45 season-ticket holders drop out because of NHL lockout

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When the NHL lockout began in mid-September, the reaction among many fans -- the ones who don't mainline hockey on a daily basis, anyway -- was little more than a shrug.

There were pennant races to watch, a football season that was in its early stages. The absence of hockey, a back-burner sport in many markets at that time of year, wasn't a major issue.

But, as temperatures began to drop and the lockout dragged on, anger levels spiked among many of the game's followers. Gradually, frustration morphed into apathy for a lot of those fans, who now are talking about finding other ways to spend their free time and disposable income.

There are calls for boycotts and other forms of protest if the 2012-13 NHL season begins, and numerous franchises -- especially those in non-traditional markets -- seem to be bracing for a plunge in interest. And ticket sales.

It doesn't look as if that will be a major problem for the Penguins. Not yet, at least.

Penguins executive Tom McMillan said Wednesday that, to this point, the team has had 45 season-ticket holders cancel plans because of the lockout.

The Penguins, who have sold out 254 consecutive home games, have a waiting list of about 9,500 for season tickets, he said.

Replacements for those who gave up their season tickets will come from that list, although that isn't expected until the lockout is over.

The Penguins cap season-tickets sales at the equivalent of 16,000 full-season plans. That's below Consol Energy Center's capacity of 18,387 and allows some seats to be made available on an individual-game basis.

Whether the number of cancellations will rise significantly if the lockout drags on is impossible to predict, although it's hardly out of the question if the NHL remains shuttered for the entire winter.

"We're fortunate to have had only 45 cancellations," McMillan said. "We know that our fans are frustrated, and, no matter what we do from a customer-service standpoint -- while it might be appreciated -- the thing they really want is for hockey to return."

No single franchise can make that happen, of course, and the Penguins have tried to bolster customer loyalty with everything from season-ticket holder skating sessions at Consol Energy Center in October to free and discounted tickets for a variety of other events staged at the arena.

"You try to do the best you can in a tough situation," McMillan said. "But their message to us is clear. They want to see games."

There's no way of knowing, however, when fans will be able to do that.

The league has not announced a "drop-dead" date for canceling the season, although play would have to begin around mid-January to make a 48-game schedule -- the minimum commissioner Gary Bettman said is needed for a legitimate regular season -- viable.

Apparently, there has been only cursory contact between officials of the league and the NHL Players' Association since mediated talks for a new collective bargaining agreement broke off last week.

No negotiations have been scheduled, even though both sides insist they would like to resume talking.

If the talks pick up, Penguins center Sidney Crosby said he is willing to be involved in them.

That seemed unlikely less than two weeks ago, when Crosby returned from three days of meetings between the players and owners in New York. At that time, he was visibly disappointed, even disillusioned, with what he had witnessed and experienced.

Nonetheless, shortly before returning to his offseason home in Nova Scotia to spend Christmas with his family and friends Wednesday, Crosby made it clear that he would get involved again if circumstances are right.

"I don't think I ever said I wouldn't," he said. "As far as [the league's] stance and where things were, I didn't agree with it, and I wasn't really going to go back if that was the attitude, the mindset.

"If there is some actual negotiations going on, by all means, I'd be [willing to be] a part of it. But to go there and hear 'take it or leave it,' I don't really need to go all the way to wherever to sit in a room and hear that."

Crosby likely shouldn't stare at his phone waiting for word that the talks have resumed while he's home for the holidays, though. There's still no indication the league is interested in budging from its most recent positions on the key issues still being discussed.

"I'm trying to stay optimistic," Crosby said. "I think we all realize the opportunity to get a deal here, the window is getting smaller. Hopefully, we all figure it out."

NOTES -- Evgeni Malkin had three goals and an assist in Metallurg Magnitogorsk's 5-3 victory against Atlant in a Kontinental Hockey League game Wednesday. ... Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams were the only Penguins to participate in a workout Wednesday at Southpointe.

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Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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