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Penguins in position to achieve 400th consecutive sellout

| Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, 9:09 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins play the Blackhawks on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.

With the opening puck drop between the Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes four hours away and kickoff between the Steelers and Denver Broncos slightly more than five hours away on Sunday, the Penguins' official Twitter account beckoned to students in search of a sports-filled afternoon.

“Feeling extra #BurghProud?” the account asked. “Join us for #CARvsPIT and stay for the Steelers game afterward!”

A link to the Penguins' student rush program, which sells tickets at a discounted rate on the day of the game, concluded the tweet.

A mixture of savvy marketing and a sense for what drives local fans has put the Penguins, an organization on the cusp of collapse in the late 1990s, in a position to reach 400 consecutive sellouts. Barring a surprise, the Penguins' paid attendance figure for Thursday's 7 p.m. game with Philadelphia will reach or surpass 18,387, the figure needed for the team to reach the milestone.

How much credit does student rush deserve for the streak? That depends on how its contributions are defined, said Travis Williams, chief operating officer of the Penguins and the person supervising the organization's business while president David Morehouse recovers from heart surgery.

“It's not to drive us to 18,387,” Williams said of the program's purpose. “It's allowed us over the last 10-plus years to build a growing fan base. Eventually those students become able to buy and afford season tickets or partial season tickets or maybe they're buying four or five games apiece, but they've come back and been great supporters of the team and a major reason why we've been able to continue the sellout streak for as long as we have.”

Apparently the gap between 400 and 500 is where NHL sellout streaks die.

Vancouver's streak of 474 ended Oct. 18, 2014.

Minnesota's ended at 409 on Sept. 22, 2010.

Montreal intentionally ended its streak at 422 on Dec. 9, 2014, by leaving empty a seat long occupied by Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, who died days earlier.

Colorado claims to own the league record with 487 straight from Nov. 9, 1995, to Oct. 14, 2006.

Maintaining streaks and setting records are not on the Penguins' agenda, Williams said. Nor is the organization in a hurry to find out if there's a way to increase Consol Energy Center's seating capacity and still achieve sellouts.

“When you get to the level where we are, in terms of the numbers, you become aware of the streak, obviously,” he said. “It's not something we focus on or are fascinated with on a day-to-day basis.”

A sustainable streak became possible when fans, invigorated by the Penguins' success during their last few years at Mellon Arena, purchased about 15,000 full-season ticket packages or the equivalent in partial-season packages for the season Consol Energy Center opened. It grew more probable as the Penguins allowed the season-ticket holder total to climb closer to 16,000 in recent years.

“We start (at about 16,000) every game, which is a wonderful place to start,” Williams said. “The reason we moved to a larger season-ticket base was because of the secondary ticket market (like StubHub and Ticket Exchange).

“With that secondary market, more people have access to tickets than they did before, so therefore, our concern about people cycling through the arena and seeing a larger portion of our fan base being able to experience the game, that's happening organically. So we don't necessarily take care of it ourselves by reserving a larger number of individual or group tickets.”

Gripes about empty seats or apathetic crowds tend to cast a shadow upon the merits of sellout streaks based purely on ticket sales. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury notices when a crowd adds to or detracts from a game's atmosphere, but he considers any near-capacity crowd, lively or not, optimal when he thinks back to the state of the Penguins when he arrived in 2003.

“I was a little surprised, because in Canada, it's always pretty full, right?” Fleury said. “I remember when I started playing, we weren't good at all, and it was really empty. And trying to give tickets away to people.

“It was amazing how when we started having Geno and Sid and (Jordan Staal), and we started winning a little bit, people started coming. I think Pittsburgh is such a good sports town, and people really care about their teams and how well they do.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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