It’s Stanley Cup parade day in Pittsburgh. Time for a few hundred thousand of the Penguins biggest fans to line Grant Street and the Boulevard of the Allies to scream and yell and wave and celebrate the city’s second Stanley Cup in as many years. Maybe the Cup will even make it down to the river where Pittsburgh will party all summer.
While today is a day to bask in all the joy and excitement Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and friends brought us all over the past few months, there’s a bittersweet element to it, too. Once the last of the confetti falls and the team files off the stage after addressing the crowd at the parade’s end point, the 2016-2017 season is officially over. The players will go their separate ways, some of them never to return again, gone via trade, the expansion draft, free agency or retirement. It’s the sports equivalent of what parents must feel like at a child’s high school graduation: pride and joy, but also a fear that something big is over forever … and a dread that maybe you didn’t quite appreciate it enough while you had it.
Throughout the crowd lining the parade route will be young children and high school kids taking in their second or third Stanley Cup parade. Some of those younger kids will sit atop the shoulders of fans in their thirties who have seen four Penguins championship parades before today. This is not normal. A single championship in any sport is all some cities hope for. The Penguins churn them out with relative ease. They’re the only major pro sports franchise in America to win championships in the ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s.
It’s sports fan cliche to say “Some day I’ll tell my grandkids about seeing” … you fill in the blank. Most of that is bunk. You might not even have grandchildren and, if you do, they probably won’t want to hear your tales of the olden times, not when they can stream Netflix on the 4K screens in their eyeballs. But if you ever were going to tell your grandkids about something you experienced in sports, it’s this. Everything that just happened. This era of Penguins hockey. These players. Crosby and Malkin and Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury and Jake Guentzel and Phil Kessel and hot dogs and how it’s okay to get outshot over and over again as long as more of your shots find the back of the net. This day. This parade.
So much of the average sports fan experience is about looking to the future. How next year might be “our year.” About which players your team can get in the draft or via trade or free agency that might push them over the top. Penguins fans were there not so long ago when the team drafted Fleury, Malkin and Crosby with dreams of building a champion. Maybe, if everything went right, the Penguins could even be a dynasty. That was the dream. That’s every sports fan’s dream. In Pittsburgh, it has become reality. Wonderful reality.
Crosby reached the vast potential long-predicted for him. He didn’t just reach it, he blew right past it. He is, without question, the greatest hockey player of his generation — and he’s reached that status even after his career trajectory was derailed by injury. Most fanbases would kill for a single generational talent; the Penguins have had two of the five greatest players of all-time in Crosby and Mario Lemieux. And then there’s Jaromir Jagr and Malkin and Ron Francis and Kris Letang and Paul Coffey and Mark Recchi and Joe Mullen and Kessel and on and on. Pittsburgh has been blessed. And not the sarcastic, hashtag blessed variety either. The rare, sincere kind. #sincereblessed #soblessed
When you’re standing in the sun today, cheering and taking pictures and high-fiving random strangers, try to do two things: 1) put on some sunscreen because skin health is very important; and 2) appreciate the moment as much as you possibly can. There’s no guarantee the Penguins will have a parade next year or anytime soon. This accomplishment of back-to-back titles could be, and very likely is, the peak of the Crosby-Malkin era. Winning championships isn’t as easy as they’ve made it look. In fact, there’s no guarantee Pittsburgh will have a championship parade for the rest of your life in any sport. (Come on, Pirates!) (Learn to beat Tom Brady, Ben!)
Scream, yell, celebrate. But be a little bit sentimental, too. Take a moment to realize how spoiled you are to be a sports fan in the City of Champions. We all are incredibly lucky. So lucky that it’s probably a good idea to leave a parking chair out to hold your spot for next June’s parade.