Kovacevic: Move over, Toronto, it's our game
Minutes before the Penguins' intrasquad scrimmage a week ago, a security officer outside Consol Energy Center's main entrance broke the bad news to about 1,000 fans gathered near the glass.
“Doors closed! Sorry, folks, that's it!”
Almost immediately, one youngster shouted that his buddy heard they were still letting fans in through the Centre Avenue entrance on the opposite side.
And so, they ran.
Several hundred of those fans bolted on an uphill sprint around the old church, through the grass, over a fence, whatever it took.
To try to get into a glorified practice already populated by a capacity crowd.
Now, imagine the real thing.
Imagine when the NHL finally, formally returns to Pittsburgh on this fittingly wintry Wednesday night, with the Penguins playing host to the Maple Leafs amid the game's two brightest stars, 18,387 of its most dedicated fans and about a half-million more near local TV sets.
If you ask me, it'll look like hockey's coming home.
Not just our home.
The sport's new home.
See, with all due respect to our Ontarian visitors in town, I dare say it's now plenty safe to posit that this golden little triangle, this most fortunate magnet to four of the greatest talents in NHL history … this is hockey's new Mecca.
Bon voyage to that ship. The two dozen Stanley Cup banners of the bleu, blanc et rouge might fly untouched forever. But the old Forum is as much of a ghost as those that once haunted it, and the Habs are a shadow of their former selves, not having reached a single final since last winning it all in 1993.
Where have you stormed off, Patrick Roy?
Well, that's the consensus choice across Canada, but let's be real: It's based on black-and-white footage. The Leafs haven't won the Cup since 1967, the sport's longest such streak, or even reached a final. Just one division title in all that time, too. No playoffs since 2004.
Personal favorite: No scoring champion since Gordie Drillon in 1938.
Yes, that Gordie Drillon.
Look, don't misunderstand. The Toronto metro area is three times our size, and its passion for pucks is unrivaled. The Maple Leafs are the NHL's most lucrative franchise and, fact is, the league could put a second franchise there and it would be the second-most lucrative.
But sorry, no road to Mecca can have four decades of failure and Phil Kessel at the other end.
There has to be a marquee.
There has to be some magic.
I'm not sure any of us can fully process what's happened to hockey in Pittsburgh, from the three championships to the 14 scoring titles in 24 years to the various events — some as bizarre as they were blessed — that led to the confluence of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
But here we are …
· A 255-game sellout streak.
· A season-ticket waiting list of 9,500.
· Higher local TV ratings than any U.S.-based NHL team and higher than any NBA team.
· Greater popularity than the Steelers among the younger crowd — ages 18-29, per a statewide poll in 2011 — and greater popularity than the Pirates overall. The only other market where the NHL team is bigger than its Major League Baseball counterpart is, of course, Toronto.
· Ranking No. 1 in merchandise sales the past five years.
· Record amateur hockey registrations across Western Pennsylvania.
· Placing four locals on the U.S. national team that just won the World Junior Championships, an event Canada once owned. One of them was the tournament MVP, goaltender John Gibson of Whitehall.
The Penguins aren't just a phenomenon. They're a freak. They're scaling heights of popularity no American team has known.
Yeah, I can hear the uninformed cynics repeating the same tired refrain about how they had the NHL's worst record and lowest home attendance in 2003-04.
I was on the beat that winter tailing Dick Tarnstrom and Company, and what I know, from the inside and outside, was that ownership had dug too many holes too deeply over too many years, the team was terrible, the building was ancient, the NHL's pre-cap economics were a mess, and the bill came due.
It was rock bottom.
Even then, that season was capped by one of the most moving ovations I'd witnessed at the Civic Arena, as that sorry bunch was serenaded by a standing, roaring crowd after its finale simply for having given an honest effort.
Those of you who were there know what I'm talking about.
Even then, Pittsburgh never stopped loving its Penguins.
And the cold truth, as those hardy fans who eventually were squeezed into last week's scrimmage can attest, is that it's all been an uphill sprint ever since.
To the very peak.