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Pittsburgh is the new hockey hotbed

Penguins/NHL Videos

Sunday, May 4, 2008
 

As an NHL television analyst, he is known for his blunt commentary. As a former coach, he has worked in hockey-obsessed Canadian markets such as Montreal and Ottawa.

When evaluating what makes a hockey town, Pierre McGuire depends not on statistics such as attendance, merchandise sales or television ratings, but instead on a town's passion for the game. Pittsburgh's is at an all-time high as the Penguins head into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at 2 p.m. today at Mellon Arena with a 3-1 series lead over the New York Rangers.

"I travel all over the league, and everybody talks about Detroit as 'Hockeytown' - and deservedly so, because of its tradition - but the noise levels in Pittsburgh, Minnesota, New York and Buffalo are just as good," said McGuire, a former Penguins scout who coached the Hartford Whalers.

"Pittsburgh now, because of its young talent and rabid fan base cultivated by the organization, is tremendous. It's awesome to be around a passionate fan base. Hockey's not a photo op for these people. These are people investing in the product. It's easy to be involved with a winner, but this team is poised to win for a long time."

The Penguins are at the epicenter of the hockey world, thanks to a core of young superstars led by centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And Pittsburgh is celebrating hockey like never before, even the Stanley Cup championship years of 1991 and '92.


Road rules

The Penguins are the NHL's top draw on the road and rank first in overall attendance in terms of percentage above capacity. Here are the league leaders:

Road attendance

1. Penguins - 105.5

2. N.Y. Rangers - 98.1

3. Detroit Red Wings - 97.8

Overall attendance

1. Penguins - 103.2

2. Buffalo Sabres - 101.8

3. Calgary Flames - 101.7

Source: espn.com


Dating to the final 13 games of the 2006-07 season, the Penguins have had 60 consecutive sellouts, including a franchise-record 54 regular-season games (the previous record was 30), and are poised for another capacity crowd today.

"I think it's spectacular as a hockey town, and the Penguins deserve a lot of credit for cultivating that attitude," McGuire said, noting that ESPN The Magazine last week ranked the organization first in the NHL and third in all professional sports in fan relations. "The story of this thing is the way the franchise has reached out to the community, just little things like having players drop off season tickets at the fans' doors and the student rush program. It's a great hockey market and will continue to grow."

That is evidenced by the waiting list for season tickets, not to mention the fans flocking by the thousands to the Mellon Arena lawn to watch playoff games on a giant outdoor video screen. All are promising positives for the Penguins' new hockey arena, which will seat 18,500 when it opens for the 2009-10 season.

"I think we're a hockey town,'' said Maureen Hartnett, 23, of Bethel Park as she sat on the lawn of Mellon Arena watching Game 1 of the Rangers series on the outdoor television. "There's a lot of support. They're a great team. I've always been a fan, especially lately. To set up huge TVs, they're trying to pull the community in and make it a spectator sport.''

Pascal Dupuis came from a market where hockey can be a tough sell.

"I came from Atlanta, where it was not the first sport and it was hard to get pumped up for the game. Here, emotionally, you feed off the crowd," Dupuis said. "People are into it right now. They really care. They're with the team, whether we win or lose. Obviously, they're showing their support with sellouts, but it's not only that. People are watching at home, at bars, in restaurants. They're talking about it all the time."

It's not just Stanley Cup fever. The Penguins played the maximum number of games on national television, four on NBC and eight on Versus, and are drawing record ratings on FSN Pittsburgh. Their Game 3 victory over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals had an 18.56 rating, more than triple the average for a regular-season game and even better than the outdoor Winter Classic against the Buffalo Sabres in January (17.7).

"You win and they watch, and they're winning in a way that's exciting and entertaining," said FSN Pittsburgh executive producer Shawn McClintock, whose network has led all 18 FSN regions in NHL ratings the past two seasons. "The personalities on this team are engaging, and it makes for great TV. It's the ultimate reality TV show."

Pittsburgh will be known as a football-first town as long as the Steelers are around, but it is developing a reputation as a hockey hotbed. The number of indoor rinks has increased from a handful to 30-plus, with youth organizations tripling in size. Western Pennsylvania youth hockey produced its first NHL player in Penguins left wing Ryan Malone, 28, of Upper St. Clair, and its first first-round draft choice in Philadelphia Flyers center R.J. Umberger, 26, of Plum. Four others from the Pittsburgh area played in the NHL this season.

Where Malone comes from a hockey family - his father, Greg, played for the Penguins and later was a team scout - the city that fell for the game by watching Mario Lemieux now has 21 current NCAA Division I players, with 10 more on the way.

"What happens with hockey is if it's not a native sport, people don't grow up playing it," Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan said. "Now, we've had a generation who grew up playing hockey. The kids who started in the Mario era, the boom, are now parents who have their kids playing. First, there was a Mario generation. Now, there's a Sidney generation."

This is the first year since the opening of PNC Park in 2001 that the Penguins (17,076 per game) have outdrawn the Pirates (15,761). Although Mellon Arena's capacity limitations - it holds only 16,940 with an additional 1,192 for standing-room-only - prevents the Penguins from leading the NHL in attendance, they are the league's top overall draw, including road games, in attendance above capacity at 103.2 percent.

"I think the town has a passion for it. You can tell when they're in the stands," Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "I've been surprised by Pittsburgh. When I first got here, I thought it was strictly a football town, but people really do take a shine to hockey. I guess it's kind of a blue-collar sport. People enjoy that here, and they like it.

"Canadian cities are a little bit different because that's what leads off (ESPN's) 'SportsCenter' for them. It's a religion to them. Here, it's a little bit different, but I'd put Pittsburgh in one of the top cities, for sure."


Shopping Sidney

The Penguins are the NHL leaders in merchandise sales, thanks to the soaring popularity of young stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin:

• Of the 24 NHL teams that increased online merchandise sales for the regular season, the Penguins had the highest increase at 143 percent compared to last season.

• The top-selling item on Shop.NHL.com this season was the "Pittsburgh Penguins 10 Greatest Games" DVD.

• Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has been the most-searched player on Shop.NHL.com for three consecutive years. His jersey was the top seller every month from September 2005 until February 2008, when Washington's Alexander Ovechkin surpassed the injured Crosby.

• Crosby's popularity is such that Shop.NHL.com introduced event-specific Crosby merchandise - from Winter Classic jerseys to St. Patrick's Day name and number shirts - which was an instant success and sold out.

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