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Rode to the Cup

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Back in the spring, Rich Vargo and his girlfriend Becky Clever had their annual motorcycle trip all figured out. They take a two-week, themed trek every year, and for this particular ride, they were going northeast to travel the New England coast and eat lots of lobster along the way.

But during the Stanley Cup Final against the Predators, Vargo was watching one of the games when he got an idea. Instead of going up the coast, he thought, they should visit each of the cities the Penguins had a playoff series in. He mentioned the idea to Clever, who agreed, even though she isn't the biggest sports fan.

"I laid it out for her and she was like, 'yeah, we could do that if they win it. That'll work,'" Vargo said. "Then, of course, there was that dead pause where I'm like 'oh no, here comes the other foot.' And she goes… 'But I was supposed to get lobster.'"

Laughing, Vargo said he reassured Clever that they would find some in Canada along the St. Lawrence River, and promised her they'd travel the New England coast the following year. And at that point?

"We just sat there nervously and watched the last few games of the series, and when they won, I was like, 'I guess we're following the road to the Cup,'" Vargo said.

Vargo thought of a perfectly punny nickname for the trip: "Rode to the Cup." He originally planned it to go in more of a circle through Columbus, Nashville, Ottawa and Washington, D.C., so that the travel would be more convenient. But to Clever's credit, she realized that wouldn't be true to the team's journey.

"She goes, 'But that's not the order they went in,'" Vargo said. "So we ended up following exactly the route they went on. That's how it came to be an idea. It worked out with them playing the Western Conference and Nashville was reachable, so it was just kind of the perfect storm."

They did hit a bump in the figurative road before they left, which was finding an inflatable Stanley Cup to take with them for photo ops in each city. Vargo looked absolutely everywhere in Pittsburgh, but had no luck.

"There were no Cups to be had," he said. "You couldn't get them online. The Penguins didn't have them, the NHL didn't have them, EBay didn't have them. And sit down for this one, Amazon didn't have them."

But his luck changed one day when the real estate agent was driving up Route 28 for work. He realized the Pittsburgh Mills mall was in the area, and thought maybe he could find a sporting goods store there that would have something.  

And sure enough, Vargo came across a crafts store in the mall that had an inflatable Cup hanging from the ceiling. Though the store's gate was down and the woman working was closing down her cash register, Vargo convinced her to sell him that Cup, which was the last one in stock.

"I bought their floor model. I got the last Cup in maybe the entire United States," Vargo joked. 

That was the day before they left. The next day, armed with the Cup and a Penguins banner, they set out on the Rode to the Cup, which ended up spanning about 3,500 miles. Vargo and Clever don't travel with any real schedule during these trips - each night they check a map and a couple of motorcycle websites to get a feel for the roads. And then the next day, they could ride 50 miles or 250 miles, it just depends on how far they feel like going.

Vargo has been a fan of the Penguins his entire life, a passion that was inherited from his father Sam, who loved the game of hockey and started by watching the old Pittsburgh Hornets. Sam was a truck driver who often went into the mills, and before coming out, he would pick up some pig iron he would sell to the scrap junkyard. With the money, Sam would buy tickets to hockey games and take Rich. The earliest games Rich remembers going to are in the 70s, and he's been following the team ever since (now, quite literally).

And while he certainly remembers the less prosperous times - "there were more people working as ushers and at the concession stands than there were in the stands - Rich has also been fortunate to have watched a lot of Penguins championships. During those miles he spent on the road commemorating the team's fifth one, he reflected on how fortunate he's been to be a fan of this organization. 

"When you're riding on trips like this, you have a lot of time to think," Vargo said. "Even though our motorcycles have GPS and navigation and Sirius satellite radio, we often don't use the electronics and we often don't have the radio on. You're pretty much alone with your thoughts. And honestly, I've been between my ears for 51 years, it's a scary place to be when there's nothing to think about other than your own thoughts. But when you're doing a trip that's a tribute to the team, that's exactly the kind of stuff you think about.

"My goodness, we're going to these cities like Washington and Nashville, who has been in the league 19 years and they don't have (a Stanley Cup). Now, this is the fifth one that I've seen. You do that math in your head and think, 'wow, we really are fortunate.'"

For this particular trip, the biggest goals - apart from getting the photos, of course - were to get a flavor for each city and experience what each one had to offer, as well as interact with other hockey fans.

"We had our Penguins shirts on and so we always got comments, and those were conversation starters, of course," he said. "Outside of Washington, everybody was pretty friendly to the idea and they got the understanding that this wasn't there to put it in your face. We were just enjoying what happened."

The city they were most looking forward to visiting wasn't Nashville, but actually Ottawa. Having gone up through Canada before - the couple has traveled to Montreal, Halifax, Cole Harbour and Prince Edward Island - they were eager to see what else the Great White North had to offer.

"Ottawa really lived up to the billing," Vargo said. "It was the only place we spent two nights in. It's phenomenal, what they do with their parliament building, it was amazing. It was the No. 1 place we were looking forward to and it lived up to it."

Another reason that Ottawa stood out to them was because it was the only city they were able to actually go inside of the team's arena for a picture with their Cup. They had been taking pictures outside when they ran into a security guard, who asked them what they were doing. When they told her, she offered to take them into Canadian Tire Centre to snap a photo on the concourse with the ice in the background. 

"Twenty minutes outside of Canada I leaned back to my girlfriend and said, 'do you realize that we just got invited into the Senators arena? How cool is that?'" Vargo said.

They passed through Toronto on the way back down to the States, where they stopped at the Hockey Hall of Fame and had the most incredible chance meeting with an important member of the Penguins organization.

That would be Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, who was in town for Brian Dumoulin's arbitration hearing. Since the two sides were able to work out a deal before the scheduled meeting, Rutherford had free time in the city and opted to use fill it by visiting the Hall with his wife Leslie and son James. Vargo and Clever ended up running into them in the Hall's gift shop while looking for championship T-shirts.

"The randomness of running into the GM of the team you're doing a tribute ride to - how does that even happen?" Vargo wondered.

And since Vargo didn't have the banner or the inflatable Cup with him at the time, he looked frantically around for something that Rutherford could autograph. He grabbed a commemorative puck and waited for Rutherford to finish up an interview he was doing before going up to him for a pleasant conversation and a dose of the GM's dry humor.

"I talked to him for about five minutes and then asked, 'Would you sign this puck for me?'" Vargo said. "He's like 'sure, no problem.' And I apologized to him, 'I know your family is over there with you, I don't want to bother you. I apologize for doing it, but this is why. We're on this trip.' He couldn't have been any nicer. He signed the puck and as he did it, he goes, 'did you pay for this, by the way?' I'm like 'no, but I think I will now.'"

Vargo still can't get over the coincidence of running into Rutherford at the Hockey Hall of Fame, which wouldn't have happened if their bike hadn't broken down in Watertown, N.Y. and forced them to stay there for three days while they waited for parts that had to be ordered. It's one of many memories he'll cherish after commemorating a championship and a team that's so special to him.

"Winning the Cup back to back is obviously very special, and in our world, we're a little part of that," Vargo said. "We didn't shoot one puck or that kind of thing, but we tied into it and we'll always have that memory. To commemorate the back to back, which doesn't happen very often, it was almost like the perfect storm. We love Canada, we love the Penguins, the cities laid out well. Three of the cities I had never been to. It was a perfect storm lined up for us and it all laid out pretty well."

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