Penguin fans got it right Friday night.
At the team’s 2009 Stanley Cup championship banner raising ceremony, there were a number of spine tingling moments. A video montage of highlights was played on four huge white sheets draped down from the ceiling.
The sheets acted as screens for a theatre-in-the-round retrospective of Pittsburgh’s emotional ride to the franchise’s third NHL title. Those in attendance at Mellon Arena ooo-ed and ahhh-ed at all the big plays from that season as if they were watching them for the first time. Here were the top 5 plays in terms of fan reaction in the arena that night:
-Marc Andre Fleury’s save to win the Cup
-Fleury’s save on Ovechkin in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final
-Max Talbot’s two Goals in Game 7 against Detroit
-Talbot’s now infamous “SHHHHHH” to the Philadelphia crowd en route to the penalty box in Game 6 of the first round
Notice a trend there?
If you didn’t, you would have when all the players were individually introduced a few moments after the video tribute ended. Sure, Geno Malkin and Sidney Crosby got the loudest and longest applause. They have to. That’s mandated, right?
On most nights at Mellon Arena a game-within-the-game in the stands is to see which section can reach the highest decibel level whenever #71 or #87 have their names mentioned over the loudspeaker or their images splashed on the Jumbotron.
Those two aren’t Penguins. They are Beatles. Local fans don’t cheer for Malkin and Crosby. They screech for them. It’s the teenage girl factor. Call it the Timberlake-effect. It’s a documented fact that one 16-year-old girl can scream louder than ten 35-year old men. Don’t believe me? Ask any mom or dad that’s had to endure a Jonas Brothers concert. It’ll make the crowd at Mellon Arena during a Game 7 sound like a church service by comparison.
So obviously the sound waves crested with those two. But the sincerity of the applause for Talbot and Fleury is what struck me.
Every player got a proper salute from the 17-thousand on hand. Even Chris Borque was greeted warmly. And he was in Pittsburgh for all of… what… 18 hours prior to the ceremony?
But when Talbot skated out the building had its first eruption for a specific player. And it was sustained. New public address announcer Ryan Mill did a nice job letting the applause breathe and letting the crowd swim in its own emotion.
The other players started to tap their sticks on the ice realizing some special treatment was going on here. And it was clear they felt the special treatment was deserved.
Talbot, hurt and unable to play for the first few months of this season, has been relegated to the injured list as his teammates have been bathing in the excitement of this Stanley Cup defense beginning.
He’s skating by himself. Rehabbing by himself. Yet he never seems to be alone. Talbot is always surrounded by his teammates. And he tries to never leave their sides as well. His impact in the locker room may be just as big as his impact on the ice.
Sidney Crosby is the captain on the ice. Max Talbot is the captain in the room. He’s the emotional catalyst. He’s the comic relief. He’s even the occasional translator for Malkin. Even though I’m pretty sure Talbot doesn’t speak a lick of Russian.
Talbot’s connection with his teammates is rivaled only by his connection to the fans. They love him because his goals are timely and his fights are well placed. They love his hustle and his desire. They love the fact he delivers pizza to the student rush kids in 33-degree rain in November the morning after an overtime game. They even love his bad car commercials.
“Was that great or what,” said Talbot back in street clothes after the ceremony, “This place is so special. The fans in this city. It’s amazing we were able to make this happen the way we did for them.”
The reverence behind the applause for Talbot was equaled by the cheers and the deafening chants of “Fleury, Fleury” a few moments later when goaltender Marc Andre Fleury was introduced. “The Flower” kept his mask on.
But the camera showed the ovation meant a lot to him. It’s not like Penguin fans haven’t filled the Arena with that chant before. But they’ve also filled phone lines and chat rooms with ill-timed and mean spirited calls for his benching and his release over the years.
There was nary a complaint about Fleury on this night though as once again the ceremony ceased for a moment to give fans a little extra time to show their appreciation for their franchise goaltender who delivered on all that promise we saw in him when he was drafted six years ago.
“It’s such a good feeling to see that the fans care so much about hockey. They were so happy that we won (the Cup). I had goose bumps from the moment I skated on the ice until the banner went up,” said Fleury, his voice still quivering a bit, “We had some tough times. But this is a great group of guys. We built this together. And it was just great to see it (the banner) go up.
Fleury responded by backstopping the Pens to a 3-2 season opening victory against the Rangers. And in the second period he wowed the crowed with a sprawling glove save against noted Penguin killer Vaclav Prospal. It wasn’t as crucial as the ones against Ovechkin, Cleary, or Lidstrom. But it might have been even more impressive athletically.
“I was kind of expecting a shot. But there was a pass across from Dubinsky. So I came out. And I was able to get it with a glove,” explained The Flower.
“I hate to say it, but it’s something we’ve grown to expect out of him around here,” said bemused defenseman Brooks Orpik, “It looks like Prospal had the whole net. But that’s his (Fleury’s) greatest asset. His lateral quickness. And he sure did a good job there.”
Dozens of people associated with this Penguin team deserved the heart-felt warmth the crowd bestowed upon Fleury and Talbot. But none deserved it more than those two because of what they did during the Stanley Cup run, and for how they interacted with the fan base in the years leading up to it.
And never could a setting have been more appropriate.