Fans here score goal with their loyalty to Penguins

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Recalling his NHL playing days with Anaheim and Los Angeles, Dan Bylsma can say that the West Coast had a good base of hockey fans.

But it wasn't until the playoffs started that he experienced the fanaticism that the Penguins generate -- such as the citizenry in such a froth that fans swarm to watch games on a big screen TV outside the arena if NBC isn't involved in the broadcast.

"The fans and the city embrace their teams. They embrace their players. They embrace their coaches. They're vested. They're with you when you do well, they agonize when you're not doing so well. It's an awesome thing to be a part of. It's an awesome thing to see," the new Penguins coach said before the second round of the playoffs started.

"When you leave the rink, when you come to the rink, when you pick up the paper, when you walk the streets, the fans are living and dying with you. It says volumes about the sports town that Pittsburgh is and how outstanding our fans are," he added.

It also speaks volume about the Penguins, who not that long ago were experiencing tougher times. It's early May and the trees and flowers are in bloom, but ice hockey is bringing out the Penguins colors as conversations are spiked with references to face-offs and forechecking.

Emotions, of course, are running on the agonizing side. The Penguins are down two games to none to the Washington Capitals in a series that features three of the top hockey players in the world.

While the Penguins are prime examples of the bandwagon effect, hockey has always had an avid following in this town.

As one sign of vibrancy, the renewal rate among season ticket holders is running at 96 percent for next season -- the final one before the Penguins occupy the new building going up across the street from the stainless steel dome. The economy is the worst that most people have experienced in their lifetime, but those who pay the freight have already anted up. Plus, the Penguins have a waiting list of 2,000 accounts representing about 5,000 seats.

"We're very fortunate to be in this situation. It wasn't all that long ago that we had our struggles here," said team vice president Tom McMillan. "This is an exciting young team the community has embraced, going through another playoff run with the palpable anticipation of a new arena in the wings. We're encouraged, to say the least."

Other signs are subtler. In a commercial by the TV network Versus to capture enthusiasm for hockey, one snippet shows the rabid Penguins fans waving their towels during a whiteout -- a game when all fans are encouraged to wear white.

"Most NHL teams have fans that wave towels, but we have an inherent and unfair advantage in that department," Mr. McMillan said with a chuckle. "Our fans know how to twirl a towel."

That's a reference to the Steelers and Terrible Towels. It's true that the passion for the Penguins may not be as wide as it is for the football team, but the passion runs just as deep. And it never hurts to have Steelers as fans.

Drop in on a hockey game and you could almost hold a team meeting. Mike Tomlin, attired in his No. 87 jersey, attends games with his two boys. Kicker Jeff Reed dropped the puck at a game following the Super Bowl victory. Players from Hines Ward to Ben Roethlisberger are familiar fans.

But the Penguins make it a two-way street. During the football playoffs, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury came back on the ice for a curtain call wearing a Steelers throwback helmet.

"Pittsburgh is a football town and always will be. It's also a hockey town," said team president David Morehouse. "I'm from Pittsburgh. I follow the Pirates, and Pitt and the Steeelers. Not to take away anything from other sports or other cities, but Pittsburgh is a bona fide hockey town. People are excited about this hockey team. There's a general affection for fans and players, and vice versa. That's part of the mystique of this thing."

The best marketing tool in sports is a winning team, which helps explain why the Penguins have sold out every game for two consecutive seasons. But not even the two-time Stanley Cup champions of 1991 and '92 achieved such lofty attendance numbers.

The Penguins lead the NHL in merchandise sales among U.S. teams, and they get the most hits on their Web site. Having 13 NHL scoring champions in recent years tends to build interest as well.

Last season, the team broke records for TV ratings while coming up two wins short of winning the Stanley Cup. Those records lasted one year.

Those marks were broken again this season, despite the regular season struggles of a team that in mid-February looked like it might not even be in the playoffs. Only Buffalo has higher ratings among U.S. teams.

For the season, the rating on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh was 6.98 -- which means the percent of households with televisions that tuned in to the Penguins -- eclipsing the record of 6.1 set last season. The post-game show with Jay Caufield does a 2.5, which is a higher rating that it was for some games a couple of years ago.

The ratings for the first round this year were up about a point from the 15.5 for the first round last year.

Mario Lemieux popularized hockey in his day, and the torch is now carried by Sidney Crosby and his teammates.

When he's not performing in hostile arenas -- like silencing the Philadelphia crowd at the end of the last series -- the Penguins captain gives back by purchasing a suite for needy kids or hand-delivering season tickets. He's also partnered with Reebok and Dick's Sporting Goods to provide 600 sets of hockey gear, from head to toe, for youth league hockey.

The Penguins have cultivated a younger following as familiar with the fast pace of texting and twittering as they are with how Evgeni Malkin stacks up against Alex Ovechkin.

They're going to need a boost from the home crowd in their quest to reverse the momentum built by the Capitals. But the atmosphere in the Mellon Arena for game three will be a far cry from the old days.

"There was nothing worse than a Tuesday night in February with the Oakland Seals coming in," recalled Dave Disney of Mount Lebanon, who has purchased season tickets every year since the team was founded in 1967.

In his mind, the tent is big enough for college grads and Greene County grandmothers.

"The more the merrier," Mr. Disney said. "There were enough years when we needed people on the bandwagon or we wouldn't have a band. Quite honestly, I used to be the young guy screaming at the other team. I can't do that any more. My voice gives out. I'm glad to see the young kids come in. They scream. They provide energy. They're loud. I think the city has proven they'll support a team."


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com .


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