It was a warm September day in 1999. I’m standing in the walk way between the parking lot and entry way at C&C’s hardware store and lumber yard (just a short walk down from where I grew up in a forgettable town about an hour east of Pittsburgh). While I wanted a braut, my dad told me the line I’m in is going to mean more to me, if not now, then when I look back as I get older. When I finally get to the front of the line, there is a guy in is mid 50’s signing pictures of himself. The one I got (for free!) had something about a mule scribbled on it. Little did I know, but this was my first introduction into hockey. The “guy” was Mike Lange, and the autographed picture said “Geoffrey – He beat ’em like a rented mule!!”. As a 6 year old in a small, middle of nowhere, Western Pennsylvania town, I had no idea what hockey was. I knew it was for “rich people”, and as the lowest of the lower-middle class, I also knew I wasn’t “rich people”. In fact, I didn’t watch my first hockey game until the final minutes of ’04 Stanley Cup game 7 (it was shown on channel 4 and overlapped when the late evening news was to be on. My mom wasn’t thrilled). Either way, in 2005 I became interested in hockey and by default became a Pens fan. This is where I crossed ties with Mike Lange again.
As I said, I wasn’t close to a middle class kid, so watching hockey on tv wasn’t an option. There was only one tv and if my parent’s weren’t interested in watching it, it wasn’t on. I was able to find the games on the radio though. I would listen religiously, and soon came to realize that Mike Lange was the voice that made the game come alive. His soothing voice drew you in, while his “Lang-ism’s” kept you coming back for more. I mean, who could forget goal calls such as :
- “Scratch my back with a hacksaw!”
- Get in the fast lane grandma, the bingo game’s ready to roll!”
- “Buy Sam a drink, and get his dog one, too!”
- “He smoked him like a bad cigar”
- “He beat him like a rented mule”
For years, this was my preferred way to intake hockey. When I had to work the evening car wash/maintenance shift during high school and college, driving home from night classes in college, any game that was on NBC… the games were delivered to me through my ears via Mike Lange. He became the friend I never really knew, but couldn’t live without. This wasn’t just for me… all of Pittsburgh has a spot in their hearts for Mike Lange, even if they don’t watch hockey.
Fast forward 19 years from my first encounter with Mike Lange. It’s still September, but this time I’m at 2018 Pens training camp. The place is packed, and I’m standing in at the top of the stands, surrounded by journalists and members of the media. After this first intermission of the final daily scrimmage, the sea of people part, and I see Mike Lange sitting 10 feet from me. I wait a few minutes, seeing if anyone would say anything or go up to him. Nothing. I’m relatively shy in person, but I make the decision to ask Mike Lange for a picture. When I ask, I see he really wasn’t in the mood (to be fair, I was 26 and asking for a picture. I get it). He did agree, but after the 3 seconds it took, he did tell me “You know, you’re free time is my work time”. It wasn’t spiteful, but I got the picture.
The following year, on Oct 8th, Mike Lange was honored before the game for his 45th year as a broadcaster with the Pens. It was only the second game I bought a ticket for and didn’t look at the cost. I HAD to be there. It was also one of the few games I’ve been to where I cried. That game did have a feeling of saying goodbye and thank you, before it was too late to have a proper send off. The bobblehead and puck still have a prominent place in my room.
Two months ago, Mike Lange announced he was retiring. A month ago my father passed away. He was right though, my dad, that autographed picture does mean more to me now, then it did when I was in line as 6 years old. While I’m still a Pens fan and will still listen to games on the radio if I can’t watch them on tv, it just won’t be the same. Much like my current life. On Oct 19, the pens will honor Mike Lange. I’m sure it will be just as emotional and lovely for all of us of a certain age in Pittsburgh. While I may not be there for this one, after the final whistle I hope Mike Lange gets to take over the PA and give us all one last “Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has just left the building”.