Pittsburgh fans are unique. This small town has a lot of people, neighborhoods and ethnic influences but is at heart a small Appalachian town. Personal relationships and loyalties are important here as personified by the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty which allowed players to hang around a year too long instead of a year too little. Pittsburgh has a connection to its favorite athletes and Pittsburgh Penguins fans have long been even more loyal.
But now the question must be asked: Do you want your favorite player, or do you want a chance at more championships?
The Pittsburgh Penguins were once a “non-traditional” market. Hockey didn’t do so well in Pittsburgh and the organization declared bankruptcy twice (1975, 1998) and has been sold six times including the bankruptcy rescues.
Like non-traditional markets today, a long time ago the Penguins resorted to marketing things other than hockey to stay afloat. Players became the thing. First, there was Mario Lemieux but not much else and the Penguins were sold to their audience that way. As the Penguins eventually added talent via the deft hands and dealing of GM Craig Patrick, the fanbase expanded to include players like Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey and more.
But hockey wasn’t ever the main focus. It was the players. And it was winning which kept the ticket buyers and viewers happy.
Fan attachment to Jaromir Jagr couldn’t keep fans in the building and the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1998.
And 30 years after the arrival of Lemieux, Penguins fans were treated to another crop of player/celebrities including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, and even Jordan Staal was included in that crew.
Fans picked their boys and the Penguins paid off like a hot slot machine. By Crosby’s third year, the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup Final. In the fourth year, they won it.
But a funny thing happened. In the success, factions formed. Penguins fans became Crosby fans, Malkin fans, Fleury fans, Fleury bashers, and they fought with each other. Being Penguins fans often seemed secondary.
Phil Kessel has been added to the list with a fervent fan base like no other. The game has never been front and center, nor the team. It has been about the name on the back of the jersey.
Maybe it is time hockey should be the featured attraction?
The Penguins are asking themselves the same question which I pose to you. Do you want your favorite players or do you want a greater chance at winning for a longer period of time? Lemieux who was both the first object of modern Penguins fandom and one of the creators of the player-driven culture is reportedly not keen on dealing star players.
The Penguins culture is about star power and star players. Someday, sometime, hockey should take front and center, yes?
Like Coffey, Recchi, Stevens, Jagr, Staal, and Fleury, eventually even Crosby and Malkin will be gone. The odds of getting another crop of stars are small. The odds of getting another transformative player who is the face of the game is even smaller.
The Penguins and fans unexpectedly find themselves at a crossroads. If not this season, then soon. They will be forced to offer hockey to the masses without the aid of a Hall of Fame crew. There are always free agents with big names available which the Penguins could chase to keep up the name value, but that doesn’t seem to be a strategy for building a team. Ask the former New York Strangers.
As the paying public, you have every right to demand big ticket items and names on the back of the jersey which you will pay to see. Or you can demand a good hockey team. If not now, then soon enough that choice will be one or the other.
So, which do you want?