Ronald Metellus tracks his history through an interstate feud that just keeps getting uglier.
On a Wednesday in scenic Vancouver, the hometown Canucks were upset by the LA Kings. Former Philadelphia Flyers, Mike Richards (ex-captain) and Jeff Carter (ex-assistant captain) lead the charge, assisting on both third period goals. The period saw two penalties: one for slashing, one for hooking. It was Vancouver, a place where you host Olympic Games.
On the other side of the continent, Pennsylvania—zero Olympics and counting—was hosting a bloodbath. The Flyers came home with a two game lead on the Penguins and, as in Vancouver, two goals were scored in the third period. In those same twenty minutes there were sixteen penalties. Five for misconduct; five for roughing; two for fighting; and one each for charging, cross checking, instigating, and unsportsmanlike conduct. In his post-game summary, Barry Melrose said, “No two teams, I don’t think, in sports, hate each other more than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Maybe the Yankees and Red Sox… but they can’t do anything about it. In hockey, you can do something about it if you hate somebody.”
How did we get here?
The Dream of a Keystone Superbowl
There isn’t much of a rivalry between the Eagles and the Steelers. When you’ve got to play the Cowboys and Giants four times a year there isn’t much time to worry about a cross-state, intra-conference sibling. The closest we came to initiating one was during the 2008 playoffs. The Steelers were in the AFC Championship against their division rival Ravens. The Eagles were in the NFC Championship against the cinderella story Cardinals. Governor Rendell, who was doing post-game analysis for some reason, made the easiest prediction a politician could make: it’d be a Keystone State Superbowl.
Conference Championship weekend was first time I ever had an interest in the outcome of a Pittsburgh game. (Yes, I’m from Philadelphia). I watched the game numb and uninterested—still weathering the Eagles’ loss—but I thought it’d be nice if the Steelers could pull it together. They did.
I was back on campus—the playoffs always sync up with winter break—sometime between the slow crawl to Superbowl Sunday. It was the first Superbowl I didn’t watch. I heard muted cheers from my dorm.
The Eagles had lost their fourth NFC championship of the decade. This was the most demoralizing loss. When they’d lost in 2002, they did so giving the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams a run for their money—a team with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk in their primes. And there they were six years later, losing again to past-prime Warner that couldn’t maneuver out of the pocket. Warner, unfortunately, had the quick release of someone who couldn’t leave the pocket. On campus I catch Broncos games and whenever former Eagle Brian Dawkins makes a play, the announcers enjoy touting how the Eagles let him go too soon. And while this may be true, let it be said that Dawkins looked washed up on that Sunday against the Cardinals.
The Superbowl-winning team the Steelers brought that Sunday remains intact. Of the 24 players the Eagles started on offense and defense that winter, only four remain as starters.
Hockey on the Front Page
I found myself rooting for Pittsburgh again the following year. This time it was for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a rematch of the previous Finals, when the Red Wings beat Penguins in six games. The Penguin’s elimination of the Flyers—the second consecutive year they’d done that—was a distant memory. I didn’t want the Penguins to get vengeance, I just wanted to watch more hockey. With the Penguins in a 3-2 hole going into Game Six, I needed a victory for my wish to be granted. I love watching the Stanley Cup because the games are broadcast in high definition. The ice gleams and you can see the swooping marks the ice skates imprint.
When the Penguins won, I remember the front page of the New York Times’ sports section. The winner of some leg of the Triple Crown roared jubilantly from his horse in the headline’s photo. After a brutal seven games, the Stanley Cup winners got a clip in the bottom left corner. It seemed silly to get worked up about hockey.
The next year I got really worked up about hockey. The Flyers shot to the Finals. They lost to the Blackhawks in six games; Game Six was a home game and I felt the loss in my gut.
The Stanley Cup-winning Penguin team remains intact. The Flyers blew up their roster in the offseason—a moved I loved—and looked to start anew.
“Oh, You’re From Pennsylvania”
Sports are go-to subject at parties where I don’t know people. A variation of the following exchange use to happen a lot:
“I’m from Philadelphia, not too many championships for us. Funny story, they used to say we’re cursed by William Penn’s statue,”
“Oh, well, didn’t the Steelers just win the Superbowl?”
“No one in Philly cares about Pittsburgh sports… Wait, where are you going? OK, she’s gone.”
I think I started to root against Pittsburgh after a few of these exchanges. I say “I think” because I hadn’t give much thought to Pittsburgh sports until the brawls started. There was too much celebrate at home. The Phillies won the World Series in 2009. And after letting go of ace Cliff Lee—and losing the World Series—they resigned him as a corrective. Things were looking up. There was talk of a “Dream Team” after the Eagles spent like mad in the offseason. While the hopes of either team haven’t come to fruition, the Phils have the arms to win it all and even the Sixers are on an upswing.
Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates had statements like “people [are] suspecting their taking money from baseball [through MLB's revenue sharing, merchandise, etc.] and keeping it—they don’t spend it on players,” lobbed at them from the president of the North American Association of Sports Economists, David Berri. While I wish the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park overlooked our cities’ skyline like the Pirates’ gorgeous PNC Park does, I can’t say I envy them elsewhere.
The Curious Case of Sidney Crosby
The most reductive thing I can do is come down on one side or another about Sidney Crosby’s character. I’m not even sure what I think of him.
Hockey analyst Mike Milbury apologized for calling him a “punk.” The Pittsburgh Tribune’s Dejan Kovacevic was shocked when he discovered that “a few, certainly not all, of Crosby’s teammates are of the mind that he’s been symptom-free for a while.”
With regards to the concussion that’s left Crosby sidelined for much of the last two seasons, Kovacevic says of Crosby, “more than anything, he’s exasperated by a lack of answers.” This is the only place where I’d like to see more of Crosby as a figurehead. In light of Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on concussions it seems that over the past two years, we’re reaching a kind of turning point on concussions as they relate to modern sports. And here we have perhaps the face of the league—its best playmaker, for sure—with a debilitating concussion and nothing to say. I don’t begrudge him this, I just think he could, forgive the pun, represent the tipping point in this discussion if only he wanted to.
He’s done some instigating during this series, too, but poise is not something the Penguins are not trading in right now. His fellow Penguin forwards Craig Adams, Aaron Asham, and James Neal have all been suspended. They are down to three games to a Flyers team that knows them all too well. When the regular season games between the two started to get ugly, the Penguins were out of their element. (It helps too that the Broad Street Bullies are finally as young and fast as you need to be to contend for a title).
The last game of the regular season was the worst thing that could have happened for either team in terms of goodwill. The game meant nothing—playoff seeding was already decided. This was the regular season hockey equivalent of Mickey Ward coming out of retirement and choosing Arturo Gatti as his warm up fight: a merciless exhibition. Things were only going to get worse. I don’t know now how long either team will hold up in this series, but I do know the Flyers and Penguins will see each other six times in the regular season next year. Expect the bloodiest six rounds in sports.
Photo: Joe Warner/flickr