Sports

A Great Day for Hockey

Ross McGowan
Photo from HPA Int'l.com

The Penguins' future in Pittsburgh wasn't the only thing on the line when a deal to build the team a new arena was announced.

The clearest way to illustrate how big an effect the Pittsburgh Penguins' arena saga (whether or not it would be built, and whether or not they would leave the city) had on me is to list the things I would have boycotted for life if they had ended up leaving. I would never have voted for any of the three principal politicians involved in the negotiations -- Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, or Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- for any office. I would have gone to extreme lengths to never, ever set foot in Kansas City, the city favored to land the Penguins in the event of relocation. And above all, I would never have willingly watched another second of NHL hockey until the day I died.

I'll gladly acknowledge that the sum of these boycotts could easily be classified as immature and excessive, but given that Penguins fans everywhere have had a solid year of panic about whether or not team ownership and local politicians might ever get around to completing a deal to keep the team in Pittsburgh, I'd hope that my irrationality would be slightly more understandable. Today, after all of this and at the onset of the 2007 Stanley Cup playoffs, it's almost as if nothing ever happened. And, frankly, it's difficult to describe what a relief that is.

Photo from DPHockey.com

The best part about the deal finally being completed (other than the Penguins staying in Pittsburgh for at least another 32 years) is that fans can finally relax and focus on the fact that the team has been the NHL's story of the year thus far -- on the ice as well as off. Their nucleus of young talent is unsurpassed. Jordan Staal (at 18 years of age), Sidney Crosby (19), and Evgeni Malkin (20) are all the best players in the world for their respective ages, and Crosby is the best in the world, period. The Penguins have been stockpiling talent at the top of the draft for years, and this year everything has come together.

But in order for the team to fulfill its potential in Pittsburgh, a new arena needed to be built, replete with all the modern revenue streams that enable teams to actually pay their players' salaries, such as luxury boxes and exorbitantly priced beer. The whole process effectively began when Mario Lemieux, shortly after his first retirement, spearheaded an ownership group that bought the team and saved it from bankruptcy. The sole aim of the Lemieux Group was to hold onto the team long enough to secure a new arena and then bail out once its future in Pittsburgh was secured. And all it took was eight years of Lemieux and his partners steadily losing money, one potential sale of the team that was reneged upon by the Penguins when they won the NHL draft lottery in 2005 and obtained Crosby, one actual sale that fell apart when the new owner was informed by the league that he couldn't just move the team wherever he wanted without a fight, some incredibly complex and lengthy negotiations over how the prospective new arena was to be funded, and a million other not-so-insignificant details that aren't worth listing here. Still, in the end, sense did prevail, due in no small part to the fact that both the city of Pittsburgh and the NHL needed this deal to get done every bit as much as the Penguins' fans did.

To illustrate, ask a person on the street to name a thriving American city and you might hear "Phoenix", "Charlotte", "Austin", or some other example. But odds are that no one is going to mention Pittsburgh. By the same token, if you ask a person to name a thriving American professional sports league, you might hear of the NFL, NASCAR, or the geniuses making a killing off of televised poker. But in the mind of the common American sports fan, no league could possibly be "thriving" less than the NHL. This shows just how much image and perception matter in making evaluations like the Pens' arena deal, because, while stopping short of saying that either Pittsburgh or the NHL is cranking at full tilt right now, I'm of the opinion that both entities have gone a long way toward working through some of their harder times and are currently on the upswing.

I can't claim an outsider's perspective, but I get the impression that most people still tend to think of Pittsburgh as a polluted steel town, despite the fact that it hasn't been for 25 years. Even though I've lived in the area all my life, I have to admit it sounds strange to describe Pittsburgh as a clean, medicine-, education-, and technology-driven town, but that's precisely what it is. The city isn't completely out of the dark economically, but by the end of last year, a number of other city construction developments had already been arranged, most centering on the development of a more substantial residential area downtown. In the lead-up to the negotiations, Pittsburgh had palpable forward momentum, but the departure of the Penguins would have been a substantial blow. As I mentioned before, image matters, right or wrong. Cities on the rise usually acquire professional sports teams, not lose them.

But if its image problems you're looking for, it's hard to top the NHL, also known as "The League that Canceled an Entire Season". Sometimes I'm shocked to realize just how unnoticed the NHL is beyond its core fanbase, like when a friend of mine from a non-hockey town (who I consider to be a big sports fan in general) said he'd never even heard of superstar right-winger Jaromir Jagr. And it seems that I was one of five people in America who watched the NHL All-Star Game. (I'm assuming I was the only person who watched the young stars game and the skills competition the night before.) Newspapers in cities with NHL teams in weaker hockey markets like Los Angeles often don't send their beat writers on the road with the teams anymore. And somehow Crosby still hasn't landed himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, even though to call him the LeBron James of hockey would be, if anything, a slight to Sid, not LeBron.

All of this clouds the fact that the NHL's on-ice product is the best it's been since the New Jersey Devils and their infamous trap defense sucked all the fun out of hockey in 1995. New post-lockout rule changes have markedly improved the flow of the game. The Buffalo Sabres have become the NHL's equivalent to the Phoenix Suns, whose fast style of play and skilled players, along with their outstanding depth, allow them to play an aesthetically pleasing brand of hockey that should thrill the casual fan. As well, the continuing infusion of foreign talent has made it so that the overall talent level of the league has never been higher. And, most critically, the new collective bargaining agreement instituted a hard salary cap that should give smaller market teams a chance to be consistently competitive.

Hardly any of this will matter, though, as long as the only time hockey makes its way onto ESPN's SportsCenter is when a player leaves the ice on a stretcher. Truth be told, the NHL made its own bed during a decade where the league was run into near-irrelevancy by way of inept management and expansion or relocation into markets like Miami, Phoenix, and Nashville -- where hockey was, at best, a questionable proposition. Still, even markets like New Jersey, whose fans have been treated to 12 years of Stanley Cups and deep playoff runs, have seen games with below 75 percent attendance become a frequent occurrence.

But in Pittsburgh, post-lockout attendance has been above 95 percent. This is due largely to the arrival of Crosby, whose brilliance would be obvious to someone who'd never watched a game before. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that fans can realistically expect their team to contend for a championship down the road. Before the lockout, annual sales of the team's stars had left fans understandably jaded. But the Penguins' re-emergence to prominence from small-market hell has coincided with what many hope to be a new era for the NHL, something that's not been lost on hockey fans.

Photo from FanNation.com

Given what a terrific success the post-lockout Penguins have been, it's easy to see why their relocation from one of the precious few devoted American hockey markets to one that had already lost a pro hockey team in its past would be something of a nightmare for the league. Kansas City could conceivably be a lucrative hockey market down the road, but the league never wanted to embrace it at the expense of Pittsburgh, especially when one considers that doing so would create the embarrassment of throwing around the sport's biggest star in the process.

A final, intangible factor that loomed large for both the NHL and Pittsburgh as arena talks went on was that a great portion of the Penguins' fanbase is below the age of 30. While I doubt that the team's younger fans were ever formally mentioned during negotiations, cultivating the interest of 20-somethings and teenagers has to be a major concern for both the league and the city as they sit at their respective crossroads. Evidence of this can be found in the tremendous success of the Penguins' "Student Rush" ticket program, which allows anyone with a high school or college student ID to buy unsold gameday tickets at the gate for only $20. This winter, students would begin lining up as early as noon for games with 7:30 start times. Most students have no recollection of the NHL's apex during the late-'80s and early-'90s, so courting the younger fans who were fortunate enough to miss out on the sluggish, defensively-minded "trap years" is the easiest way for the league to achieve growth. And while 20-year-olds from Pittsburgh aren't going to stick around solely because there's a winning hockey team in town, engendering hometown connections among those fans that weren't even alive when the city hit rock bottom after the collapse of the steel industry can only be a good thing.

All of these reasons explain why the press conference to announce the arena deal -- where Rendell, Onorato, Ravenstahl, Lemieux, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman all spoke -- sounded like little more than a gigantic sigh of relief from everyone involved. Due to nothing more than sheer luck, I had a ticket to the Penguins-Sabres game on the night that the arena deal was announced. Obviously, the evening promised to be memorable, but even still, it exceeded my expectations. The arena went dark and Lemieux walked out onto the ice to announce to the fans that the team would be staying in Pittsburgh, and I had goosebumps from head to toe. The Penguins won that game in a shootout, but it was more memorable because being a hockey fan in Pittsburgh fan once again reverted back to nothing more complicated than rooting for your team. It was a nerve-racking year, to be sure, but now that the team's long-term future has been secured, I can go back to eagerly anticipating the exciting years that I hope are just around the corner for the NHL, Pittsburgh, and, of course, the Penguins themselves.

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