PITTSBURGH – This city’s sports heart beats loudly on the South Side, a neighborhood that nearly suffocated in the ’80s but now comes alive on weekends with pretty girls on their cells and frat boys on the lookout. There are about 100 bars on Carson Street, serving anything from lobster rolls to lemon drops to Labatt, and they are always alive with chatter about the local teams.
Fans will tell you the truth here, and these days they will tell you that something has changed.
It’s not just the change in seasons, although there is that: Versus is on; Alex Ovechkin is a punch line; and, with the Canadiens coming to town for Round 2, Hal Gill’s favorite coffee spot is an open secret. No, the change is something deeper. Ask Mike Beck, owner of Mario’s (no relation to Lemieux), and he’ll tell you he grew up with football but he no longer watches the Steelers and he banned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger even before the recent sex scandal erupted. Ask Matt, a barkeep at the nightclub Diesel, and he’ll rave about the Penguins players but say, “I can make you a list” of Steelers that have annoyed him. Or ask Steph, a patron at Elixir, who says, “Ben (screwed) us. He put us in a bad position. I’m embracing the Pens because they are a national honor instead of the embarrassment of the Steelers.”
Yes, this will always be Steelers country, first and foremost. But recent events – both good and bad – have run together like the three rivers themselves, and suddenly hockey is gaining on football and the face of this All-American city is a Canadian named Sid.
It’s not just on the South Side. Even at the airport, the Pens gear has been moved to the front and the Steelers stuff closer to the back. Kevin at the CNBC News shop in Concourse D says he can’t remember the last time he sold a Roethlisberger jersey but he wishes he had some Penguins license plates to sell because they’d go fast. “The Penguins stuff is selling better right now,” he says, shrugging. Out past the statue of Franco Harris in the atrium, a 24-year-old in a Pirates hat named Matt Glies says, “It’s neck and neck; if the Penguins make a good run this year, they could pass the Steelers up.”
Steeltown Bar, in Station Square, has Steelers photos everywhere, and you have to comb the walls looking for any trace of hockey. The manager, Mark Franitti, 28, says he’s a hoops fan who just recently started watching puck. But Franitti says if he had to choose a single player to come in on a busy night, it would be one of the Penguins. “They would bring the people we want,” he says. “People not looking for trouble. People who come and watch sports.” Franitti quickly adds, “We want everyone in here,” but Ty Book, the bartender, says Steelers who come into the bar usually head straight for the cordoned-off VIP area in another room, while the Penguins “come in plain clothes and sit with everyone else.”
But what about old Pittsburgh? What about the fans who remember the ’70s, with Bradshaw, Stallworth and Swann and no trace of hockey frenzy anywhere? Those fans can be found at Tessaro’s in Bloomfield, home of the best burgers in the city, lines out the door, and a sweet smell of sautéed onions. Cameron Altmar, 42, works for Wendy’s but says he’s had more than 200 burgers here. Tonight, on a Thursday, he finishes off another and wonders what he’s going to do with his 2-year-old son’s Roethlisberger jersey. His wife wants him to give it to Goodwill.
“But Sidney Crosby is sparkling clean,” he says. “He’s the role model you want your kid to be. Five years ago there were rumors about Ben, but you never hear anything about Crosby. He’s the poster boy. He’s the All-American … er, Canadian. Prior to March, I’d say it went Ben, Sid, Hines Ward. Now it’s Sidney.”
It doesn’t matter that Crosby’s not from around here. Mario wasn’t, and Clemente wasn’t. In Pittsburgh it’s about what you do, not where you’re from. And so far Crosby has only done good.
The cabbies know. They see everything. Vince, who does the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift in his yellow taxi, remembers getting a call one night from a phone that said “Penguins.” He picked up a bunch of happy hockey players, including one who stuck out his hand and smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Sidney.” Vince didn’t recognize him. But he says Crosby rolled with it, talked about the game they played that night, and even called his cell the next night for another ride.
That story wouldn’t surprise Beck, the Mario’s owner, who has seen Crosby at his place a few times. “Sid would come in, when he was under 21, and someone would offer him a beer,” says Beck, 38. “He’d put his hands out and say, ‘Nope. I’ll have a Coke.’ ” These days? “Maybe he’ll have one (beer). And you see it in his hand the whole time.” Beck says he banned Roethlisberger long before the recent controversy – for allegedly walking out on a tab – and only lifted the ban when the quarterback profusely apologized. “The Steelers want to be special,” says Beck. “Ben’s the worst one. He needs an ass-whuppin’.” (Beck is not the only one. Another owner down the street, who wanted to remain anonymous, said, “Is he banned? I wouldn’t say that. Would we rather not see him? Probably.”)
But the service industry can’t get enough of the Pens. Max Talbot is a folk hero because of his Game 7 performance in the 2009 Stanley Cup final – Talbot scored both goals in Pittsburgh’s 2-1 victory over Detroit¬ – but also because he lives near Carson Street in a converted funeral home. Beck sees partygoers stumble out of his bar at closing and yell up to Talbot’s window: “Maaaaaa-aaaax!” Beck says Talbot and his teammates come in a couple of times a month and never cause trouble. They feel uncomfortable when offered free drinks and they usually avoid the VIP area. Beck says he displaced a 30-year-old fan’s birthday party from VIP so he could put the Penguins there, and the players felt so badly about it that they autographed a No. 87 jersey which Crosby presented to the fan personally. “They are you and me,” says Beck. “They’re average. We’d take the Pens over the Steelers any day, and twice on Sunday.”
And twice more on the Saturday after the team won the Stanley Cup last June. The Pens brought the trophy into the bar, causing a near riot. (“Chaos,” says Beck. “Good chaos.”) But again, there was no VIP seclusion. The team mostly stayed in the middle of the bar, mobbed by the crowd. Beck bought them $800 worth of champagne, then watched in horror as the team sprayed all of it onto the fans. And if that wasn’t enough, they went out onto Carson Street, lifting the Cup, making the fans feel like they were all out on the ice with them.
By the winter, maybe all of this will change back. The anger at Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes may defuse with one Hail Mary to Limas Sweed. Local blogger “Steeltown Mike” calls the current Penguins fever a “needed distraction” and he may be right. After all, LeBron is big in Cleveland, and Detroit is Hockeytown, but pretty much any Midwest fan would take a Super Bowl over any other championship. But right now in Pittsburgh it’s the winter of Steeler discontent. Right now the Pirates are an eyesore. Right now the Penguins are on their way to another Cup. And right now, from Carson Street to the ’burbs, hockey is the only game in town.