing anything about their hockey team? So, I became a more informed fan.

Frankly, it was a little easier to become a Penguins fan at the time. The team, by the grace of God, got the No. 1 pick in the draft and selected 18-year-old phenom Sidney Crosby. Couple him with potential Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin and up-and-coming French Canadian goaltender Marc-André Fleury, and the Penguins looked like they would have a formidable team in the coming years.

Eventually, they put it all together. The 2007-2008 season was beyond exciting, as the young Penguins clinched the division title. The Penguins made it to the Stanley Cup finals after getting revenge on the Ottawa Senators for last year’s first round playoff exit, dispatching the vaunted New York Rangers and thumping the ultra-hated Philadelphia Flyers. Unfortunately, the Penguins’ youth caught up with them against the more experienced Detroit Red Wings during the finals.

Expectations were high in the Steel City during the next season, and the Penguins delivered, even though it took a new coach to help spark them. The Penguins again took care of business in the playoffs, defeating the Flyers, the Washington Capitals (in seven games) and the Carolina Hurricanes. Then, again, the Penguins faced the Red Wings for the right to hoist Lord Stanley’s priceless trophy. The only difference was that, this time, the Penguins outlasted the veteran Red Wings on the road in Game 7. Pittsburgh won its third Stanley Cup in franchise history, the first time the team had hoisted the greatest trophy in sports since winning it all in back-to-back seasons in1991 and 1992.

To say the past few years have been frustrating as a Penguins fan would be an understatement. Pittsburgh has an outstanding team on paper that should win the Stanley Cup every year. Maybe those expectations are lofty, but I at least expect the Penguins to show up in the early rounds of the playoffs. Instead, they fell flat the last three years, losing to more emotionally charged, but inferior competition.

I wanted to see if the Penguins would play with a little more emotion and physicality this season. Toughness is something the has team lacked, and I wanted to see if Pittsburgh would rise to the challenge.

Instead, I may not get to see them at all. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association couldn’t come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement before the Sept. 15 deadline, and so a lockout has ensued. So far, the entire preseason was canceled, and the league will probably begin canceling regular season games soon. Both parties in the negotiations have pretty much stayed away from the issues that divide them, and any type of progress seems like a long shot.

Just when hockey was rebuilding its fan base, another lockout will jeopardize that once again. This season’s lockout is the third time the league has locked out its players in 20 years. Last time, during the 2004-2005 season, the entire season was canceled. I don’t want that to happen again, even though it looks really likely.

The NHL and the players need to come together and start productive conversations, not just talk for the sake of talking. If the whole season ends up lost, this fan won’t be happy.