Fans are flocking to young Penguins

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Whether it was bandwagon-jumping, zealous conversion or the allure of youthful star-gazing, P.J. Hanna found himself joining the growing throng of Penguins fans this winter.

"I hated hockey. I did," said Mr. Hanna, 21, of New Castle, wearing a New York Yankees cap and sitting 10 rows from the Mellon Arena ice the other day while the Penguins were flying through a practice. "Never even liked hockey on TV."

Then, Dec. 5, his cousin Bob Hanna, 25, invited him to a Florida-Pittsburgh home game. Bob Hanna started out as a Student Rush ticket-buyer, regularly using his Slippery Rock University student identification to stand in line and scoop up a last-minute, price-slashed arena seat. Or, as he referred to it: "I paid $10,000 a year to get a $60 discount."

He matured into a 12-game package holder last season, when Sidney Crosby's arrival stimulated a crush of ticket sales, and into a full-bore, season-ticket holder this year. So, with the then-seesaw Penguins in the throes of a four-game losing streak, he invited his cousin P.J. to sit with him, and P.J. was hooked like a Philadelphia Flyers blade around Crosby's bicep.

Now this convert can hardly satisfy his thirst for a professional hockey team arising from the ashes of four consecutive cellar-dwelling NHL seasons.

"Once you learn the players and what icing is, it's much more fun," he said, raising titters from his cousin and their girlfriends, Mandy Masone, 21, and Kristin Ross, 23, also of New Castle.

P.J. Hanna is just one of a hard-to-quantify amount of people the past two months -- 10,000? Tens of thousands? more? -- joining the previously unwavering Penguins faithful, whether due to the team's streak of success, its youthful vigor or, most likely, the promise the club seems to be starting to deliver. These additional followers are tuning into television broadcasts at a 75 percent higher rate than last season. They are grabbing up gobs of merchandise bearing the numbers of Crosby or the other young Penguins sensations. And they are buying tickets to games at sellout rates last seen in the early 1990s.

Thanks to the presence of Crosby, at 19 acknowledged as the NHL's best player, and a bevy of rising stars, these Penguins already were the best-selling road show around the league, particularly in Crosby's native Canada. Locally, they started to pick up new interest after a 7-3 start about the same time the Super Bowl-champion Steelers were slipping rapidly from playoff contention.

But it was mid-January when the team broke loose.

Starring Crosby along with Russian emigre Evgeni Malkin, 18-year-old rookie Jordan Staal, budding defenseman Ryan Whitney and gold-pad-wearing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins embarked on a six-week, 16-game binge in which they lost none in regulation. They won 14 games in that span and earned at least one point for a pair of regulation ties that wound up as losses, in a shootout at Boston Jan. 18 and in overtime at Montreal Feb. 4. They won two, six and then six games in succession, the final five by the slimmest possible margin of one goal. They surged from 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings to fourth.

They captured people's fancy.

At a time when Mario Lemieux and team leadership were visiting Kansas City and raising the possibility of leaving town for a new arena elsewhere, the team went boffo at the box office at 66 Mario Lemieux Place.

Fourteen of the past 16 home games have been sellouts, bringing the total to 21 of 32 home dates after the 4-3 shootout victory against the Philadelphia Flyers yesterday. A huge influx of single-game buyers means that only one remaining home game -- Buffalo April 3 -- had more than 1,000 tickets available as of early yesterday, and those aren't expected to last long. Should those go, it would give the Penguins 30 sellouts, tying the number from the 1992-93 team that won the President's Trophy for compiling the most points for victories and ties. The only three seasons with more sellouts were the 32 in 1991-92, the second Stanley Cup year, and the 34 apiece in 1988-89 and 1989-90.

More than half their season-ticket holders, in the four weeks since plans became available to them, have purchased 12-game playoff bundles ... without a single post-season spot clinched yet.

"It's a great time for Pittsburgh hockey," Ray Shero, the Penguins' executive vice president and general manager, said amid a busy day of trading Tuesday.

"If you didn't have that kind of support, you wouldn't be talking about getting a new arena around here," said Penguins winger Ryan Malone, who grew up in Upper St. Clair.

"It has been a frenzy," added Tom McMillan, the team's vice president for communications. "It's been fun. After the last four years ... it's very nice.

"We've had some unique things here: Mario's comeback. Winning the lottery with Sidney ... But this is building on not just one single event. This is building a foundation on an exciting young team that's bursting at the seams with potential. If you notice the Penguins' sellout records, they weren't the Cup years, they were before the Cup years. [Paul] Coffey came in 1987, and you could see something build, an anticipation. You can see that anticipation building now."

The trickle-down effect from Crosby and Co. has washed across the Pittsburgh in other ways, too:

Merchandising: Certainly, Crosby's presence drives sales. Not only is the second-year pro topping the league in scoring, but his jersey has been the month-by-month NHL leader all season. His All-Star jersey, barely a month after the game, also ranks No. 1 in North American sales. The Mellon Arena shop, Mr. McMillan said, has sold some 5,000 Penguins T-shirts in the past two months alone. Around the region, jerseys and T-shirts -- mostly emblazoned with Crosby's No. 87 and Malkin's No. 71 -- have paced rising sales at retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods.

Hockey beyond Mellon Arena: More adults are taking power skating and hockey classes along with kids in similar clinics at the biggest venue in the area, the three sheets of ice at the Island Sports Center on Neville Island. The increase started with the drafting of Crosby in 2005, and it continues to grow. Island Sports Center officials are preparing for an influx of youngsters to this spring's amateur-hockey tryouts, although they are feeling one negative affect already: Players ages 6 through 18 are missing more practices than ever because they're instead attending Penguins games.

The lines around the building: College students, those potential future fans and season-ticket holders, have camped out at the arena doors at noon on game days, seven hours before the opening faceoff. "Those poor kids stand out there forever," Malone empathized. Winger Colby Armstrong recalled once, maybe Nov. 28 for Fleury bobblehead night, "They were standing in the lobby of the Marriott, that's where the line ended." All in hopes of snapping up the remaining tickets as part of the Student Rush, which hasn't been left with many seats lately -- just 22 for the New Jersey Devils this past Tuesday.

The Penguins are so hot, they could sell out the occasional practice. On Feb. 17, when the team held a rare Saturday practice instead of a game, Southpointe's metal bleachers were packed with 1,000 or so fans.

"By no means do you take it for granted," said Mr. McMillan from the front office. "We're a team that's been on both sides of the spectrum. We know what it's like to have tremendous ticket demand and frenzied interest; but we also know about struggling and being in last place and trying to get people into the building. This motivates you to work harder."

For sure, young hockey fans seem enamored of a team whose age approximates theirs. If you remove golden-oldies Mark Recchi, 39, and newly acquired Gary Roberts, 40, from the current roster, the Penguins' average age is 26.5. Cut to its core of Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Whitney and Fleury -- the team's first-round draft choices from the past five seasons -- and the age dips to a college-junior 20.6 years. "I think they can relate to the team," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, likewise a former first-rounder (2000) the same as Armstrong (2001). "A lot of our guys are the same age or younger."

Age identification, P.J. Hanna said from the arena seats for Penguins practice, "that's definitely it. Having Crosby here, Malkin, Staal ... It's cool watching kids two years younger than you."

"Two years?" Rob Hanna add ed, incredulously. "Sidney's six years younger than me."

Mr. Armstrong added, "It's something special we have going here."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Youthful stars draw thousands to Penguins fan bandwagon.
Click photo for larger image.

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Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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