ShareThis Page

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

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 12:20 a.m.
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.
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. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

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 or 412-320-7810.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.