PITTSBURGH -- This fantastic city has become my second hockey home, and it is great to be back here again.
I first came here for a hockey game on Dec. 27, 2000, the day that the Pittsburgh Penguins' franchise center, Mario Lemieux, now their co-owner, returned from retirement. Lemieux had an assist on his first shift and then had a goal and an assist in the second period of a 5-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The old Mellon Arena was rocking that night. As I walked out into a steady snow after the game, I realized that I was already in love with this city and, as a result, have savored every trip here since, making more friends each time.
I don't even want to add up my hotel nights here through the past 16-plus years; I might be platinum on my nights from the Steel City alone. I have been here for three Stanley Cup Finals, countless playoff and regular-season games, an NHL Draft and, now, my second outdoor game, the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers at Heinz Field on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports 2, NHL.TV).
The city may be one of the smallest in the League, but it is one of the most passionate when it comes to hockey and one of the most hospitable when it comes to welcoming out-of-town hockey people.
We arrived on Thursday afternoon and had a fine dinner later at Mallorca, a Spanish restaurant on the city's South Side that has become a regular haunt. Ten of us gathered at the restaurant to remember past trips and talk about what was ahead in the next 48 hours. The laughs rarely stopped as we plowed through dishes piled high with meat, seafood, rice and potatoes. If you decide to check out Mallorca, do not pass on the flaming chorizo appetizer.
Friday was more like a Stanley Cup Final kind of afternoon than a mid-February kind of day. The sun was shining brilliantly and the temperature climbed to 78 degrees. The running paths along the three rivers that surround Heinz Field were choked with people skipping out of work early or playing hooky altogether.
Yet each team took the ice for practice, ignoring the spring-like temperatures and getting down to the work at hand. After each practice, there was a family skate, always a highlight of any outdoor game. The players bring parents, wives or girlfriends, siblings, children and/or friends on the ice in a nod to the past for them -- a Friday night public skate, only it is in an open-air setting at a huge football or baseball stadium instead of a small-town rink where their hockey dreams were nurtured.
The young kids zipped around like water bugs, darting around the other skaters. The players skated slowly with their significant others, holding hands and smiling. Others skated in larger packs, snapping selfies as they circled the rink.
It was a perfect hockey scene in a perfect hockey setting in the perfect hockey city.