Steelers and Penguins have special bond

When defensive end Brett Keisel went to his first Pittsburgh Penguins game he admittedly didn't know much about hockey. But he had a pretty good teacher, and instantly fell in love with the game.

"David Morehouse got me tickets and my wife and I sat with him in his box," said Keisel, referring to the Penguins CEO/President. "He taught me the game that night. It was at Mellon Arena about six years ago. It was a special time. 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. I have grown into a huge hockey fan."

And he isn't alone. With Pittsburgh currently the center of the hockey universe courtesy of the NHL Winter Classic being played at Heinz Field on Saturday, Jan. 1 between the Penguins and Washington Capitals, even the Steelers players are talking hockey as they prepare to take on the Cleveland Browns the next day.

"We love going to the hockey games," said linebacker James Farrior. "I am getting better at understanding the game. I have been to a few games, so it's coming along. I am a big fan, though, so I am learning it.

"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."

While nose tackle Casey Hampton used to ice skate, but admits, "I am washed up. I skated when I was younger, way younger," he never followed hockey until he got hooked on watching the Penguins.

"It's fun. It's different," said Hampton. "It was something new. I understand a little bit. I don't know all of it, but I understand what is going on. When I went to a game I instantly became a fan. It's a fast game and that is what makes it fun. It's more fun when you are there watching it and close to it because you can see how athletic those guys are."

The only thing the Steelers players are disappointed in about the Winter Classic being at Heinz Field is they won't be able to attend the game. Travel plans to Cleveland don't allow for it.

"I would love to be there," said nose tackle Chris Hoke. "I wanted to be there to take in the experience and enjoy it with the fans. It's going to be an awesome time. There is only one a year, and to have it here with the premiere matchup of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin is everything the NHL wants."
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While many of the players have recently become hockey fans, tight end Matt Spaeth who is from Minnesota has been following the sport for a long time, but has become a Penguins fans since coming to Pittsburgh.

"I go to a few hockey games here and there," said Spaeth. "I have always enjoyed hockey. It's hard not to like the Penguins because they are so good. We are all in this city playing sports together. It's good to cheer for each other and support each other. Plus now I have a friend from back in the day that plays for them – Paul Martin."

Martin, a defenseman who also hails from Minnesota, played football and hockey growing up and like Spaeth has taken to the hometown team and enjoys watching Steelers games at Heinz Field and can't wait to play there.

"It was fun just to be there in the atmosphere with how passionate the fans are," said Martin of attending a Steelers game. "That kind of makes you feel part of something special. It was crazy. It gets pretty loud. The atmosphere was a lot of fun

"You try to put a picture in your mind of what it's going to be like (to play there), but until the moment actually comes I don't think you can get an accurate portrait of what it's going to be. We're all really excited about it."

For defensive end Aaron Smith his appreciation of the Penguins goes well beyond the rink.

Smith admits he is one of the newer hockey fans, partially due to some free time to watch games because of his injury this season.

"I didn't grow up around it," said Smith. "I have seen it but never knew a lot about it. Lately I have started to discover it, maybe because I am injured and have more time. I still don't understand all of the rules.

"I love Geno (Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin). The way he plays, he is a competitor and I love that about him."

But Smith isn't the only one in the family who is a hockey fan. His son, Elijah, loves the sport.

"He thinks it's the greatest game in the world," said Smith. "He thinks football is just something to do. I think as he gets older him and I will be watching games together, go to games together. As far as the Winter Classic, we will watch the game together, not sure if we are going to the game or not yet."

It is because of Elijah that Smith will now always have a special place in his heart for the Penguins. Elijah, who has battled leukemia, was in Children's Hospital earlier this month when there was a knock at the door to his room and in walked several Penguins players, including Sidney Crosby and Max Talbot.

"Football players to him are chopped liver, but when those guys came in his face really lit up," said Smith. "He was excited. I think as an athlete you don't understand what it does for the kids until you are on the other side and are a parent of a child who is in there. You see the significance it makes in their day.

"He had fun. The guys were great. They talked to him. He didn't say a lot."

Smith didn't make a fuss about being a Steelers player, and isn't even sure if the Penguins in the room knew it. That was fine by him.

"I shook their hands. They probably had no clue who I was and if they did, they didn't let on," said Smith. "I backed away in the corner and let Elijah enjoy the time.

"They endeared themselves to me that day. I became a bigger fan that day than I ever have to see what they have given my son and the joy they brought."

Linebacker James Harrison had the opportunity to meet Penguins Coach Dan Blysma at Steelers training camp two years ago at St. Vincent College, but he admittedly is not a big hockey fan.

But, if he were to play the game, Harrison knows enough to know what role he would want to take on.

"I think the thing I would like the most is trying to be the enforcer and going out there and protecting my teammates and doing a little scuffling now and then," said Harrison.

Harrison does think the Winter Classic is good for the city and it gives more hype to the Penguins.

"It puts Pittsburgh on the map more than it already is and gives more support to the hockey team," said Harrison.

The recent success of both franchises is something that drives players on both teams to do well, wanting to keep the momentum rolling in Pittsburgh.

"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," said Farrior.

He isn't the only one who feels that way.

"No question about it," said Hampton. "You don't want to be the team that lets the city down. You know they are going to be good year in and year out. They have a good team."

The Steelers won Super Bowl XL and XLIII and the Penguins were 2009 Stanley Cup Champions. Players from both teams tuned in to the post-season action and pulled hard for each other.

"I think when you play in the same city as another professional sports team, you want to see them do well just as they want to see you do well," said Penguins forward Matt Cooke. "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. I'd like to think that by having these organizations, you want to push each other to do better."

The combination of the Winter Classic and a potential home playoff game for the Steelers if they defeat the Browns on Sunday does nothing but help the entire city.

"It's fun, because it's two successful teams and two teams that have a great history and culture," added Penguins forward Max Talbot. "They both do it the right way, and it's good for a city like Pittsburgh."

In hockey playoff beards are commonplace, with post-season facial hair as much a part of the uniform as skates and pads.

But in football, you don't see the same thing except for Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, who was inspired by watching the Penguins grow their beards to do the same.

"I think mine is something for them to shoot for," said Keisel, who started growing his beard at the beginning of the season. "A little piece of why I did it is because of the playoff beard tradition in hockey. I wanted to get us back to the playoffs and look, it worked."

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