Longtime fans get left out in the cold

'It's like an All-Star Game or Super Bowl. It's a league event'

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For Carl DiGiorgio, the geometry doesn't compute.

Placing 18,000 Penguins season-ticket holders among some 65,000 seats at Heinz Field for the Jan. 1 Winter Classic shouldn't leave such wide angles, he figures.

"I expected my seats to be in the lower bowl," DiGiorgio, of Upper St. Clair, said this week. "Instead, I'm in the upper bowl, section 531, near the top of the stadium.

"Maybe I'm just being naive, but I thought you would get rewarded for being a longtime season-ticket holder."

The Penguins and media outlets have fielded grumbles from Penguins season-ticket holders disappointed in their seat locations for the outdoor game that will feature Sidney Crosby and the Penguins against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president for communications, said the club met its prime objective of offering tickets to all Consol Energy Center season-ticket holders and that the seats were distributed based on the inventory offered by the NHL.

"The biggest thing about events like this is, it's not our event, even though we're lucky enough to have it in our city," McMillan said. "It's like an All-Star Game or Super Bowl. It's a league event. They set the prices and control the tickets.

"We don't want to make them the bad guy, but people think it's a Penguins home game. It's not."

Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president for marketing, said with such a popular event -- commissioner Gary Bettman said demand for tickets would reach into the hundreds of thousands -- it's a matter of trying to accommodate as many interests as possible.

"We have a lot of stakeholders that want access to the game," Jennings said.

Penguins season-ticket holders should be the largest contingent at the Winter Classic. The half- and full-season plans add up to about 18,000.

The Penguins received 30,000 seats from the NHL, but they are scattered around Heinz Field rather than in big blocks. To be equitable, the Penguins worked to offer lower-bowl seats to those who have lower-level seats at Consol Energy Center, and upper-bowl seats to those in the upper level of the new hockey arena. Some of the Penguins' seats are in the upper level of the north end zone, but those bleachers will have seatbacks for this game.

McMillan said of the 12,000 or so other seats they received, 3,000 will go to youth hockey, some will be sold through a lottery for those on the season-ticket waiting list, some will go to tourism partner VisitPittsburgh, a small number is tagged for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate, and the rest will be earmarked for sponsors and internal use, such as players' families.

If the Penguins controlled the way tickets were divvied, no doubt they would skew the proportion of tickets and lower-bowl seats more toward their fans. As it is, Washington is getting 20,000 seats from the NHL.

A team spokesman said the bulk of those are intended for Capitals season-ticket holders, with some going to travel packages, sponsors and internal use.

The Steelers, who are lending Heinz Field to the NHL, will get a small portion of the Winter Classic tickets, believed to be no more than 5,000, and have not announced how those will be used.

Of the remaining 10,000 or 12,000, the NHL will take some for corporate sponsors and internal needs, and the rest will be offered to the public. Details of that sale are expected later, probably in September.

Tickets range from $49 to $250.

Told of the explanation from the Penguins and the NHL, DiGiorgio still was not happy with his Winter Classic seats.

"Even if it's in the upper bowl, they gave me a seat near the top of the stadium. I've sat in 531 for Pitt games, and it's not a great seat," said DiGiorgio, whose seats at Consol Energy Center are in the sixth row of the upper level.

"I'd be willing to pay more for better seats [for the Winter Classic], but I wasn't given the option. I know I'm going to be at a game sitting in worse seats than someone who isn't a true fan.

"It's dumbfounding."

Crystal Hamel, of Baden, got seats in Section 528, at the far end on one side of the upper bowl. She's disappointed enough that she and her husband, Matthew, might sell the seats.

"With taxes, they were $140 each," she said. "If somebody offered me a nice price, I would probably sell. They can sit in the corner."

The Hamels will sit in a corner spot in the upper level at Consol Energy Center.

Already, there is a large inventory of Winter Classic tickets offered on various online sales sites, although Jennings said no tickets have been printed.

For the Winter Classic, the hockey rink will be built on the field between the 20-yard lines, and Crystal Hamel wonders who will have what she figures are the best seats -- lower bowl, center.

It probably will be a mix of contingencies, although Jennings declined to divulge details of the seating map by contingency.

Jennings said the NHL felt a strong obligation to accommodate the participating clubs.

"We have unprecedented ticket allotments for both clubs this year," he said.

The past two years, when the Winter Classic was at historic baseball parks, Fenway in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, the smaller number of seats meant even the hometown clubs were not able to accommodate all their season-ticket holders.

Jennings said the NHL has worked with architects on sight lines and that fans might be surprised at the view from higher vantage points because of the dasher boards.

"If you're not feeling that you're getting the love when you walk in, then wait until you get to your seats," he said.

The first Winter Classic -- a 2-1 Penguins win on a Crosby shootout goal against the Sabres at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008 -- was handled differently because the NHL did not know what to expect.

It sold out in less than an hour, rendering moot a series of sales pitches meant to run through December 2007.

"The demand was beyond anything we had seen, and we've just seen those numbers exponentially grow," Jennings said.

Which left the Penguins -- whose financial stake in the game is limited to money equivalent to what they would take in for a game at Consol Energy Center -- relieved that they could offer Winter Classic seats to all of their season-ticket holders, and hopeful that those fans will understand if they don't get the seat locations they might have wanted.

"We tried as best we could with the allotment we got," McMillan said.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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