The Pittsburgh Penguins are pushing hard to sell out their home opener on Saturday against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s more than 600 games since the Penguins didn’t sell out a game, but that streak is hanging by a thread as some fans can’t be bothered for a home opener against a franchise legend on a Saturday night.
Ladies and gentlemen, bandwagon fans have left the building.
Perhaps the perceived lack of a chance to say, “We won the Cup” or just “We won,” has shoved the passive masses away. Perhaps babysitters won’t work for less than $15 an hour, either?
I hope this isn’t the beginning of trouble for a franchise that has seen the inside of a bankruptcy courtroom several times since its Ecuadorian Penguin-killing inaugural season in 1967.
I hope Pittsburgh has enough HOCKEY fans.
I think so. I hope so.
Penguins & the Past
You know, this keyboard didn’t always belong to an irritable media type who rooted for stories instead of teams. This keyboard once belonged to an ardent fan of the Pittsburgh sports teams, especially the Pittsburgh Penguins.
As kids, we had Mario Lemieux. Every Christmas, we waited anxiously for Penguins tickets in our stocking–always on the giveaway night, too (That was long before sports teams began giving away knickknacks for every game). We played street hockey because of Lemieux and practiced our backhand dekes and top-shelf breakaway moves.
I was a young adult away at college in 1997. I was nearly overwhelmed when Lemieux scored a breakaway goal, then signaled “one more” to an adoring Civic Arena crowd. That was one game before the Philadelphia Flyers ended the Penguins season and we thought Lemieux’s career was over. It broke my heart.
I suffered through a room full of Flyers fans to watch that game. Tell me that’s not dedication.
I came out of my seat in 1998 when Jaromir Jagr, on one good leg, saved the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise with a Game 6 goal against the New Jersey Devils in 1999, and the Penguins upset vaunted New Jersey to collect the critical second-round playoff revenues. That extra round of playoff money made the difference between having the Penguins…and not.
Thanks, Jags. Thanks for everything.
The memory of Jagr’s goals in those playoffs and the sheer will to win despite a debilitating leg injury shall forever be the most heroic performance in Pittsburgh sports history.
The hairs on my arm still stand.
The 1997 Penguins team, the 1998 teams, and the following years weren’t truly Stanley Cup contenders. Fans trickled away as the band became players like Milan Kraft, Alexei Morozov, the last go-round of Robby Brown, Dan Focht, and lead guitarist Rico Fata.
After Lemieux and Jagr, the Penguins embarked on a Next Generation or Generation Next campaign that featured more players who were infamous for their lack of talent than known for having it.
(Yes, Lemieux was a part of those teams but was often injured and suffering through the pains of a new-arena fight).
The Student Rush plan was born, and while it didn’t pack the house, it let a few thousand rowdy, fun-loving, enjoyable fans into the building.
Those smaller crowds were FUN. They were what hockey crowds should be–loud, energetic, supportive, and there for a good time. They more closely resembled a Canadian crowd’s enthusiasm than the detached, demanding seat buyers who departed.
Pro tip: Put down your phone and enjoy the people around you. Double pro tip: Enjoy the hockey. If you can learn to enjoy a smoked bourbon that smells like a tire fire and burns like kerosene, hockey should be no problem, eh?
Winning Arrived, AGAIN
Eventually, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Max Talbot, and Jordan Staal arrived. Those students who “rushed” to the Civic Arena found themselves part of the party on the Southside, too. A few of the boys had keys to the backdoor of Mario’s, and things were fun.
Then, winning happened. Those students and young adults were priced out of the building as corporate types, bandwagon fans, and reflected glory specialists (the people there not for hockey but for the feeling of winning), returned.
Arrive late. Leave early. Cheer when Sidney Crosby pleases you.
Remember when Thomas Greiss compared the Pittsburgh crowd to a mausoleum?
Overall, the fanbase remains the strongest in the United States. Last season, the Penguins TV ratings beat every other NHL AND NBA team, but the crowd…meh. Could you imagine thousands of Montreal Canadiens fans leaving a tie game or a one-goal game with six minutes left?
Beating traffic is a life goal to non-hockey fans, apparently.
Well, the Pittsburgh Penguins are pushing hard to sell tickets this season. I hope they get every last one sold, and I hope thousands of new fans pack the place to be rowdy, loud, energetic, and fun.
The organization deserves the support, too. It spent money despite the COVID pandemic, which created massive business losses. Few organizations treat their fans better than the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Perhaps Pittsburgh fans were never forced to love a team without a superstar. Instead, they are a gritty team that skates its collective butt off, chases every loose puck, and competes to the end. It is certainly a departure from the dynamic offense, which is part of the Penguins organization’s DNA.
“I said to the guys after the game that we just love their compete right now,” Penguins head coach Sullivan said after the Thursday OT loss. “You know we’re competing hard, we’re battling, and it’s not perfect by any stretch out there. But I love our attitude. I love our compete.”
The Penguins took three of four points in Florida. Their first two games have been impressive, just as they were last season when missing a myriad of players. And the season before when the same was true.
Even without Crosby, or Malkin, the Penguins are an entertaining hockey team. These aren’t the Pittsburgh Pirates who abused your trust, squashed a great game for decades, and peddle fireworks.
No, the Penguins are still legit. They have an excellent coach who has helped define this era of NHL hockey and routinely walks the tightrope of a structured system and turning players loose.
It’s not always about the Stanley Cup. It’s also about the journey, the game.
If you can’t root for Bryan Rust or Kasperi Kapanen, appreciate the comeback stories of Mike Matheson or Brian Boyle, or be entertained by an energetic, good hockey team that generally plays well, then…good riddance.
Reflected glory specialists will point to three straight Round One losses. OK. That simply means a fan was there for winning the Stanley Cup and not the hockey or even the greatness of Crosby and Malkin.
Here’s the challenge: it’s time Pittsburgh showed up for hockey, not star players. Superstars are a rare commodity, and yours will soon be antiques.
If hockey doesn’t appeal to you, save the money on tickets. Don’t worry about traffic or an $11 beer. Stay home.
Stay home when the Penguins are a hot ticket, again, too.
To bandwagoners who drive up ticket prices in good times then bounce after the peak (and will probably be outraged, OUTRAGED! by this bit of honesty), goodbye!
Maybe a few more starry-eyed kids who think of the arena as a magical palace, like I once did, will get into the arena.
Perhaps those diehards who have been relegated to watching TV can return. The student rush is also back, and I hope it works just as well for the Pittsburgh Penguins as it did when they introduced it over 15 years ago. And I hope Penguins hockey fans pack the place and enjoy the greatest game on the planet.
If you’re here, you probably deserve it.