If Pittsburghers did not already adore Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby for his team-leading 60 points and on-ice heroics, he entered local folklore the moment he publicly twirled a Terrible Towel.
After his four-point night against the Washington Capitals last week, the 18-year-old from Nova Scotia was named the game's first star, requiring him to take a swift spin on the ice in exchange for applause. Before his bow, Mr. Crosby scrambled to the dressing room to fetch one of the mustard yellow terrycloth towels that have become the iconic Steelers souvenir and are everywhere this week as the National Football League team prepares to play in Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
Mr. Crosby, who was a five-year-old boy when the Penguins won the city's last championship, the Stanley Cup in 1992, whipped the towel madly over his head and whipped the crowd into frenzy.
"It was something I wanted to do because the Steelers are such a big deal and people are really into it," he said later. "Since coming to Pittsburgh I've become a football fan and I support them. I thought it would be fun and mean a lot to people."
Steelers kicker Jeff Reed, frequently found in the stands at Penguins games, was delighted by Mr. Crosby's gesture.
"That's out of respect. He realizes the importance of sports in Pittsburgh," Mr. Reed said yesterday in Detroit. "I think we're all in the same boat here."
The Steelers are favoured to beat the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. If they do, it will mean a fresh championship for Pittsburgh and contrast sorely with the Penguins' tumultuous and heartbreaking season. They have lost many games in their decrepit arena, seen legendary captain Mario Lemieux retire and their team put up for sale, with no local buyers yet to emerge.
The Steelers, who won three road playoff games on their way to the big game, won 11 of their 16 regular season contests. The Penguins play 82 games and had won just a dozen heading into last night's action in New York against the Rangers, with 29 to go. For the Penguins, there will be no playoffs.
But right now, no matter which side of the Ohio River they play on, it's all for one.
The Penguins have billed their Saturday matinee against the New York Islanders "Black and Gold Day," and are encouraging fans to sport Steelers colours for a national NBC audience. The club will travel to Ottawa early on Sunday for its Monday night game against the Senators, but are determined to arrive in plenty of time for kickoff.
Despite the Penguins' horrible season, the Steelers cheer in return, and view Mr. Crosby, who owns a Steelers No. 36 Jerome Bettis jersey, as the city's newest sporting idol: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on skates.
"There's excitement that builds up when you have an opportunity to bring another championship back to the city of Pittsburgh. Everybody joins in," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "I'm a big Crosby fan. I have his jersey. You just hop on. You want to be part of the excitement. We'll be right there with our jerseys on supporting those guys as well. That's just how the city of Pittsburgh is. We're all one big family."
The city's top athletes are even jockeying for space on the newsstand racks -- Mr. Roethlisberger and Mr. Bettis have been on consecutive covers of Sports Illustrated this month, and Mr. Crosby is the current ESPN Magazine cover boy.
Baseball's Pirates have won five world championships, the Steelers four and the Penguins two. The Pirates and Steelers play in gorgeous new stadiums built with public money; the Penguins are fighting to land a slots licence that would allow private money to build a modern arena, but may be forced to move. Yet Steelers madness has eclipsed any possible jealousy.
"It's so great just to get to the Super Bowl and so great for the city," said Penguins coach Michel Therrien, a Quebecker who began rooting for the Steelers when he moved to Pennsylvania in 2003. "Pittsburgh is just a great city for sports. Things on the hockey side have been tough lately, but we're rebuilding and we're cheering them on."
The day after Mr. Lemieux announced his retirement, Steelers coach Bill Cowher called him "a great man" during a weekly press conference that rarely strays off football or Mr. Cowher's truculent message.
"He's done so much for the city and is very proud of the city," Mr. Cowher said. "He's done everything he could to keep this franchise going and his presence alone has brought a lot of pride to the city and the Penguins organization.
"Mario has just been a tremendous ambassador for hockey in what he's done for the city of Pittsburgh and the grace with which he played the game. He's just a magician on the ice."
Ed Colerich, born and bred in Pittsburgh, is a lifelong Penguins fan who attends a handful of games each season. For him, the NFL is a side dish, making Mr. Colerich a rarity in a city where the Steelers breed obsession.
He is hopeful Mr. Crosby can lead a young Penguins team to another championship of its own in a few years, and he prays it happens in Pittsburgh and not one of the cities courting the club to move.
"It is great fun to see the excitement around the Steelers," he said. "But it's a shame what the Penguins season has come to. They brought us two championships. It's hard to hold anything against them.
"But Crosby's gesture with the towel was amazing. It will ensure he is a household name in Pittsburgh for a long time no matter what happens.
'BURGH'S BELOVED ROOKIES
Pirates outfielder from Trail, B.C., won NL rookie honours in 2004; Pirates had losing season.
On pace for 95 points; Penguins last in Eastern Conference.
Top NHL rookie in 1984-85 with 100 points; Penguins finished 21-54-5.
Quarterback was 14-0 as a rookie last year; playoff inexperience cost him Super Bowl berth.