*cue some sort of NFL Films-like music*
*dramatic voiceover guy*
"Opening night. The one night of the season when every team is undefeated. When loyal fans around the world structure their days and evenings around the drop of a puck. It’s the start of something new or, in the case of one team, the chance to repeat as champions. It’s the cliché cliché cliché cliché cliché."
Let’s face it; when the broadcast teams deliver those cookie-cutter intros, it almost feels as if every start to the season is exactly the same. We hear things like, "New faces," before they cut to video of offseason acquisitions, some reference to "youth" when they show rookies, and maybe some mention of "an aging veteran" before showing footage of that guy who should have retired years ago.
Over the past few days, as we edged closer and closer to opening night, I started to think back on previous season openers. Did any stand out above the others? Were they all as atypical and boring as I’d thought they were?
The short answer is, yes. While I don’t live in Pittsburgh or its surrounding areas, that’s never stopped me from watching the first game of the season or, in a similar vein, the first home game of the year. All but one seems to have disappeared into the burning embers of my mind: October 6, 2007, Penguins vs. Ducks at Mellon Arena.
At the time, I was just a little over a week away from my 25th birthday. Still relatively fresh out of college, I had just started this little site called Pensburgh on Blogspot with the hopes that it would keep me writing every day and, with any luck, make myself more marketable in an otherwise difficult industry (see also: journalism/media). I didn’t know how long I’d keep it going or if I’d even make it through the season, but a little writing during the offseason got me going and the momentum of a new year at least kept the fire burning.
As an early birthday gift to myself, I purchased tickets for the game the morning they went on sale. Thankfully an early-morning shift at my job allowed me the option of hovering over the website’s "purchase tickets" link so as to pounce the second the window was open. Within minutes I’d secured two seats behind the visitor’s goal, roughly 10 rows back.
My sister and I took the eight-hour drive out to Pittsburgh the night before the game and, less than 12 hours after checking in, we found ourselves in the parking lot at Mellon Arena shaking with anticipation. It was my first trip to Pittsburgh for a game, having previously only seen the team at various hockey haunts around the New York and New Jersey area. Well aware that the merchandise in the store was marked up significantly didn’t stop me from dropping a few hundred dollars on gear. After all, I had no idea when I’d be back again.
A few names from that 2007-08 roster that stood out then still do so now. Guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury haven’t gone anywhere (perhaps the latter much to the chagrin of this fan base). In fact, those are the only three players remaining on the team since that opening night. Kris Letang was waiting in the shadow of Sergei Gonchar, while Pascal Dupuis would not rock the black and gold until later that year during a trade deadline acquisition.
But there were other names, of course, that should bring back some interesting memories, both good and bad: Petr Sykora, Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney, Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, Colby Armstrong, Jarkko Ruutu, Gary Roberts, Georges Laraque, Darryl Sydor, Brooks Orpik, Mark Recchi, and back-up goalie Dany Sabourin, to name a few. Tyler Kennedy had yet to make the full-time call, along with Alex Goligoski. There was also this guy named Ty Conklin who was, on the surface, nothing but a back-up in Pittsburgh. No one would’ve guessed he’d one day come to the aid of the Penguins following the "season of high-ankle sprains."
If that’s not a contemporary "Who’s Who" list of the Pittsburgh Penguins, I don’t know what is. Maybe throw in a little Johan Hedberg, John LeClair and Kris Beech action for some good measure.
Ironically enough, that season’s home opener was against the Anaheim Ducks, and the first guy to score in that game was Chris Kunitz – roughly a season and a half away from his new career in Pittsburgh. Petr Sykora was able to tie it up before the first period ended, sending the teams into the break tied 1-1. I remember the energy in that building like none other I’d ever experienced. Previously, I’d only ever seen the Penguins when they were the road team. Minus a few small sections here and there, you rarely heard any cheering when the Pens scored. That arena, that goal song; just explosive.
Anaheim struck again in the second on a Ryan Getzlaf goal, before Colby Armstrong answered back roughly two minutes later. Twenty seconds later Malkin picked up his first of the year and the place was absolute pandemonium. The Penguins took a 3-2 lead into the second intermission.
Early in the third it was that jerk Kunitz again, lighting the lamp and tying it up at three apiece. Sykora helped the Pens take the lead again for his second of the year, before Ryan Malone scored 19 seconds later to give the Pens a 5-3 advantage. Given the rate in which the offense was scoring, it legitimately felt like the sort of game that would end 7-6. Granted, that doesn't say much for the defense on either side of the puck, but who travels 8 1/2 hours by car to see defenses lock down a 1-0 win? Corey Perry would later tally the final goal of the game with only 20 seconds left, as the Pens squeaked out a 5-4 win in the 2007 home opener.
It’s crazy to think that was seven years ago. I remember heading back to my hotel room to type up this monstrosity of a recap, acting as if I were penning the next Great American Novel. I don’t even give times for the goals and who assisted on them. And apparently only the Pittsburgh goals mattered enough to mention. Man, what a douche. I hope for your sake I’ve come a long way since then.
There were a handful of home openers before that night in October 2007 (dating myself, but back in my day very few were available before Center Ice if they weren't playing a local team), and obviously many since then. None stand out as sharply as that night, not only because it was a victory on home ice and my first trip to Pittsburgh, but also because that little blogspot site turned into something so much more since then. By that season’s Winter Classic, Pensburgh was officially a member of the SB Nation network, at the time one of only maybe five or six other hockey blogs (Original Six?), and has without a doubt grown exponentially over the years. Although I walked away from day-to-day blogging in January 2012, I never stopped reading.
I know I’m not the only one to have some sort of opening-night story to share. Speak up in the comments, friends. Maybe your stories will help me remember more than just this one.
Also, special thanks to Hooks and Co. for letting me post a little something for the first time in nearly three years. I’ll be around…