Next time a fan tells you he's a "diehard" or that she "lives and dies" with her team, feel free to tell the story of Pat Celesnik and the Penguins.
Last April the 59-year-old Celesnik was at home in Derry, Pa., 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, packing for a trip to see her newborn granddaughter, when her heart began thumping erratically. She was rushed to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed atrial fibrillation and performed a heart catheterization. Two days later she collapsed on her kitchen floor. Back at the emergency room, her internal organs began shutting down like lights in an office building at the end of the day. The artery used for the catheterization had opened. Blood trickled out of her ears, seeped from her eyes and pooled in her stomach. Doctors induced a coma. Eventually, Pat went into cardiac arrest. For the better part of a minute she was, medically speaking, dead. Once revived, she faced a grim prognosis. Four times over the next week a different priest delivered last rites.
Still, Pat hung on, her bed ringed by her husband of 35 years, Ray, and their three children. If Pat survived, doctors said, she might never breathe again without a ventilator, much less walk. Finally, two weeks after collapsing, doctors brought her out of her coma. In her weakened condition, Pat could only mouth words. Her first were: Is there a hockey game on tonight?
"You'd think she'd say, 'What's going on?' or 'What happened?'" says her youngest daughter, Mandy. "But once we told her there was a Penguins game, it was like she was content. I was so relieved that I didn't care."
In one sense her question was not all that surprising. A longtime Steelers and Penguins fan, Pat had one of those marriages in which the husband was the one asking when she was going to turn off the darn game. And the last Pat knew, her Pens were an underperforming team rocked by midseason turmoil, including the firing of coach Michel Therrien. For a stretch, they had played so poorly that they dropped out of playoff position.
Now, faced with a long recovery, Pat followed the Pens as never before. Surrounded by posters of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (drawn by her niece's husband, a huge fan), she scheduled extra naps to conserve energy on nights that Pittsburgh played, asking the nurses to hold off on her antianxiety pills, the ones that allowed her to drift off to sleep among a tangle of tubes and wires and fears. "After the company would leave at night, I would start to think, and that was a bad thing because I would get very anxious," says Pat. "The games took me to another place."
The weird thing was, Pat's progress began to parallel that of the Pens. Pittsburgh made the playoffs and was up 3--2 against the Flyers; the next day Pat took her first gulps of air without a ventilator. The Penguins fought past Philly in the first round; a few days later Pat left the ICU for acute care. The Pens rallied from two games down to beat the Capitals in a thrilling seven-game series; Pat began taking her first real food, applesauce from a cup. When Pittsburgh dropped the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals to the Red Wings, however, she endured a string of lethargic days. Recalls Pat, "Then the game after that they won, and I thought, O.K., we're going to be all right."
And they were, on both counts. Come Game 7 in Detroit, it was bedlam in Pat's room—or as much bedlam as an immobile 59-year-old can stir up. Her doctor stopped in to watch, while the nurses whooped like a bunch of teenagers as Pittsburgh won 2--1. ("We were maybe a little bit more noisy than we should have been," allows Pat with a giggle.) It was as good as Pat had felt in months. And so it was that, around the same time the Pens were hoisting the Cup, Pat was taking her first triumphant steps without a walker. Two weeks later she was not only walking by herself but had also been released from the hospital. When her niece paid a visit with her husband (the poster maker), Pat asked them to wait at the front door until she could labor upstairs with Ray's help and return in a black, glittery Penguins shirt.
Hockey didn't pull Pat through, of course; that was her will, her doctors and the support of more than a hundred friends and family members. But who's to say the Penguins didn't play a role? If teams draw strength from their fans—there's a reason it's called home ice advantage—why can't the opposite be true?
These days, the Pens are first in the East, and Pat is getting better. She still receives her nutrients through a PICC line that disappears into her left arm, but she can take short walks, drive and even do light housework. She focuses on small, achievable goals: to brave the mall again, to visit her granddaughter. There's one more too: In all these years Pat has never been to Mellon Arena for a game. Once she regains her stamina, maybe as soon as this winter, her best friend has promised to take her.