Sometimes things just work out. Like when you have an idea for a story and a better, more synergistic one falls into your lap. Or when you meet a boyfriend or girlfriend of a friend and you end up hitting it off very easily.
I met Wil when he was dating one of my wife's best friends. He's a lanky, outdoorsy, laid-back guy from western Pennsylvania and a die hard for all things Pittsburgh - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, even Pitt. In fact, before we even met for the first time, my wife let me know that he was a Penguins fan, I guess figuring it was pertinent information for some preemptive defensive planning on my part.
(Side note: in ten years together, my wife has gone from not even knowing the Islanders exist to knowing who their most feared enemies are and being on the lookout for them in all situations for either of us.)
You could say Pittsburgh fans have a history of being obnoxious, thin-skinned, reactionary hypocrites with short memories, but you could also say that about nearly every fanbase for every team on Earth so it really means nothing. Wil's not the first Penguins fan I've known - another good friend of mine from college was and still is one - but you never know how someone will react to suddenly being thrust into a social situation with a fan of a longtime division rival. Some people go directly to the trash talk, others might take the path of self-deprecation, some might want to compare souvenir collections while some others want to put real money on the line.
As an Islanders fan, I always have to tread lightly. It's not like bragging is an option when your team has barely been above water for two decades. I'm always complimentary of the other team's top or unsung players and I never, ever bet money (or anything else) on the Islanders. I follow the same course of action for the Jets. I try to be "one of the good ones" and avoid the description at the top of the last paragraph.
Fortunately, Wil is also one of "the good ones," and our conversations always find their way to sports and always end up friendly, personal, funny and enjoyable. He is no bandwagon jumper. He is no reactionary armchair GM. He's no sportstalk radio caller hanging up and listening after detailing a wild conspiracy theory or long-distance character assassination.
The tickets to the Islanders-Penguins game at Nassau Coliseum were his, an anniversary/birthday gift from his wife, the same best friend of my wife's I mentioned above. Wil had never been to the Coliseum and they knew I'd most likely take the extra ticket, which I eagerly did. We met at the Marriott and in the spirit of sportsmanship, we split a bucket of Yuengling, his ancestral beer of choice. We watched the opposing and home fans waltz in an out of the lobby (mixed in with what looked like a wedding party or bar mitzvah on a busy night at the hotel) and talked about his memories of the old Igloo in Pittsburgh and its super steep cheap seats and barely functioning "retractable" roof.
As expected, he felt right at home in the Coliseum. It's a no frills arena and he's a no frills guy. Even the lines in the bathroom didn't scare him off. The single, crowded concourse and the lack of any type of cell phone signal were no problem. He's been there and done that over the last 30-plus years. I pointed out where the old "phone booths" for the goal judges used to be and he talked about sitting behind the counterparts at the Igloo and missing half a game because he couldn't see past them.
This was the second game of a home-at-home back-to-back between the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division. My mindset going into the miniseries for the Islanders was A. Try to get at least some points and B. Just show up. Don't get embarrassed. Don't get blown out or pounded just as things were looking up
I felt the same way about the Coliseum crowd. I hoped Wil would have a good time as a visiting fan but but you never know who's sitting near you. Once again, I worried for nothing. He stood up and cheered Evgeni Malkin's first period goal, but there were no incidents. We had great, funny memory-filled talks the entire time. The family in front of us seemed to be hockey novices, and asked us some questions, which we teamed up to answer.
The Islanders won Game 1 in a shootout in Pittsburgh, outplaying the Penguins for most of the game. They were down 1-0 after one period of Game 2, but spent much of the time in the Penguins' end and led in shots.
When Matt Martin tied the game at 1 just before the end of the second period, I mentioned Martin's relationship with Boomer Esiason's daughter, Sydney. Wil already knew all about it as a very regular listener to WFAN. He said he has satellite radio and could listen to Pittsburgh sportstalk, but he can't take it.
"They want to trade Malkin, bring in old players like Ulf Samuelsson, fire Mike Tomlin, all of that stuff all the time," Wil said. He takes a remarkably and refreshingly grateful position on all of his teams, one I can only hope to achieve one day with the Islanders.
The word he uses more than any other is "lucky." He's seen his football team win Super Bowls. He's seen his hockey team win three Stanley Cups with a host of generational players. Hell, he even saw the Pirates when they were contenders in the early 80's and 90's.
The lucky part comes in when those few sparkling moments are balanced out by decades of futility and losses and seasons of darkness and empty stadiums.
He remembers the awful pre-Lemieux Penguins and the immediate post-Lemieux Penguins that moved up to mediocre before the franchise finally put it all together "only" 24 years after being founded. He sat in the cheap seats at baseball games in the late 1990's, where the Atlanta Braves would have their way with the hapless Pirates. And he remembers watching Steelers teams that have been completely swept under the rug between the Steel Curtain years and the Roethlisberger-led renaissance.
"They held on to Chuck Noll for ten years longer than they should have. People kept talking about the 'run and shoot' offense. Yeah, sure, 'run and shoot' with, I don't know, Walter Abercombie. They had nobody."
I had never heard of Walter Abercrombie in my life before that moment. He was a running back for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia from 1982-88, and had a career high seven rushing TDs in 1985 for the 7-9 Steelers under Noll. He obviously wasn't Franco Harris.
But that's okay. Because Wil saw Jerome Bettis and Troy Polamalu and Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis and everybody else that's been draped and venerated in black and gold. And the guys before, after and in-between those guys are what make him grateful to have seen the highs and allows him to take the lows in stride.
"Imagine being from Cleveland," he says. "What have they had? I can't complain."
A Long Way
The Islanders won the game 4-1 and Wil got to see the Coliseum at its best: loud, energetic, supportive. He heard and laughed at "The Chicken Dance," got to hear an angry "Ass-Hole!" chant directed at Steve Downie (who else?) which is much rarer now than it used to be. He heard "Wooo!" and "Yes!" goal celebrations and remarked that it wasn't enough stealing one wrestler's chant, but we had to steal Ric Flair's, too. That was as acerbic as the trash talk got all night.
It was the week before Thanksgiving and the Islanders had share of first place in their division. Before the game, my idea was to do an article on visiting fans making a home at Nassau Coliseum for as long as I could remember. After experiencing one of the most raucous and active regular season crowds I've seen in years, my plans changed.
Wil was visibly bummed that the Penguins lost, but was not disgruntled or frustrated. He didn't want them to trade Malkin. He was glad they played Simon Despres, wants them to move on from "veteran presence" Rob Scuderi and still doesn't trust back-up goalie Thomas Greiss in third periods. It's all just a set-up for the playoffs anyway. When the Penguins get there, that's when the pressure will really be on. And if they lose and don't return to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 2009, well, it's on to next year. Six years between finals appearances is nothing.
The Islanders aren't anywhere near that level yet. To them, and us, the regular season matters a hell of a lot. And if they ever reach the point where it's Another-Cup-or-Bust, I hope I'm as philosophical about it as Wil is. I told him about my Twitter handle - @cultureoflosing - and how I don't plan on changing it no matter what happens to the Islanders in the next few years because I never want to forget how hopeless it was. He laughed.
Sometimes things just work out. A story about a game a week before Thanksgiving, set to run just before Thanksgiving ends up being about a guy who's thankful for the great teams he's seen and the trying times it took to get there.
We ended up parking right near each other. As we shook hands, he thanked me for taking his extra ticket, like I did him a favor. I was taken aback. I told him I was supposed to be the one thanking him. For the ticket, the company, the stories, the beers and the inspiration.