Will I actually root for the Kansas City Penguins?

Most times when fans and sportswriters complain that money is ruining sports, it’s bullshit. Yes, the almighty dollar’s the reason teams sign guys just to sell tickets, why Barry Bonds is back with a big contract, why the Bucs can’t buy a championship, why the BCS exists to begin with. But it’s also the reason we can watch our teams when we’re away from home, hell, why we can watch them at all.

But when it comes to a team moving–a situation that causes actual heartbreak to fans–it actually is a shame. Money RUINS sports for the fans of a team that’s moved, as it might for our Pittsburgh Penguins. Just about everything that can be said about how horrible the loss of the license by Isle of Capri has been said, so I won’t add anything to it: I’m not a money expert, I’m not a city planner, and I don’t know much about anything but screaming my head off for a team.

Hartford, the last US city to lose an NHL franchise, has folks who say that the loss of the Whalers may have hurt the city rather than helped it. In a Tribune-Review story published Wednesday, H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Center, actually thanked the team’s owner for fleeing, saying despair about the Whalers’ move awoke everyone in the state. The story indicates that since the 1998 departure of the Whale, the crime-ridden Connecticut capital has had more than $2 billion in improvements.

But the story (which, now that I’m looking at it, is pretty excellent) also shows us the voice of Whalers’ fans, who feel they lost a part of themselves when they lost the team. Reading about them reminded me of another Hartford story:

There’s a group of Whalers fans in Hartford—a small, sad group, the type that’s characterized in sports features stories as meeting in quiet bowling alleys and garbage like that makes them look entirely pathetic—who lament the loss of their team to this day, who relive longtime memories of their team, commemorating anniversaries and Ron Francis’ birthday. What they don’t do is follow the Carolina Hurricanes.

Which leads me to what I’m wondering: If the Penguins leave (for Kansas City or Ontario or wherever), will I follow them? Will I follow hockey at all?

The easy answer, is, of course, no. The Pens will have abandoned my hometown, a slap in the face to the city, its fans. With “Pittsburgh” off the marquee, I won’t have any connection to the team at all.

Or will I? Have I developed enough of a basis of fandom of Sidney Crosby, Marc Andre-Fleury, Maxine Talbot and others (I leave off Malkin and Staal here because they’re relatively new, so the answer’s no) to make them transcend just being fans of them because they play for Pittsburgh? Or have I become fans enough of them that I will have a fondness for them should they stay with the same team, win as the same team?

As I started to ruminate on these things, I realized that I wasn’t just thinking about what makes me a Pengiuns fan, but what makes us fans of our hometown teams to begin with.

If the Pens had moved in Mario’s heyday—when I still lived in Pittsburgh—I would have been justified in still following and pulling for the team; Lemieux was part of every Pittsburgher’s life, as was Francis, the Samuelssons, Kevin Stevens, even the Barasshole. That team brought to championships to town, and Lemiuex was a legitimate immortal in our town.

Still, I wouldn’t have followed them. Living in Pittsburgh at that time, I would have gotten swept up in a mob rule about the Penguins’ departure, in the mass burnings of jerseys, in the “us against them” of all of it. I would have shunned a legit legend, would have taken the whole thing as an insult, and I wouldn’t have been alone.

And I wouldn’t have been fair.

If the Penguins move, it won’t be because of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, or any of the team’s talent. Relocating a team is an owner’s call, and I don’t root for team owners (Mark Cuban and, usually Lemieux, excepted). I root for TEAMS, for players. And those players would be trying to score goals and notch wins no matter where the team lands, not jockeying for more luxury boxes or the like. As much as I hate to admit it, the dynamic trio of young Pens talent probably has little connection to the city at all.

Which brings me back to my original question: Am I close enough to these players to keep following them?

Yes, the mob rule will happen should the Pens move, but I don’t live in Pittsburgh anymore. I’m a Pittsburgh fan in a general sense because the teams bring honor and glory (well, sometimes: I’m looking at you, Pirates) and publicity to a city that’s rebuilding, a city that I love. Whether or not it would help the economic development of the city, a team’s departure IS a big PR slap: You don’t look at a city that loses a team and think, “yeah, they’re on top of the world.” Moreover, it could cause a downturn in feelings about Pittsburgh within the city limits, adding to the hordes of young Pittsburghers who flee each year already. Basically, a team’s departure would go against everything that makes rooting for a team from Pittsburgh civically worthwhile to me.

But on a deeper level, I’m fans of the teams because I’ve come to love the players they employ, whether or not it gibes with my value system: If Joey Porter pulled his shit in any other city, I’d rail about how I hate the guy pretty much constantly. But because he’s a Steeler, a guy I have watched grow and develop, I have an affinity for him that supercedes how obnoxious he is week to week. Even if he left the team because they didn’t want him anymore, I’d wish him well.

And when a guy’s as un-obnoxious as Crosby, I’m hard-pressed to believe I’d start hating the guy because of a decision the owner, not the player, made. The fact that he’d still coexist with a team that I’ve learned to love watching him play with (however sparingly) only adds to the potential affinity I’d have for a Kansas City Crosby. I can’t honestly tell myself that I’d actively root against and hate this team if it weren’t in Pittsburgh.

Doesn’t mean I’d root FOR them, either, though.