Penguins' discount program attracts droves who don't mind waiting in cold
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Rebecca Droke, Post-GazetteAnnie Hague, 16, right, offers space under a blanket to Billy Spriggs, 19, center, as they wait with Sharon Ash, 17, and other young fans braving the wintry cold for discounted student tickets to last night's Penguins game. The Pens beat the Islanders, 5-2.
Wearing a white Penguins sweater covered with autographs, Sara Harper, 16, huddled against the cold with a cluster of friends in a corner outside Gate 8 of Mellon Arena yesterday, 21/2 hours before the Penguins played the New York Islanders.
"I'm the leader. I'm the No. 1 fan," said Ms. Harper, who attends North Catholic High School.
Ms. Harper and her friends -- including Laurel Labuskes, 16, who is cyber schooled; Greg Lenns, 17, of North Catholic; and Kaitlyn Bigelow, 17, of Oliver High School -- claimed they were and usually are the first fans in line for the Penguins' popular Student Rush program, in which a student ID gets you the best available seat for $20, first-come, first-served.
The queue of high school and college fans stays in touch with the Penguins through the team's Web site and by enrolling in a text-message program. That way, fans know whether ticket availability for a game will be low, moderate or high.
Yesterday, there was an extra amount of electricity snaking through the long line of students -- and not just because they were jumping around to fight the blowing snow and bitter wind after a hockey season of mild weather.
Those on the text-message trail had been told there would be a special treat for those in line at 4:30 p.m.
At 4:50, a van pulled up and out jumped Penguins players Colby Armstrong, Chris Thorburn and Maxime Talbot in their black game sweaters, carrying boxes of hot pizzas to hand out.
It was a little hard to tell whether the screaming they prompted was more for the players or for the food.
"It's all good," said Tommy Reynolds, 19, a student at Community College of Allegheny County, who was devouring a slice.
Ms. Harper scoffed at the cold weather.
"You should have seen it last year. We had blizzards," she said. "One time I had snow from the roof fall on top of me."
There usually aren't any provisions -- portable toilets, concessions, etc. -- for students in line for hours, but officials noticed piles of pizza boxes from those who used their cell phones to have deliveries made to Mario Lemieux Place.
That, and enthusiasm from players who have noticed the lines outside the arena and increased decibel level inside, sparked the idea for player appearances and pizza, said Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan.
The students were allowed access to the warm building about an hour earlier than the usual hour before game time.
The program has helped swell Penguins attendance. Going into last night, the team was averaging 94 percent capacity at home games. Last night, the Penguins enjoyed their 14th sell out in 23 dates.
New on the ice for the game were two sets of printed tributes: "Greatest fans in hockey!"
For the students, the rush program makes the game affordable.
"It definitely helps out. I wouldn't have been able to go to eight games this season without it," said Scott Sweeney, 27, another CCAC student and a friend of Mr. Reynolds.
Mr. Sweeney said he often gets seats on the B level, tickets that usually would sell for $90.
Ms. Harper didn't want to say how early she and her friends arrive on game days to get their spot at or near the front of the line, but she said it was well before 1 p.m.
One Student Rush regular who couldn't make it yesterday because she had a paper due was Jennie Luptak, a Pitt freshman who started a group called the Gate Eight Gang.
In an e-mail interview, Ms. Luptak said she and her group coordinate things so they arrive no later than 4 or 4:30 p.m. to get in line, and often order pizza. "The seats are unbelievable," she said, adding that she and her friends often end up in section B32.
Mr. McMillan said the Student Rush program is about a decade old, but has blossomed this season.
"We know how lucky we are to be witnessing one of the most promising teams in the NHL, and the students bring so much energy to the crowd," Ms. Luptak said. "I mean, the guys aren't much older than us, so we feel a camaraderie that's unprecedented in the league.
"These are our Pittsburgh Penguins."
Bridget Quint, 17, left, and Joe Aleprete, 17, of Penn Hills, wait outside Mellon Arena for discounted student tickets to the Penguins hockey game against the New York Islanders last night.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published January 17, 2007 12:00 am