Penguins' power on rise
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Right in front of our eyes, while almost no one is noticing, one of the greatest come-from-behind sagas in the history of Pittsburgh sports is unfolding. The Penguins, not all that far removed from bankruptcy and a string of four consecutive last-places finishes, are in the process of surpassing the Steelers as Pittsburgh's favorite sports team.
The Penguins haven't passed the Steelers -- yet -- but they're coming hard after having long ago whizzed by the Pirates.
Although some might think it is the height of foolishness to suggest the Penguins could supplant the Steelers, who have long been followed with a religious fervor, as the region's No. 1 team, it's not so crazy.
There are signs of the Penguins' gains everywhere -- from attendance, to television ratings, to media coverage.
Just last month, for example, the NFL draft, once an event that commanded the top of the sports page and the lead on the 11 o'clock sports news for days, found itself playing second banana to the Penguins. The draft was still a major event April 26, its first day. But the big story April 25 was the first Penguins-New York Rangers Stanley Cup playoff game. The big story April 27 was the second Penguins-Rangers game.
What's more, that trend will continue to grow. The Penguins have a firm grasp on the local under-30 crowd. These fans might like football and the Steelers, but they love hockey and the Penguins.
Nor are the Penguins about to allow that grip to loosen in the foreseeable future. The team is positioned to be a contender, if not a champion, for years to come. They have a stable full of young players who are both fan and media friendly. Of greater significance, most of the players, and virtually all the stars, are as wholesome as the boy next door. Some, in fact, are young enough to be the boy next door.
Parents looking for role models need look no further. The Penguins are thick with them. These guys aren't packing guns, they're not getting arrested, they're not being sought for child support payments, they're not demanding to be traded. They are the anti-modern day athlete, and no one exemplifies that more than the team's best player, Sidney Crosby.
Yeah, they're making a lot of money but, somehow, it's never the issue with these guys that it is in other sports. Crosby even gave the Penguins a hometown discount when he signed his first long-term contract.
These are the kinds of things that fans and non-fans don't forget. They are the kinds of things that bring outsiders to hockey and keep the hard-core close to it.
The Penguins have sold out every game this year, despite ticket prices that are, by far, the most expensive in town. Playoff tickets are ridiculously expensive, more than $200 for some seats, but, even in these hard economic times, they are gobbled up.
This dramatic increase in interest has come at a time when the Penguins are playing in the oldest and probably least fan-friendly arena in the NHL. Ground is set to be broken this summer on a new arena. When it opens, hockey in Pittsburgh will receive almost as big a jolt as the day the Penguins won the Crosby lottery.
The Penguins are so big that they've already, after only two rounds of the playoffs, surpassed the interest level that prevailed when the franchise won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and '92.
Some of that has to do with a general ratcheting up of sports interest all across the country. Almost every team has more interest in it than it did 15 to 20 years ago as sports have become a national obsession. But a lot of this upsurge of interest is of a generational nature. Fans who were introduced to hockey by Mario Lemieux and those championship teams of the early '90s have stuck around and raised their kids to be hockey fans.
And some of those kids are playing hockey. The hockey boom in the area, originally generated by Lemieux, continues as the number of leagues and teams grow every years. A new miniboom, spawned by Crosby's arrival, is under way.
If any further proof of how much hockey has grown in this area is needed, just check the ice tonight when the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers open play at Mellon Arena in the Eastern Conference final. Ryan Malone of Upper St. Clair and R. J. Umberger of Plum are key players for their respective teams.
There are more on the way with close to two dozen Western Pennsylvania players in Division I hockey.
The Penguins are pulling Steelers-like television ratings for their games and even their postgame shows. After the game Sunday against the New York Rangers, WPXI's postgame show averaged a 16 rating, a previously unheard-of number for hockey.
No, the Penguins don't draw Pittsburgh crowds on the road like the Steelers do. But there's a good reason for that. The Steelers Nation is composed greatly of displaced Pittsburghers. They're not traveling to those road games, they're already there. The Penguins' youthful fan base still is primarily in Pittsburgh.
One of these years, sooner than later, disgruntled Pirates fans, tired in mid-June of watching another losing team, won't so much be looking ahead to the start of Steelers camp in July but rather to the start of Penguins camp in September.
First Published May 9, 2008 12:00 am