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Kovacevic: Hockey heaven? You call it home

| Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. — What a hockey whirlwind these past 48 hours have been.

Monday in Winnipeg, my taxi driver was asking his radio dispatcher when Sidney Crosby might be back, I overheard two children in a store debating with their father which of Crosby or Evgeni Malkin was better, and the airport customs guy looked at my passport and asked me about Tyler Kennedy . Small wonder Manitoba native Arron Asham calls it "hockey heaven right now."

Tuesday, it was off to the self-declared "State of Hockey," land of 10,000 lakes that all make for potential rinks, host of a high school hockey tournament that's as big a deal as anything the Wild do all winter, birthplace of Herb Brooks and about half the roster of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

It all reminds me a little of home.

That might seem crazy to those whose love of hockey predates Mario Lemieux's arrival, but a powerful case can be made that Pittsburgh has become the NHL's No. 1 American market.

Not so long ago, the indoor soccer Spirit drew more fans than the Penguins in the same Civic Arena.

Now, there have been 213 consecutive sellouts, and the season-ticket waiting list is at 9,000.

Not so long ago, the Penguins were the league's worst team, led in scoring by the great Dick Tarnstrom.

Now, since winning the Crosby lottery and adding Malkin and other luminaries, they are nothing less than the league's marquee franchise. They are the No. 1 seller of merchandise, the No. 1 national TV attraction, the No. 1 road attraction at the gate and, for what it's worth, the No. 1 magnet for squealing fans outside their hotel lobbies.

Not so long ago, only a handful of games were televised all season. Mike Lange wasn't just the voice of the Penguins. He was our eyes.

Now, the Penguins are No. 1 in local TV ratings and, stunningly, No. 1 in total households despite being the nation's 23rd-largest TV market. More total people watch the NHL in Pittsburgh than in New York! In cyberspace, the Penguins have the most downloaded mobile app and lead in Facebook friends (1,011,932) and Twitter followers (121,476).

Not so long ago, the franchise was broke, bankrupt, then on the cusp of leaving for Kansas City.

Now, Consol Energy Center is maximizing money at unprecedented levels during games, even as the Penguins rank No. 1 in the NHL in local broadcasting revenue and No. 1 in print revenue such as game programs and yearbooks.

Not so long ago, our amateur hockey was built on six rinks and a flotilla of mom-driven station wagons.

Today, in the steadiest of all these growth areas, rinks are everywhere, Western Pennsylvania players are sprinkled across the NHL, and there were just as many kids from Pittsburgh taken in the first 50 picks of the June draft as there were Russians. We even saw Gibsonia's Brandon Saad briefly making Chicago's roster this season months after being drafted.

That one just blows me away: It's no longer a big deal to see more kids from Western Pennsylvania drafted into the NHL than we're seeing in the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball.

"I give the credit for all of this, for everything that's happened in Pittsburgh, to the volunteers who make amateur hockey go," said Ray Shero, the Penguins' general manager. "I know it got started with Mario, and there was a rebirth with Sid. But to me, your foundation comes from people playing and teaching the game. Our volunteers, the moms and dads, grew up with the sport in Pittsburgh. It's theirs to pass down."

Shero is part of a line of prominent American builders to work for the Penguins, following Craig Patrick, "Badger" Bob Johnson and Brooks, all Hall of Famers.

It's impossible not to think of Brooks when coming to St. Paul. This was where he was born, buried after the tragic car accident in 2003, and it's where he is honored outside Xcel Energy Center with a statue. I got to know Brooks during his time with the Penguins and can attest that he had a soft spot for Pittsburgh, as well. He often spoke of his hope — one he held for the whole country — that hockey would take root in places other than Minnesota and Massachusetts.

What's happened in our city is much more Mario than Miracle, but Herbie would have loved it.

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