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Winter Classic: Hottest ticket on ice

| Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

During his brief tenure as the Cleveland Browns' top executive, John Collins never saw his team win at Heinz Field.

Now the NHL's chief operating officer, Collins believes he is backing a winner, regardless of the score, when the Penguins play Washington in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.

"It's a great town, and Heinz Field is a great venue," he said. "The two teams are playing well. The rivalry between the Capitals and Penguins is getting a lot of attention. You've got the two most recognizable stars in the game (in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin). This is the matchup I think people have been waiting for in the Winter Classic."

Whether it's the matchup or the unique nature of the event, the game is generating a sizable buzz even though it still is three weeks away.

"It's a very hot ticket," said Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for VisitPittsburgh, which promotes tourism here. The group's slogan for the Winter Classic is "3 rivers, 2 teams, 1 game to remember."

Added Davis: "Everyone I know is calling me and asking if I can find tickets."

He cannot, and he's not alone. Those who are even better connected are giving the same answer.

"I have a lot of relatives," Penguins CEO and president David Morehouse wryly noted. "The thing about the Winter Classic is that more people seem to be interested in coming to that game than even playoff games. I've gotten more calls from people who don't consider themselves avid hockey fans.

"This game transcends the normal hockey fan. It's a spectacle, a major event, and people want to be part of it. ... But it's tough when you're in the ticket-selling business and everyone's asking you for tickets."

It's a similar scene around Washington.

"(The response) has been absolutely tremendous," said Jim Van Stone, who is in charge of ticket sales for the Capitals. "Ever since it was announced in June, people have been absolutely bonkers over it. This is our Super Bowl."

The clamor for tickets hasn't ceased, even though the 65,000-plus spectators expected to attend far outnumber the past two Winter Classic crowds at baseball stadiums -- Fenway Park in Boston and Chicago's Wrigley Field.

The first Winter Classic, at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., drew more than 71,000 on Jan. 1, 2007. The Penguins played in that game, too, beating the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1, in a shootout on Crosby's winning goal.

It started snowing during the game, adding to the drama and creating a scene that was likened to a snow globe. That first regular-season outdoor NHL game played in the United States kick-started what has become a phenomenon.

About 30,000 tickets were allotted to the Penguins and 20,000 to the Capitals. The rest went to the Steelers, the NHL and its corporate sponsors and to fans whose names were picked in a lottery. A portion of the Penguins' tickets went to youth hockey groups.

About 4,300 tickets were available online Saturday, according to FanSnap, a website that provides links to ticket brokers. The cheapest seats, in the uppermost 500 level with a face value of $50, were selling for about $300 apiece. The median price of the remaining tickets was $575.

The highest original face value for a ticket was $250.

"We had high expectations, and it's already gone beyond high expectations," Morehouse said. "We had no reason not to think it wouldn't be extremely popular. We've sold out the last three years running; we have a waiting list of 8,000 seats. ... However, this has been even more than we anticipated."

Morehouse said he wanted the Penguins to host the event after attending the first Winter Classic.

"It's the uniqueness of it," he said. "It's also a celebration of winter. It's a way to experience hockey in a way you can't normally experience it. Instead of 18,000 screaming fans inside, it's a different experience with (65,000) fans screaming outside."

Chris Jankosky said he plans to get tickets for himself and his girlfriend -- one way or another. A Lower Burrell native, Jankosky lives in Denver, where he operates an ice rink. He said he has connections at Reebok, the NHL's official merchandiser, and hopes to land some freebies. If not, he said, he is willing to pay up to about $400 apiece.

"My friends in Pittsburgh are doing the same thing," he said. "It's like, 'How much can you spend• How much can you spend?' I'm just a die-hard hockey fan. I've been a Pens fan all my life, and I haven't made it back for a game yet this year. I like the different kind of events, and ever since they started this, I wanted to go to it. Once I heard it was in Pittsburgh, it was a done deal."

It would be especially cool, he said, to tailgate before a hockey game.

"That would be the main part of the experience," he said.

"Penguins fans will now have the ability to do what Steelers fans do," said Collins, who with NBC executive Jon Miller helped put the wheels in motion for the first Winter Classic. "People love big events."

So do local businesses. Most restaurants are closed on New Year's Day, but Davis said he is urging them to stay open to capitalize on folks staying overnight.

"I think all the hotels are pretty happy they decided to do it here," said Bob Page, the area director of sales and marketing for Omni Hotels and Resorts, which includes the William Penn Hotel in Downtown.

Page said the hotel is booked for New Year's Eve. That doesn't usually happen.

"Typically, we do a high occupancy, but we don't sell out," he said. "This year, it's a different story."

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