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NHL banks on Penguins' 'star power' to bring fans back post-lockout

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins Equipment Assistant Jon Taglianetti stacks packed bags on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, ready to travel to Philadelphia for the first game of the season against the Flyers Saturday afternoon.

Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers

3 p.m.

Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia

TV/Radio: NBC/WXDX-FM (105.9)

Records: Season opener for both teams

Notable: Seventh straight game for Penguins against their intrastate rival going back to last season after their elimination in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Locked out of the prior season, the Penguins lucked out during the summer of 2005. They drafted Sidney Crosby, which eased the sting when play resumed and the team was awful.

Today, emerging from another lockout — less damaging in terms of lost games — the Penguins are a long way from awful. The franchise is rich, successful and, with the National Hockey League's highest local TV ratings and 254 straight home sellouts, backed by a loyal, passionate fan base.

It's not just here. The Penguins are a hot item beyond Pittsburgh.

“They are one of the revered franchises in the NHL,” said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, a former Penguins assistant. “I was in London this summer for the Olympics, and I was getting questions about the Penguins from people from England and all over the world. ... They are huge in Europe.”

McGuire plans to be in Philadelphia on Saturday for the Penguins-Flyers game, one of two season-opening NBC marquee telecasts, along with Chicago-Los Angeles, shown to different parts of the country.

The Penguins have four scheduled NBC appearances during this abbreviated season. Only Chicago has more, with five. According to the network, Penguins' national telecasts last season drew an 18 percent higher rating than non-Penguins games.

“I think with the hockey audience in the U.S. and Canada, the name is very well recognized,” said Mike Petchko, managing director of ISM/USA, a North Hills-based marketing firm. “(Fans) come out to see a winning sports brand that's much bigger than we know it in Pittsburgh.”

Crosby helped end the dark period that set in after a decade of excellence marked by two championships and plenty of stars, notably Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

The selection of perhaps the game's best current player resulted from winning a lottery the lockout created. The Penguins' ineptness became a blessing because it provided a favorable position to gain the top pick.

Crosby and a supporting cast of players, coaches and management since have transformed a franchise that bled money and perhaps was headed elsewhere.

The team got new owners, fiscal stability, a new arena and a heightened level of play that included successive Stanley Cup finals and a championship.

“They're a financial juggernaut and a consistent contender for the next 10 years because they have two huge centerpieces there,” Sports Business Journal NHL writer Chris Botta said, referring to Crosby's fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin, the 2011-12 league most valuable player and scoring champion.

An ownership team headed by billionaire Ron Burkle and the legendary Lemieux “makes for a pretty powerful package in sports, no matter what league you're playing in,” Botta said. “They are right up there with the league's biggest draws, if not the biggest draw.”

In Crosby's 2005-06 rookie season, the Penguins had just 22 wins and 58 points and ranked 13th in road attendance. Since then, they have placed no lower than third as a road draw, twice leading the league and once finishing second.

In five of six road games last year against teams near the bottom of the league in home attendance, all drawing less than 90 percent of capacity, crowds well above the teams' averages flocked to see the Penguins. Two games sold out.

“They have star power,” Petchko said of the Penguins.

Said Botta: “They're kind of an equal combination, lovable and they play the (role of) enemy well.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached atbcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

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