On Valentine’s Day in 2007, a massive ice storm hit the Pittsburgh region. Yet Pittsburgh fans still trekked their way through the treacherous conditions to get to Mellon Arena to see the Penguins take on the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Penguins rewarded the fans with a thrilling 5-4 shootout win, but that game turned out to be more significant than anyone ever thought at the time.
Because despite the winter storm, that Feb. 14 game sold out – and every home game since has been filled to capacity. Today’s game against Montreal marks an unprecedented 200th straight sellout for the Penguins.
“The fans have just taken it up a notch,” said Brian Colella, a season ticket holder since the Penguins’ inception in 1967.
Since that day four years ago, Penguins fans have witnessed many great moments.
Mario Lemieux announced the deal to build a new arena for the team on March 13, 2007. A month later, the Penguins hosted a home playoff game for the first time since 2001. A year later, the team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. And in 2009, of course, the team hoisted hockey’s Holy Grail for the first time since 1992.
Now, the team is playing in the shiny new CONSOL Energy Center – and the sellouts continue.
“They’ve been behind us for a long time now,” Jordan Staal
said of the fans. “And there’s no better feeling than skating out on the ice with a solid crowd and having that seventh man out on the ice with you.”
Colella has been there since the beginning, and he said he’s never seen anything like the current sellout streak.
“What I do find is that the crowds they are attracting now have a lot more younger people that really are interested Penguins games, whether it be high school kids or college kids,” Colella said. “They seem to be really interested in the games.”
Susanne Amour, a season ticket holder since 1972, also noticed the influx in younger fans.
“I think having the screen outside and having the opportunity for young people to get to the games has helped get a much younger crowd there now,” Amour said. “Being able to encourage the younger people to become fans is good.”
“Obviously with the Student Rush and all that stuff, it’s worked out really well,” Staal said. “I think there’s a lot of college and high school kids coming to the games, which is awesome. It creates an even better atmosphere.”
Both Colella and Amour credited Staal and the rest of the Penguins’ talented young stars for drawing more fans to the sport.
“The Penguins are a pretty young team, which is why I think a lot of the younger fans can relate to that,” Colella said. “They play an exciting brand of hockey, and they are winning.
“I think going into every season, as long as you have players like (Sidney) Crosby, (Brooks) Orpik and Staal there, I think everyone has a realistic view that the Penguins have a chance to challenge for the Stanley Cup every year.”
Indeed, it helps when the team is winning. But the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, yet the team never experienced this level of fan support in the 90s – which is a testament to the current ownership as well as the hockey culture that’s been cultivated in Pittsburgh.
“We made my daughter into a fan,” Amour said. “We took her to games when she was wee little. So she now is a fan as well. Over the years, it’s been wonderful as a family thing to do.”
Amour said that all of the friends she made sitting in E18 in Civic Arena – many of whom still sit together in CONSOL Energy Center – were raising children during the success of the Penguins in the 90s.
“A lot of those people’s children now are hockey fans, too,” Amour said. “I know one guy that sits behind us, he and his daughter come to the games all the time – and I remember when she was born.”
Colella also brings his kids to the games.
“I have four kids, my brother has two kids,” he said. “So the tickets always get used.”
So while the sellout streak started in 2007, its roots can be traced way back to the early 1990s, when Pittsburgh saw a hockey boom thanks to Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the other Hall-of-Famers on those championships teams.
Now, 200 home games since that memorable Valentine’s Day, the sellout streak is still going strong and doesn’t appear as if it will end any time soon.
“Pittsburgh’s now a hockey town,” Amour said.