Hockey fans ask only this: When?
Ron Valerino, longtime Pens season ticket holder, flashes his tickets for the 2012-13 season. The question lingers: Will he ever get to use them?
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Erin Rudert plays hockey on two men's teams and a traveling women's team. Her brother and father play hockey. For the past five years, she has shared a Penguins season-ticket plan with a group, going to 10 or 15 games a season.
The NHL lockout, instituted by owners when the previous collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association expired Sept. 15, has Rudert upset.
"It's frustrating to have paid for your tickets and then not be able to watch hockey," Rudert, 30, a lawyer from Wexford, said. "It's cold outside, and it's hockey season. It's very difficult as a fan when all you want is to watch hockey."
But she will be back as soon as what she considers to be a confounding stalemate between the owners and the players ends and games begin again. The season was scheduled to start Oct. 11. Games have been canceled through the end of this month.
Rudert isn't the only season ticket-holder who will continue to embrace the team after the labor dispute is resolved.
In a city where the NHL club has a sellout streak of 254 games that carried over from the Civic Arena to Consol Energy Center, the fans who have made the most direct financial investment -- via season tickets -- are struggling with a love/not-so-keen relationship right now.
They miss the sport, but they also are troubled by the lockout.
"I'm going back for hockey itself," said Ron Valerino, 55, a sales account manager for a biotechnology company and an assistant coach of Duquesne University's club team, who has had some sort of season ticket almost continuously since the 1970s. "I never considered boycotting. Those things don't work. I'm a hockey fan foremost."
The same goes for Kevin Baverso, 42, a graphic designer and vice president of sales and marketing for a training and promotions company.
"I have mixed emotions on it," said Baverso, of Mt. Lebanon, who has been part of a season-ticket group for more than a decade. "I understand the business side of it. They're trying to get things worked out for the players and the owners.
"I'll be back. I'll be happy they're playing. But I think I miss it mostly because my children can't go to the games with me. They're at that age now [8 and 11] where they really enjoy it. They're asking, 'When is hockey starting up? I say, 'No clue.' "
Valerino wonders if teams in markets that have had historically weak attendance might struggle coming out of the lockout, but Baverso isn't concerned.
"That's not happening with hockey fans," he said. "They're going to be just fine. I think they know that."
Perhaps that is why NHL owners might figure they can hold firm to their demands for as long as it takes -- an idea that disenchants Lisa Klein, even though she plans to continue to go to games when the lockout ends.
"I would say I'm angry," said Klein, 33, of West Deer. A data analyst for a health insurance company, she has had full season tickets since 2006, shortly before the Penguins instituted a waiting list for season tickets.
"You make this investment," she said. "It's all about the fans for these teams."
Until it's all about the collective bargaining agreement.
"I'm really not happy about it," said Don Canofari, 54, of Baldwin. He's a manager at UPMC and has had season tickets for five years. He also had them for eight years through the earlier Cup years and goes back to the 1960s when he watched the minor-league Hornets at Civic Arena.
"Initially, when I heard the owners might lock out the players, I thought it probably wouldn't last too long. It's lasting longer now than I thought." Canofari said.
"You hear [league commissioner] Gary Bettman before talking at all these events, saying that hockey fans are the greatest fans in all of sports. He doesn't seem to project that now."
Season ticket-holders are left on the outside trying to decide which, if either, side they support in the labor dispute.
Klein wavers. She gets angry at the players, then shifts.
"They make enough money," she said. "I understand that everybody wants their share, but come on, you should love to play the sport. I understand there is some risk, but I think there should be passion for the players.
"It's aimed at the organizations, too. I guess it's more the situation."
Others side with the union.
"I kind of understand where the players are coming from," said Stuart Eicholtz, 43, a systems administrator from Robinson who has shared a half-season plan with a co-worker since he moved to the area in January 2005, the middle of star center Sidney Crosby's rookie season and the first season played after the previous lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season.
"It seems to me the last lockout, the players made concessions," Eicholtz said. "But I just want hockey back. I hope the players can negotiate an equitable deal, but I just want hockey back."
The 2004-05 lockout ended when the NHLPA agreed to institute a salary cap and players took a 24 percent pay cut but gained in several areas of contract rights. At the same time, the league improved the on-ice product through rules changes and enforcement and added the shootout element.
The game flourished. Although teams in some markets, specifically in the U.S., have struggled, overall NHL revenues blossomed to a record $3 billion last season. The league and players now are trying to settle on a new division of revenues -- it seems as if some sort of 50-50 split is most likely -- as well as revenue-sharing among clubs. The league also wants to scale back some of the player contract rights.
Baverso said in terms of the issues in this lockout, he's "indifferent because fans have no control," but he understands that the stakes have changed.
"What they were up against back in 2004 was a much bigger hurdle to jump over," he said. "I think this one is just a matter of both sides posturing and what one side or the other is willing to give up. I don't think the game is in jeopardy like it maybe was before."
Rudert sides with the players when it comes to their demand that their signed contracts be honored in full.
That doesn't mean she is taking aim at Penguins ownership, especially at Mario Lemieux, a Hall of Fame center who led the team to its first two Cups and was a co-owner when Crosby, Evgeni Malkin et al. won another in 2009.
"It's the owners collectively," Rudert said.
Lemieux and all other NHL team owners and employees are forbidden by the league from addressing the lockout publicly.
The Penguins offered season ticket-holders the option of leaving their money in their account and earning modest interest or getting refunds at the end of each canceled month.
Canofari said he didn't ask for refunds "because I assumed they would come back sooner than this."
Valerino also left his money with the Penguins. "I know if I take it out, I'm just going to spend it," he said, and he's been happy that the club has reached out to season ticket-holders in other ways.
"I have been getting emails from the Penguins with some contests for giveaways for season ticket-holders to the [basketball] City Game, to Carrie Underwood and some [presale opportunities]," he said. "That's a nice thing."
But Valerino does not condone the lockout.
"I can be mad about it, but I'm not going to pretend I'm not going back," he said. "I've been invested so long in it, that's probably why.
"But how are they going to spin that this is a good thing? They can't. Every fan knew that the last lockout was needed. [The league] was broken. They got the salary cap. Everyone can be competitive. Now, they set a record with $3 billion in revenues. Someone tell the fans, what is this about?"
And, some season ticket-holders wonder, why are they being taken for granted?
"The part that gets me is that they feel they can do that and just expect fans will come back," Eicholtz said.
"But, honestly, I think most of the fans WILL go back. I don't see most of the season ticket-holders bailing."
First Published November 18, 2012 12:12 am