PITTSBURGH — They stood and they sang in unison and I’m not even sure they needed the lyrics that were splashed across the Consol Energy Center scoreboard.
Somewhere else, on a day unlike this one, it would have been the most normal thing in the world.
But this was not normal. This isn’t normal.
Here we had 18,661 buoyant souls — Americans, virtually one and all — belting out “O Canada” as if they were from Flin Flon or Moose Jaw. To stand in this arena was to feel warmth on a cold, dreadful day.
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The 90th game of the NHL season might have been played quite a distance from Ottawa, but that anthem? That anthem was enough to bring everyone in both countries a little closer together.
“It was a really, really nice gesture,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby told Sportsnet afterwards. “I was following the news all day and it was tough to see [what was happening]. It’s awful to think that people are capable of doing that to each other.
“But I think we all come together after different incidents … we saw it in Boston, [with] the World Trade Centers, all that stuff. I think that you see people rally behind one another.”
If we’re being honest, this probably isn’t the sort of place most Canadians would instinctively look to for support. Our neighbours are sometimes accused of being ignorant to the events that happen within our borders, but that notion was completely buried on a night like this.
It should be no surprise that it happened here.
The Penguins continue to call Pittsburgh home because they first drafted Mario Lemieux and later Crosby. Two Canadians. This is an organization that understands how our interests collide inside a hockey rink and out, and it was because of that they chose to play “O Canada” on a day where terrorism arrived in the capital.
“When those events happen they strike everybody,” said coach Mike Johnston.
During times like this we look for comfort wherever we can find it.
There was no possible way for the Senators and Leafs to play as scheduled on Wednesday night — “Today’s events far outweigh a hockey game,” Toronto GM Dave Nonis correctly observed — but they had to go on elsewhere.
The rare 8 p.m. start in Pittsburgh left Crosby with far too much time to watch the news throughout the afternoon. He may be one of the most famous Canadians, but his experience wasn’t unlike that of 35 million others.
His first thought when he saw the story on a TV in the Penguins dressing room after the pre-game skate? Disbelief.
Crosby’s draft was held at a hotel not far from the National War Memorial and parliament buildings, and he’s been back in the area numerous times since.
“I don’t remember seeing a ton of security and that was I thought something that was pretty neat about it,” said Crosby. “It’s a very welcoming place. I know that I’d always see tour buses and stuff when I was there. It was a pretty inviting place.
“It didn’t feel like you really had to lock everything down and obviously after an incident like this it’s something I’m sure will change.”
Like many, his thoughts also drifted to a friend. The brother of a former teammate from Rimouski had just taken a job in security at parliament, so Crosby inquired about his well-being. Fortunately, he spent most of the day in lockdown.
Chillingly, that was the safest place for people in Ottawa to be.
The city is a second home for Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who moved there at age 14 from Northern Ontario. His sister, Isabelle, texted him on Wednesday morning while he was eating breakfast to let him know what was going on.
Like Crosby, he still didn’t really believe it.
“You follow it on TV and you try to understand, but it’s tough to understand because you’re kind of not there,” said Giroux. “It’s not too fun to see.”
This was a contemplative day for most Canadians. I spent the afternoon making a pre-planned drive to Buffalo, which took me past a massive flag flying at half-mast near Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s hometown of Hamilton, and arrived at First Niagara Center at around 4 p.m.
I was intending to watch Connor McDavid play and write a piece on hockey’s next phenom, but there was a gravitational pull towards Pittsburgh as soon as I heard what the Penguins had planned.
After three-plus hours more in the car, it was nice to be in a familiar place. The rink. It was no different for the players on the ice.
“I think that it can always kind of be an out, something to change your mind a bit, and have people gather and rally around one another,” said Crosby.
It might just have been a game, but there was something a little extra in the building on this night. After the Canadian anthem was finished, one of my American colleagues came over to me and said “it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever sang it out loud.”
He wasn’t the only one.