Sports, like the seasons, follows a certain pattern. The Pirates start each spring full of hope and promise, but, as they inexorably drift below .500, football gears up again. Then, when the college bowl games are over and the confetti from the Super Bowl has been swept away, hockey is in full swing and college basketball heats up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Hockey is the perfect salve for the football fan: Both sports require speed and strength, both require pinpoint teamwork -- and best of all, both are a little dangerous. But for the second straight year, we're being denied the professional hockey fix to quell our football jones. Just when the Penguins were showing signs of life, stringing two wins together, the NHL shut down for the Olympics -- which are about as exciting as flossing, but far less useful.
Pens fans can't even watch Sidney Crosby in the Olympics, because the Canadian selection committee, in its infinite wisdom, left him off the Olympic roster. This despite the fact that, at the break, Crosby is the No. 5 goal-scorer among Canadian-born players in the NHL with 28 goals; he ranks No. 6 in points among Canadians with 65; he's tied for 11th in both goals and points overall; and he's the No. 2 rookie scorer with his 65 points. Those stats don't begin to do justice to how good he is.
It's just more evidence that the Olympics haven't meant much for a while.
Besides which, NBC's coverage resembles a reality show more than actual sport. We are force-fed a steady diet of American athletes rather than great athletes, with the emphasis always on story over sport. Skier Bode Miller is as much of a train wreck as Anna Nicole Smith ever was. We may even be treated to the Olympic version of Elimidate, if snowboarder Sean White gets his wish of meeting ice-princess Sasha Cohen. The games themselves have sunk to a new low, adding skeletoning to the competition. Does the IOC really award medals for doing what we used to do with cafeteria trays in college? We have to do without hockey for three weeks for this?
While we have this break, though, it's a good time to assess the Penguins.
Call me Captain Obvious, but there haven't been many high points this season, Mr. Crosby's performance aside. Even after the removal of coach Eddie Olczyk, it feels like the Pens just aren't trying on defense. (Although I haven't seen many fans who called for Edzo's head stepping up for a heaping helping of crow.) Even being called out in the press a month ago by their new coach, Michel Therrien, had little effect: They put together a couple of good games, then went into a 3-17 slide.
So were those last two games before the Olympic break a sign of things to come? A sign these guys are finally playing as they should have been all along? Or just an anomaly to keep us interested?
There's every reason to believe the Pens will be competitive next year, at least. It's hard to conceive of this team playing poorly with Crosby, Ryan Whitney and Marc Andre Fluery on the ice, together with the arrival of Evgeni Malkin (who's been terrific for the Russian Olympic hockey team, by the way). Assuming Craig Patrick doesn't have the kind of mental lapse that lead him to sign Ziggy Palffy, things look hopeful next season.
But is the front-office anxiety about the future taking a toll? Will the pall of a potential move destroy next season, as it did for the Cleveland Browns in 1995, and 1997 Hartford before the Whalers left? Will this team make it easy for the fans to disconnect?
I hope not. I hope we don't become so disgruntled that we miss the larger point -- that next year might be our last chance to watch professional hockey for a long time. Players and fans alike are innocent bystanders in the money-grabbing political show that's going on. Both are waiting in limbo to see if the Penguins will get a new arena or move to richer lands.
They may soon be the Las Vegas "Bellagios" or "Showgirls" or something equally heinous. But by then, I suppose, we can sell our vintage Mario #66 game sweaters on eBay so we can go watch Crosby play in the 2010 Olympics.