lemieux-vw-bug

Photo credit: @ChrisAltice

Editor’s Note: You may know Navy veteran Chris Altice from the 10-part Emmy-winning series “Carrier.” Altice served in the Navy from 2003-2007 and was stationed with VFA-14 Tophatters in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today he writes to us to explain why he — as a huge Washington Capitals fan — made a humbling drive to Pittsburgh in a car with Lemieux plates.

There comes a time in every man’s life where he has to do something he doesn’t want to do. Where the unthinkable eventually becomes a reality, and you just have to swallow your pride, and take one for the team.

For me, that day was September 26th. In this case, it was for my family.

Nobody in my family knew what the hell hockey was until 1995 when I picked up a hockey stick at age 11. I’ve been a Capitals fan since then (now 29), and when I returned home from my service in the United States Navy, I attended many Caps games again. One of which, I took my little sister along with. The match-up that night was the Caps vs. Penguins.

I never thought that several years later on her Sweet 16 birthday that I’d be sitting in a hotel room just a stones throw away from the new Consol Energy Center — the home barn of my sworn enemy. My eyes were bloodshot red from an early drive far away from the clean Northern Virginia suburbs. I did it all because my sister is well…

a DIE-HARD PENGUINS fan.

On my birthday back in June she called to tell me that she had purchased tickets to the 2013 CCM USA hockey prospects game to be played in Pittsburgh. I promised her then that I would drive us and we would return the following day.

Chris and his sister enter Pennsylvania

Chris enters enemy territory.

What I didn’t know the morning I arrived to pick her up was that she would insist taking her new car. A 2004 VW Bug which was encrusted in all things Penguin with the Virginia license plate “LEMUIEX.” The best part about all of this was since she only has a Virginia learners permit, I would be the poor bastard Capitals fan that has to drive this thing right into the epicenter of our enemy territory.

Along the way she convinced me to stop at a gift shop right before we jumped on the Penna Turnpike west. I quickly found out that in this gift shop is where every single piece of Penguin merchandise in the world that has ever been manufactured is located. I envisioned watching it all burn from the roadside stewing about the past and how I sat stunned in my seat at the phone booth watching the Penguins put up a 6 spot in game 7 of the 2009 playoffs. I snapped back to reality as my sister reached out her hand for some money to pay for a new Penguins t-shirt. REALLY?

pens-memorabilia-store

Photo credit: @ChrisAltice

The last time I had traveled the Penna turnpike towards Pittsburgh was in 2011 with my father. We were on our way to the Winter Classic, which we had actually won tickets to through a Boston Bruins alumni raffle for just $5. She never forgave me not taking her, but I couldn’t. I’m guessing this is my payback. My car was covered in Caps gear and I’ll never forget the Pens fan who welcomed us into the city by extending his arm with his fist to the sky and like a jack-in-the-box that went off in his hand gave us the biggest middle finger we had each ever received. Ever.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking that my teenage sister is just a Penguins fan with a crush on Crosby and nothing more. Well, that’s what I thought at first. But lately her willingness to be the only fan in the stands for my beer league games and on this ride especially, is where even she has proved me wrong. Her knowledge of the sport actually rivals mine. Hell, her hockey memorabilia collection is that of a small museum with authentic signed photos by hockey legends Bobby Orr, Johnny Bower, Gordie Howe, and a pretty freakin’ sweet collection of vintage NHL ticket stubs, some from Stanley Cup finals that date back to the 70′s. Oh, and finally a mint condition March 3rd, 1980 Sports Illustrated with the USA Olympic Gold Medal team on the cover. Somewhere along the way she also pointed out to me that Slapshot 2 & 3 weren’t even worth watching because “the plots were stupid” or something. To be completely honest, I didn’t even know there was a 2nd or 3rd movie? Were they that bad?

During the prospects game I was busy looking at the program roster that she somehow already knew. Yelling out at the players by name to move the puck like she’s watched them all season long, and smiling ear-to-ear in her 1980 USA replica Mark Johnson jersey while doing so.

There I was, in the enemy Penguins new barn asking my little sister questions about the 40 Top American NHL prospects on the sheet of ice in front of us. It was a great showcase of talent and I have to admit, Consol is a pretty sweet venue except for a few of its tenants of course. One Penguin fan in particular actually brought his chicken tender order into the bathroom with him, and proceeded to place it on top of the urinal while he took a piss. Can’t make this shit up.

After the game, I convinced her to buy a sharpie marker from the team store and I said we could wait outside the arena and perhaps catch the winning teams Coach Mr. Mark Johnson walking back to the hotel. Just as an hour approached and we were ready to give up on the night and return to our room a couple of suits in the distance made their way across the street towards us. It was him! Mark Johnson himself and along side was RW John Harrington also from the 1980 Olympic Gold Medal squad. As John walked up he said “Hey, Mark isn’t that your jersey?!” My sister was too nervous to speak so I spoke up for her and asked Mark to please sign it for her. “It’s her Sweet 16!” I said. He was happy to do so, and even stayed for a second to talk hockey with us.

johnson-signed-jersey

Photo credit: @ChrisAltice

In all of the years of our brother sister rivalry, I’ve never seen her as happy as she was that night. It wasn’t about the Penguins or the Caps. It was about the sport and a connection that we both now share. A generation gap bridged by a moment in our sport that neither of us were even alive for, but we both understood its importance to the game.

So, if you’re reading this and you ever happen to see a silver VW Beetle around the streets of our Nation’s Capital with “LEMIEUX” on the license plate and a giant Penguins logo on the back hatch – that’s my sister, and she’s a hockey fan.

Make sure you give her 3 honks. “LETS GO CAPS.”

chris-and-crosby-cutout

Photo credit: @ChrisAltice

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  • scrubversive

    Harrowing and heartwarming. Underneath our boiling hatred of the opponent, we all share comraderie in being loyal fans of the coolest sport on earth. Bravo to you (and your sister), sir.

  • Brandon Steele

    His little sister is also now in my fantasy hockey league stepping in for her other bro while he’s at boot camp.

  • D’Ann Faught

    Love this story…always cool to see how sports brings people together…even if they are fans of the enemy.

  • Paula Radecki

    Great story, love the bond of hockey and totally feel his pain being a Caps fan with tons of family in Pittsburgh. And as for the chicken tenders…..at the Caps home opener, I saw a woman coming out of the bathroom stall holding an ice cream cone. I kid you not.

  • Rogbo64

    If i were climbing a hill in Echo Tango (ranger or flyers land), i take a Guin to cover my Cap ass. At least they under stand brotherhood when your told to Mike Oscar!

  • Pat Magee

    I like to think of it as a disguise…….. You know, going into enemy territory whilst in disguise!

  • Adam Stokes

    As someone who has lived in Pittsburgh for work (political operative) for the last year and half, being a Caps fan is pretty tough. That said, one of my defining moments of living here has been wearing a Backstrom jersey sitting in a Sunday strategy meeting during Caps-Rags Game 7 last year when my mayoral candidate (and die-hard Pens fan) imposed a moment of silence for the end of a season. I’d rather live in a hockey town full of of worth adversaries than a place that didn’t understand this beautiful sport.