In a few days, the Penguins personnel who were in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Olympic Games will have returned – and I’ll be riding comfortably again.
The NHL beaks for the Olympics, at least it has since 1998, so that an international hockey tournament on a grand stage can include the world’s finest players. This break is for about three weeks, and most of what happens at any Games is often a fast fading memory by the midway through Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
What happened for me during the Winter Olympic Games was something that seemed neat at first only to feel regrettable by the end.
I became a fan.
Not a very good one, either.
I was raised in suburban Pittsburgh – Crafton and Green Tree, represent! – and there was a time, though it has been almost two decades, when I cared deeply about the local professional sports franchises’ success and failures.
At its height, my boyhood fandom was irrational. Some examples:
>>God cost the Pirates at Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Of that I was sure. Also, I was 14.
>>I was the reason the Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX about four years later. Had I not spoken so brazenly that Neil O’Donnell was going to drive the field and score the touchdown that lassoed the Cowboys, surely – in front of my eyes at Sun Devil Stadium – O’Donnell would not have thrown that killer interception.
I was 17. I could handle the blame. I would be back someday to see the Steelers win a Super Bowl.
Around a decade later I was, but as a reporter – and my only interest on a cold night in Detroit in February 2006 was that Hines Ward actually win the MVP, because I had kind of committed to writing about him doing that anyway and deadlines were tight.
>>The first time I ever lost it as a childhood fan of a Pittsburgh club was during the third period of the Penguins’ Game 7 home loss to Philadelphia in the 1989 Patrick Division final. It had never crossed my mind that Mario Lemieux would lose that game.
I was 11, and I knew that Lemieux won or lost games by himself. That’s what happened in hockey.
I cried while half-watching the final minutes of that Game 7 on a TV at my parents’ house. Dad, as I recall, told me to stop. Mom, as I remember, promised things would be OK.
I did stop… eventually. Things were OK… eventually.
That specific memory came back to me Friday, the tail end of two weeks over which I pushed myself to invest emotionally in the United States men’s ice hockey team at the Winter Olympic Games.
It was probably better for me, financially, if Evgeni Malkin’s Russia squad won the tournament. Gold, seemingly, could help sell a biography.
It was probably easier for me, professionally, if Sidney Crosby’s Canada squad won the tournament. He isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I on this Penguins beat for the Tribune-Review.
I knew seven players, two coaches, and a handful of management personnel headed to the Winter Olympic Games; but I cared not to think of any of them during the hockey tournament, instead I focused on being a fan of my country’s hockey program.
My front was strong, too.
To me – at least from what I remembered – being a fan of Team USA also meant digging in to wish for the demise of my squad’s archrival. In this case that was Team Canada.
My “Know Thy Enemy” movement on Twitter started there.
From the minute the NHL’s Olympic break began, I decided that if the United States and Canada met after the preliminary round, I would take it in as a fan and a fan only.
I could not.
While watching my team battle its enemy with several friends on Friday afternoon, my mind was elsewhere.
Being a fan again, actually, was easier said than done.
Paul Martin deserved better than to exit the Olympics with an injured right hand. A Minneapolis native, he grew up a fan of the American hockey that Minnesota-legend Herb Brooks helped shape.
Upon initially awaking Friday morning, I had only one thing on my mind:
Know Thy Enemy.
That thought was fleeting.
Dejan Kovacevic, the Tribune-Review columnist in Sochi for coverage, had filed a breaking news story that Martin was out of the USA-Canada semifinal game. His story cited reports by other outlets that Martin was sick, but also that he had been spotted with a wrapped hand.
Thy Enemy was now this limited information about Martin’s state of being.
Eight years into covering the Penguins, I know by now the quickest way to figure out how to track down information – or, at least, figure out if that information can be tracked down. (Sometimes, for various reasons, it cannot.)
Within about an hour of first seeing Dejan’s story on my email In Box, I had learned – thanks to multiple sources – that Martin was indeed injured, not sick.
Thy Enemy was in trouble from there.
So was my fan plan.
Chasing a story, especially one of interest to the audience, is pretty much the closest beat reporters come to feeling like we are competing like the athletes we cover. The pursuit, not the result, is the fun part; but it is not without challenges, obstacles, adversity and second-guessing.
Still, chasing a story becomes all that a reporter knows.
For me, chasing the story is the only thing that really makes sense in life, and I live for it. I become irrationally passionate, often to a fault, and usually to the point that others prefer not to be around me because I am demanding and caffeinated and rambling and edgy and all over the place, and generally unpleasant.
I was all of those on Friday morning while chasing the story about Martin’s injury.
A letdown loomed, and it came during the USA-Canada game.
My letdown had nothing to do with the score.
Martin’s injury was a terrible break for a really cooperative player who I have enjoyed covering for parts of four Penguins seasons.
It kind of helped me deal with Friday, though.
Instead of caring about a game that was out of my control, I was able to focus on finding out information and controlling how I presented it to an audience that thirsted for it.
That made sense to me. That felt right.
The sitting then standing then pacing then yelling about something that was happening on a television screen – that did not make sense, did not feel right.
A thought occurred to me on Friday night:
I probably went into sports reporting, on some subconscious level, because I never liked being a sports fan. I never liked giving strangers control over my happiness or believing in logos and color schemes.
Still, everybody else was doing it…
My greatest fear as a beat reporter is losing The Spark.
I am told it happens without warning, that one day I will finish with a practice or game, call my editor and say, “I’m done.”
Foolishly, I figured the Winter Olympic Games would provide me a chance to stoke my fires as a beat reporter by being a fan of Team USA. I was not covering the Games in Sochi, so there was neither harm nor foul.
Parts of fandom felt good, really good. The rooting against Team Canada – yeah, I dug that. It had been a long time since I rooted against anything other than third-period comebacks off 7:30 p.m. faceoffs.
Mostly, though, I spent my return to fandom during the Winter Olympic Games feeling like a fraud.
I never felt as invested as the fans I knew who were all in.
I slept through the first period of USA-Russia in the preliminary round. I barely paid attention to the epic shootout, too.
I had lunch with a colleague during the USA-Czech Republic elimination game. There was a TV on the wall in our booth at the restaurant, and I did not change the channel from a talk show.
USA-Canada would shake my true fandom from its slumber, or so I figured. However, by the time it started on Friday afternoon, I was already too deep into my chase of the Martin story to really care.
Watching the game with friends, I acted the way I thought I should as a fan – nervous, fidgety, angry, tense, whatever.
It was all an act, though.
I keep peeking at my cell phone, looking for something I may have missed about Martin and trying to see if anybody else had reported what I had.
My heart was never into USA-Canada.
I was being a really bad fan.
During the first week of the Winter Olympic Games, I went on vacation to a resort in Mexico. One day there, I tried to take a bicycle tour of the facilities.
I lasted one stop on the tour.
My twice surgically repaired right knee flared, so there was that. Also, though, I could never get comfortable on the bike. It wobbled and I felt unsettled. Something seemed amiss.
Nobody forgets how to ride a bicycle, right?
Be EXCELLENT to each other,