If there was any question as to whether or not fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins were anxious to see their team skate on CONSOL Energy Center ice again, those inquisitions were answered loud and clear during Wednesday night’s free Black and Gold Game.
Approximately 18,000 fans came out in droves, filling the arena to the rafters and many standing throughout just for a chance to see their favorite hockey players in action once again (official attendance could not be compiled without a ticket count due to the game being open and free to the public).
“We knew we enjoyed great support in Pittsburgh, but not in our wildest dreams did we think that for a black and gold scrimmage we would get 18,000 people here,” Penguins President and CEO David Morehouse said. “We actually were full and then we went outside and there were still people in line. We opened up the suites and we’re filling up the suites. We’ve been trying to squeeze everybody in.”
The opening faceoff didn’t commence until 7 p.m., but the line began approximately nine hours earlier. The man at the front was 21-year-old Jeremy Banachoski of Shaler, who snagged his spot at 10 in the morning.
“I’ve been waiting for 8 months to get to see them play again,” Banachoski said. “I think it’s a great thing that (the Penguins) are letting all the fans come in for free today and see them play.”
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby couldn't be more grateful about fans lining up for a chance to see him and his teammates play.
"That’s pretty amazing," Crosby said. "I think it says a lot about the people we have here and the support we have. We definitely appreciate it."
For some fans, it felt as if the evening was a reunion with loved ones that was long overdue.
“We missed (the players) so much,” Linda Daley of Peters Township said. “They feel like family that we haven’t seen in a whole year. It’s so exciting to be here. To see this place completely packed is just the most thrilling thing of all.”
The building was certainly stuffed, and Penguins management couldn’t have been happier with the tremendous attendance from the fans.
“The depth of support we have in Pittsburgh is tremendous, and we knew that,” Morehouse said. “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger and deeper and deeper. Pittsburgh’s always been a football town and it always will be, but now, this is a manifestation of it also being a hockey town. I think that we’re legitimately a hockey town, too.”
The Penguins players were blown away by the atmosphere, amazed at the turnout for an intra-squad contest. It’s something that newcomer Brandon Sutter got to witness for the first time in a Pittsburgh sweater.
“Obviously the crowd was great,” Sutter said. “We owe some respect to them for coming out after having to be patient with us for awhile. For them to come out today and give us that support is pretty awesome. We appreciate that and we’re looking forward to having that all year.”
Pascal Dupuis has become accustomed to playing in front of a packed house and the veteran forward enjoyed skating in front of Penguins fans once again.
“I don’t know how many of them were out here, but you can see the fan support we have here in Pittsburgh,” Dupuis said. “We knew it and we were hoping they were going to come back and they did. We were pretty pumped about that. They certainly did their part tonight (in making this a game-like atmosphere). It did feel like a playoff atmosphere, that’s for sure.”
No matter their title or capacity, one and all were ecstatic to be back inside the CONSOL Energy Center on Wednesday night – perhaps none more than the evening’s No. 1 star, the fans.
“It’s amazing,” Alan Digby of Finleyville said of being back inside the arena. “It’s probably the best feeling ever. It feels like home.”