Craig Adams shuttled often between Pittsburgh and New York during the NHL lockout, with some late nights and early mornings and rushed trips to the airport -- occasionally one right after the other.
As the Penguins' union representative, he sat in on negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association. He felt the tugs of frustration and the twinges of optimism as the talks ebbed and flowed for months before an agreement was reached and ratified.
He can only imagine how the fans felt, waiting things out after the season originally was scheduled to begin in October.
"Obviously, we owe a lot to the fans, and, unfortunately, in this league we treat our fans like we take them for granted," said Adams, whose NHL career now includes lockouts that wiped out the 2004-05 season and scuttled the first three-plus months this season.
Count Adams among those thrilled to be part of a game at Consol Energy Center again tonight when the Penguins play their home opener against Toronto.
Adams and rest of the team were buoyed to see a standing-room crowd a week ago at an intrasquad Black and Gold game, with lines three and four people across stretching around the arena for hours before the gates opened for the free event.
"You saw by the turnout in the scrimmage that our fans are unbelievably loyal," Adams said. "We're very thankful for that."
"I wasn't sure," center Sidney Crosby said. "I really didn't know what to expect. But I think it was [evident] pretty quickly that people were hungry to see hockey. Not to say that there weren't people who were frustrated or disappointed by the lockout, but to see the support that we have and see everyone turn out for that game we had, it says a lot. We're lucky."
The crowd tonight will be different. These are the paying customers, mostly season-ticket holders, and they are expected to stretch the Penguins' record streak of consecutive sellouts to 255 games, a string that dates to Feb. 14, 2007, in the now-razed Civic Arena.
The Penguins opened the lockout-shortened season with back-to-back road wins against Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, both Atlantic Division rivals. The previous time they started 3-0 was 1994-95 -- another lockout-shortened season -- when they won their first seven games en route to a 12-0-1 mark.
Penguins winger Matt Cooke has seen or heard of evidence that NHL fans are flocking back.
"The cities that we've been in, crowds have been good," he said.
Cooke also has read about strong TV ratings around the NHL, and, in particular, locally.
The 3-1 win Saturday at Philadelphia was shown on NBC and drew a rating of 19.4 in this market, the highest regular-season rating not including Winter Classics. It even topped Mario Lemieux's comeback game in December 2000.
"Pittsburgh's a unique market," Cooke said. "We're lucky to have fans that are committed. As a sport in general, we're proud of that commitment and that support."
The Penguins, who are opening the doors earlier than usual at 5 p.m. today, have some things planned as a thank you to returning fans.
The Hart (MVP), Ted Lindsay (most outstanding player) and Art Ross (scoring champion) trophies won last season by center Evgeni Malkin will be available for viewing in the concourse behind section 110 from 5 p.m. until the end of the second intermission.
In addition, all merchandise at the team stores will be half price, and fans will receive vouchers for three free concession items. Those offers will be repeated for the first four home games. That's on top of the main event, a regular-season home game worth a couple of points in the standings.
It's the first NHL game at Consol Energy Center since April 20, a 3-2 Penguins win against Philadelphia in Game 5 of the teams' first-round playoff series. The Flyers won Game 6 on their home ice to eliminate the Penguins.
A step up from last week's scrimmage, even if the fans stepped up for that.
"Our fans were as loud and rambunctious as I've ever heard them, and for an intrasquad game," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I'm looking forward to [tonight], maybe even more so just the buzz of the building and the fans before the game, leading up to the game, then coming out of the tunnel and hearing our fans for our home opener."mobilehome - penguins
First Published January 23, 2013 5:00 AM