Wednesday, 12.29.2010 / 6:01 PM / 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic By Tony Jovenitti
If there was any doubt that the Penguins and the Steelers shared a special connection, then this week should squelch any questions.
The Steelers and the Penguins have been working together to bring the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic outdoor game to Pittsburgh. And on Saturday, all of that will come to fruition when the Penguins square off with the Capitals on a rink over top the Heinz Field turf.
“They are two successful teams and two teams that have a great history and culture,” forward Maxime Talbot said. “They both do it the right way, and it’s good for a city like Pittsburgh.”
Talbot and teammate Matt Cooke frequently attend Steelers games at Heinz Field, and they have built friendships with some of the players.
“I know Aaron Smith very well,” Cooke said. “His kids go to the same school as mine.”
“I’m actually neighbors with Chris Kemoeatu, and I gave him tickets a couple times,” Talbot said. “I’m friends with Greg Warren, Daniel Sepulveda and Max Starks. It’s fun to meet them and hang out with them.”
In addition to their personal relationships, the Penguins have developed a competitive connection with the Steelers as well.
We love going to the hockey games. I think the fans are just as supportive of the Penguins as they are the Steelers. It’s going to be a fun day Saturday at the Winter Classic with that football atmosphere at a hockey game. - Steelers linebacker James Farrior“We want to see them do well just as they want to see us do well,” Cooke said. “It’s – for lack of a better word – contagious. You see them go out and do well and you want go out and do well. You see the reaction they get from the fans and you want to duplicate that.”
The Steelers feel the same way, and the proof is in the pudding. Both teams captured their sport’s respective championships in 2009, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in June of that year after the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII just five months earlier.
“When you have a team doing as well as they are it makes you want to go out there and play just as good as they are to keep the vibe of the city alive and keep everybody happy,” linebacker James Farrior said.
Like most Pittsburghers, the Steelers are big Penguins fans.
“We love going to the hockey games,” Farrior said. “I think the fans are just as supportive of the Penguins as they are the Steelers. It’s going to be a fun day Saturday at the Winter Classic with that football atmosphere at a hockey game.”
Many of the Steelers, though, didn’t grow up as hockey fans. But after moving to Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ fast-paced brand of hockey got them hooked on the sport.
“I never grew up watching it,” nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “It was something new. When I went to a game I instantly became a fan.”
Penguins president David Morehouse played a role in turning defensive end Brett Keisel into a hockey fan.
“David Morehouse got me tickets, and my wife and I sat with him in his box,” Keisel said. “He taught me the game that night. We remained close since and I have grown into a huge hockey fan.
“You could feel the energy from the crowd. The game is so fast. That is what is amazing to me – how fast and agile they play on ice. We complain when the field is hard from the cold, but they are playing on ice and it’s a fun game to watch.”
Tight end Matt Spaeth didn’t need to come to Pittsburgh to be a hockey fan, since he grew up in Minnesota. He admitted that he was easily converted into a Penguins fan.
“It’s hard not to like the Penguins because they are so good,” Spaeth said. “Plus now I have a friend from back in the day that plays for them – Paul Martin.”
Martin was a star wide receiver at Minnesota’s Elk River High School. He was named to the AP All-State first team in 1999, and made the second team in 1998.
“I loved football growing up, all through high school, playing Friday nights under the lights,” Martin said. “It was the most fun I had growing up playing sports.”
Martin said he never imagined he would be playing in an NFL stadium, and especially not for hockey.
“I’ve never played at a venue that big, neither football nor hockey, so it should be a lot of fun,” he said. “It will be cool just to play in Heinz Field.”
Martin went to his first Steelers game last month, and – like many of the Steelers attending Penguins games – he was impressed with the atmosphere.
“It was fun just to be there in the atmosphere with how passionate the fans are,” Martin said. “That kind of makes you feel part of something special.”
But he can’t even begin to imagine what it will be like when those 65,000 fans are there to see his team play hockey.
“You try to put a picture in your mind of what it’s going to be like, but until the moment actually comes I don’t think you can get an accurate portrait of what it’s going to be,” he said. “We’re all really excited about it.”