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Penguins' faithful assemble at arena
Thursday, June 05, 2008

The gathering outside Mellon Arena before last night's Stanley Cup final game had all the makings of a revival meeting, with fans celebrating answered prayers and players performing hockey miracles.

The faithful came, their faces painted with optimistic smiles and black-and-gold lettering. They were robed in oversized hockey jerseys, many of them toting lucky banners and towels they've been clutching and wringing since this memorable run through the playoffs began.

They express their hallelujahs in chants of "Let's Go Pens."

And, of course, there were money-changers outside the temple, with scalpers doing a brisk business alongside curbside food vendors and souvenir sellers.

The idol of the crowd was Elvis and his homemade, foil-wrapped Stanley Cup. He paraded through the enthusiastic crowd, posing for pictures.

Pavel Kalenny, 28, of Green Tree, donned the Elvis outfit to boost his employer, Steel City Mustard, one of the many marketers doing business outside the arena.

Tara Simonic, 18, of the North Hills, came with two friends to watch the game on the viewing screen set up outside the arena.

"It's madness," she said. "But there's no place else we'd rather be."

Among the fans was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who wore a Sidney Crosby jersey.

Rob Goodman, assistant general manager for Mellon Arena, estimated the crowd size at more than 3,000 people, less than half the size of the throng that gathered to watch game four. He attributed the lower turnout to it being a weeknight and the threat of rain.

The game started with an estimated 3,000 Penguins fans on lawn chairs watching on the television screen outside Mellon Arena, as boisterous a gathering as you could hope for.

"Until Detroit scored," said Dr. Natalie Velasquez, a UPMC physician from the South Side. "Then it got real quiet, except for the Red Wings fans."

Steve Mintline, 22, of Flint, Mich., was among those braving the elements to cheer the Red Wings.

"We decided Monday night that we wanted to be here," Mr. Mintline said. "We came down this morning to see our team win the Cup."

Even though he and his friends were outside the arena, he said they still felt as though they were a part of the event.

"A few fans got in our faces," he said. "But the police told them to back off, and everyone else has been cool."

As the second period began, however, and the sun began to set behind them, the Penguins fans' optimism gave way to a pensiveness that hung in the humid air. Still, when instructed by a televised message to "Make some noise," the Penguins fans dutifully responded.

The first cracks in the confidence began to appear when Red Wings forward Valtteri Filppula scored the second goal to make it 2-0 in the second period. And yet, few fans left. Those who went to the trouble of turning out were not faint of heart. Besides, they'd seen their team come back before.

And the Penguins did, scoring a goal by Evgeni Malkin that restored and rewarded their hope.

Edgar Sotomayor, 40, came with two buddies from Royal Oak, Mich., hoping to score tickets to the game. Failing that, they joined the Pens fans watching the game outside the arena.

"Either way, the cup is going back to Michigan," Mr. Sotomayor said. He and wearing a red Wings jerseys.

The third period goal scored by Detroit sent him and his friends, all of them wearing Red Wings jerseys, into a subdued celebration of traded high-fives.

The goal also sent some of the Penguins fans heading for what would have been the exits, had they been inside the building. As it was, they folded up their chairs and hopes and started walking toward their cars.

Wes Arnold, 20, of Monongahela, and Devin Frank, of Wexford, gave the excuse of having to get up early in the morning for work to explain their departure before the game ended.

"We'll listen to the end on the radio," Ms. Frank said.

"It was a great season," Mr. Arnold said. "They gave it all they had. It's sad, but we have a lot of stars coming back next year. We're set for next year."

After the game, Red Wings fan Rick Vasquez, 39, and some friends who had made the trip from Sterling Heights, Mich., to watch their team win the cup in Pittsburgh, stood outside the arena after the game. They took some abuse from more than a handful of heartbroken Pens fans, but most of those who passed them congratulated them.

"These are some great hockey fans in this town," Mr. Vasquez said. "Look at them."

Dan Majors can be reached at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.
First published on June 5, 2008 at 12:15 am
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