There’s no denying that Pittsburgh Penguins fans are some of the most intense and faithful in the National Hockey League. Every game they flock to Mellon Arena, where they fill the building with cheers and support for their favorite club. Pittsburgh boasts one of the best home venues in the league and the fans have filled the Igloo at record levels.
Sunday marks the 100th consecutive sellout
at Mellon Arena for a Penguins contest, the best stretch in team history. The streak dates back to February, 14, 2007, and includes every home regular season and playoff game. The Penguins sold out every regular-season home game for the first time in franchise history in 2007-08 and are on pace to do it again this season.
The accomplishment is a testament to the devotion of die hard Penguins fans.
“Our fans are unbelievable,” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “I think that 100 straight sellouts in and of itself speaks to that. They’ve been very supportive. As players, you realize that and you appreciate that.”
The Penguins are lucky to have such high caliber fans. Fans like Phil Covato, who has been a devoted Penguin fan since their inaugural season in 1967. In fact, Covato’s jazz band – The Phil Covato Trio – was the first group to perform in the Igloo Club.
“Back in the beginning days of the Penguins, they had what they called hockey hounds – guys who would (give away) tickets to try and get people to come to the games,” Covato recalled. “I happened to work with a guy in the daytime who did that. The second year of the franchise he said to me, ‘Would you like to play at the Igloo during the hockey games?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like fun.’ Long story short, I was the first group to play in the Igloo.”
The Phil Covato Trio performed before and after each home game and in-between the periods. When Covato wasn’t performing, he grabbed an empty seat and watched the action on the ice. He was hooked.
“In those days, I doubt if there was more than 5,000 people at the games, so you could go sit anywhere,” Covato explained.
After Covato’s first and only season performing at the Igloo Club, he decided to split a season ticket package with some friends for the next seven years. Then he signed up for his own package, which he still has to this day.
In all the years that Covato has faithfully followed the Penguins, one of his highlights was last season’s Stanley Cup run.
“I can’t think of a more exciting year than last year,” Covato said. “In spite of the fact that we didn’t bring home the Cup, it was a great season.”
Rick Vtipil is another Penguins fan who has been around since the beginning. Vtipil worked as an usher during the 1967-1972 seasons. He quickly realized that he wanted to get closer to the action so he gave up ushering for his own season ticket package.
“The only reason I gave up being an usher is because I got season tickets,” Vtipil said. “I decided I would rather sit and watch the game than seat other people.”
Vtipil became such a devoted fan that he nearly postponed his wedding date with wife Linda because of the Penguins’ playoff series.
I told Linda that we needed to delay the wedding if there was a playoff game that night. Luckily, they won before that Saturday night, so we managed to have our wedding on the day that we planned it. - Rick Vtipil
“I told Linda that we needed to delay the wedding if there was a playoff game that night,” Vtipil said. ”Luckily, they won before that Saturday night, so we managed to have our wedding on the day that we planned it.”
Vtipil used to attend the games with his wife, but once his son Darren was old enough, Vtipil brought him along.
“I’ve been coming with (my dad) since I was 3 years old,” Darren Vtipil explained. “Dad had to hold the seat down for me. We’ve gone to most of the games together. We’ve been sitting here for 25 years.”
John Turnbull and his wife Kay became season ticket holders in 1971 after Kay became enthralled with the sport.
“I always liked hockey and I made a mistake,” John Turnbull admitted. “I brought Kay to a game in 1970 and she liked it. We have been season ticket holders since then.”
In the 38 years the Turnbull’s have attended Penguins’ games, Kay has only missed 31 games. No hail, sleet or snow could prevent the couple from missing a game.
“Oh, we’ve driven through a lot of snow storms,” John said. “But weather has never been an object. We have never missed a hockey game because of weather.”
One of John’s favorite things about watching the games is witnessing the maturation of young players as they grow into their roles on the team. But the thing that keeps him coming back each year is his pure love of the game.
“It’s a great sport. I think hockey players are the last bastion of unspoiled pro-athletes. They sign autographs until the last kid gets one. Basically, they are unselfish and that’s why we come. - John Turnbull
“It’s a great sport,” John said. “I think hockey players are the last bastion of unspoiled pro-athletes. They sign autographs until the last kid gets one. Basically, they are unselfish and that’s why we come.”
Another member of the Mellon Arena Faithful is Community College of Allegheny County math professor Donna Szott, who became an avid Penguins fan after attending her first game with one of her female students in the 1990-91 season.
“A student of mine had season tickets and she was going around asking people if she could put them down on her list to go with her,” Szott recalled. “So I got on her list. I actually went to almost every game with her, if she didn’t have someone to go with already.”
Szott couldn’t get enough hockey and two years later she bought her own season ticket package. One of her highlights was witnessing the Penguins’ historical 17-game winning streak that same year. Now she enjoys riding in on the trolley for every Penguins’ game because the atmosphere prepares her for the game.
“I just like to dress up in the black and gold or the blue and white and enjoy myself,” Szott explained. “I enjoy every minute of it.”
The Penguins are certainly lucky to have such dedicated, colorful fans. So here’s to the Mellon Arena Faithful: to the Phil Covatos, Rick Vtipils, John Turnbulls and Donna Szotts of the world. To every fan who has ever waved a banner, cheered until they couldn’t talk or sported the Black and Gold, here’s to you.
On behalf of the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury
would like to say:
“Thank you for coming to Mellon Arena so often. (There are) so many big crowds so often. It’s always fun for us to play in Pittsburgh because of the atmosphere and the boost you give us.”