I want to preface this article with a big thank you to Brian, Will and most of all, Matt. You guys made my trip far more awesome than it was intended to be.
I am a native Pennsylvanian. I spent my most important years growing up there. Like all boys at the time, I was very much into football, baseball and whatever else I could fit into my notably short attention span. Then someone introduced me to hockey. What was this sport laid before me? It was faster than everything else I enjoyed before. There was hitting that was more intense than what I witnessed in the NFL. There was fighting, but unlike boxing there was a different intensity to it. The game was nothing that I had enjoyed ever before. Watching intently waiting for that next intense moment, either a crazy save by the goalie or the timely/untimely goal that was scored. It was these early years that I got hooked, and probably far worse than any addiction than I could have possibly endured. I fell in love with hockey, and it was clear she wasn’t going away anytime soon. My recent trip to the Pittsburgh area was a nice reminder that I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.
I remember everyday after school quite clearly. It was all about dumping off the books at home and rounding up the usual crew. We had a regular neighborhood street/dek/ice hockey team. We were a pretty solid core group with 5-6 everyday players and 5-6 occasional players. We always seemed to fill up 2 teams fairly quick on an everyday basis. Everyone always seemed ready to go when asked. We would round up every one and gather all of the gear and depending on the day, we would go to a local tennis court (Spring, Summer, and Fall) or the local ponds (Winter). I remember that we used to get a ton of grief from the neighborhood association about the way we used the tennis courts, we got thrown out a few times, and yelled at too many times to count. Still, we kept coming back, the greater good of our hockey games depended on it. The amazing part of it all was, some of the association’s kids had PLAYED with us. We let everyone who wanted to play, play. If the core team had an issue with you, you played on the “other” team. I think there was maybe 1 guy, who was a regular on that team, but in all fairness, he didn’t care, he was part of our crew in some way. I have always respected that about him, and boy, he got abused. I never worried about who I was paired with but I usually found my way onto “core team”. I was always the goalie, and that was that. I never quite understood why I was drawn to the position, but I loved to play goalie. For all I know, I was the only one who wanted to be in goal every day. There was something to be said about playing a spotlight position when the neighborhood girls would make their way up to watch all the guys play.
Yep, it was all about the chicks, or maybe I was just nutty enough to strap on the gear. Rest assured, I didn’t just sit back in my net, I was quite active and not afraid to take a hit to make a save.
I recently spent some time back down in Cranberry, PA to celebrate my birthday with a childhood friend, also arguably one of the top 2 influences in my life, as a kid. We took a few hours to drive around the town, which has grown exponentially in the past 20 years. I have been down there since I moved away, but I had not gotten a chance to see all of the growth that has taken place. I was aware that an outdoor dek hockey rink was built, but that was about it. Back in the day, outside of playing on ponds, the closest ice hockey rink was in North Hills and Seneca Valley did not have a hockey team. If I saw correctly, there are several sports facilities in Cranberry now. I remember playing indoor soccer at Tri-County, I can only assume they allow other sports in there now.
I honestly found myself stunned at the enormity of growth and how many areas there are to play hockey now. This was a huge dream as a kid. We used to pack up the gear to travel to different neighborhoods to play street hockey all the time, playing for nothing but pride and coming away with some of the best memories. Now, there are leagues around the town and rinks to play in. This guy was stunned. I will always cherish those years, when everyday was an effort to get a game together, but it was well worth the effort. Hockey until way after sundown, everyday, with good friends, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Today’s neighborhood kids don’t have to strive so hard for those games anymore. Thank you, Mario. Thank you for everything that you have done to make hockey what it is in Western Pennsylvania. Being a Penguins fan is far more to me than just loving hockey, and a team, it is a constant reminder and connection to what I have long considered my home, despite residing in Western New York for far too long now.
P.S. – Those old tennis courts have now been fixed. There is both, tennis and a hockey court available. I hope the neighborhood kids enjoy the fruits of our love and labor.