I am not a born and bred Penguins fan. In fact, I can hardly qualify as a true hockey fan, having been raised in the Sonoran Desert on a diet of tacos and Arizona Wildcats basketball. But as most people who have lived for any amount of time in the Steel City know, sports are essential, and who was I to eschew culture and tradition when I became a Pittsburgher for graduate school?
The first Pens game I ever saw was in 2015, during the Stanley Cup playoffs. I sat at a Shadyside bar, trying to summon up every memory I could from Disney’s The Mighty Ducks, the details for which had suddenly become relevant. As one friend provided commentary throughout the game, I tried to absorb as much as I could about offsides and power plays, at once fascinated and afraid of that thirst for blood implicit in any hockey-viewing experience. I can’t remember if we won or lost that particular game, but I remember the thrill of adrenaline as I watched the players glide across the ice.
So when I moved to Silicon Valley after graduating from a master’s program at Pitt and found out that the nearby San Jose Sharks had beaten the St. Louis Blues to face off against the Pens in the finals, I knew I had to stay loyal to the first professional sports town I ever loved, geography be damned.
That was how I found myself scissoring open the cardboard boxes holding all my belongings this week, pulling them out from the closets in my fiancé’s on-campus apartment at Stanford. I wanted to find my Pens hat, the yellow and gray one I had earned by being present in a real, live hockey rink. The boxes were still taped shut from their voyage from the Keystone to the Golden State, and I was meeting up with another recent Pittsburgh transplant at the West Coast’s closest approximation to Primanti’s: Giordano Bros in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“I can give you a hat, honey!” my fiancé offered when he saw the mess I was making in the hallway with all my boxes. I had only been here for a week, and we’d be moving again in three more, so it didn’t make sense for me to unpack everything, especially when it was “just for a hat.”
“You don’t even understand sports!” I groaned. I wasn’t digging through our boxes for just any hat—I was hunting for the only piece of Pens gear I owned. Unsuccessful, I finally decided the best option was to wear all black. With only half an hour until the Caltrain’s arrival to carry me from Palo Alto into the city, I quickly wiped off my pink nail polish to replace it with gold in the hopes that it would reflect my Pittsburgh allegiance. I wanted people to know that I loved Pittsburgh; I wasn’t just there because I had nothing better to do for Memorial Day.
A Californian for only a week, I hadn’t had time to unpack my stuff or my sorrow for having left Pittsburgh, a city I’d called home for three formative years. I had to yet the mourn the loss of Pittsburgh’s rivers or vistas or bridges—though I found a funny, familiar sort of relief in the quad-aching bite of San Francisco’s hills. My heartache would hit soon, and I wanted to preempt it. What better way than hot capicola and fries on a sandwich?
At 4:15 p.m. I arrived to an already crowded bar. The Golden State Warriors were playing, and although the bar was owned by displaced Pittsburghers, they recognized the earning potential of a Game 7 NBA playoff crowd and so had made room for the locals, too. A handwritten note tacked to the entry directed Pens to the bar and Warriors to the dining room, and I headed to the bar. I struck up conversation with more than one person about their Pittsburgh-related apparel (perhaps subconsciously overcompensating for my plain black dress)—one guy who was just visiting had coincidentally worn his Pittsburgh Marathon t-shirt; another further down the bar had a fantastic Sidney Crosby tee that showed him with his captain’s “C” over his bare chest and a caption below reading “Sid Vicious”; another, who had gone to CMU for graduate school, was wearing a shirt that had not only the Pens insignia but Pirates and Steelers emblems, too. He told me he had picked his up in the Strip. This common code of neighborhoods and acronyms was a comfort I didn’t know I’d needed. Kennywood signs watched over us from the walls.
In a joyful call and response, every goal aroused an eruption of cheers. “LET’S GO PENS! LET’S GO PENS!” Fists raised in the air, our chants filled the bar and spilled out onto 16th Street. We high-fived strangers, turning ourselves into sudden, momentary family, and I remembered what purpose sports can serve beyond the showcasing of athleticism or personal triumph. It was a certain warmth of home.
After Nick Bonino’s well-placed game-winner, after we all cheered so raucously that someone sitting in the bar’s balcony whipped out his phone and recorded it, everyone breathed their sighs of relief: Thank God. At least one game was in the bag. I waved goodbye to these no-longer-strangers, to that CMU alum, a guy who was secretly from Philly but was raised a Pens fan by his father, who was from Youngstown.
“See you around,” I said. And I knew I would.