Skeptics wondered whether hockey fans would welcome the NHL back with open arms once the season began. Well, the answer in Pittsburgh has been a resounding “Yes.”
The 18,641 fans that packed CONSOL Energy Center for Wednesday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs was the arena’s largest crowd ever and went a long way in proving that Pittsburgh is indeed a hockey hotbed. Those fans waited nine months to cheer their hometown Penguins, and every one of them agreed that hockey had been away for far too long.
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Nick Ferguson, a 19-year-old Leechburg native and self described “life-long hockey fan,” said he had been waiting for Wednesday night for an “agonizingly long time.”
“It’s just awesome that the Pens are back. It’s really exhilarating to be here,” Ferguson said. “I was going nuts during the lockout, so I can’t really describe how happy I am that hockey is back.”
After a few chances on a previous power play, the tension could be felt throughout the arena as everyone was waiting for the Pens to finally put a puck in the back of the net. Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin eased their pain when he recorded his first goal of the season with just over one minute left in the first period, sending the crowd into frenzy.
Chants of “MVP” rang through CONSOL Energy Center and the energy of Penguins hockey was felt to its fullest for the first time in this young season.
Mark Gebell, 17, Ohara Township, said he could tell the fans really missed hockey after Malkin’s goal.
“It was very loud and very electric,” Mark said. “The fans were really into it and I think they really let loose after that.”
Three second-period goals and two more in the third for the Maple Leafs were hard pills to swallow, but it didn’t tamper the fans’ enthusiasm.
“I think it’s been sad without hockey,” Sean McManus, a 40-year-old Gibsonia native, said. “It’s unfortunate that we had to wait a pretty long time for this, but all really is forgiven. I’m just happy the team is back.”
Realizing that their fans have suffered throughout this long-period of hockey drought, the Penguins decided to show the fans that the team cares about them just as much as the fans care about it.
Along with distributing a free “Great Day for Hockey” t-shirt, the Pens also gave out a voucher to every fan that could be exchanged for three free concession items from a limited list, including hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos and fountain drinks. On top of that, the Pens offered 50 percent off all merchandise at the “PensGear” stores.
These promotions were well received and the fans said it was another testament to Mario Lemieux and the rest of the Penguins organization.
“It’s clear that our owners are the class of the league,” said season ticket holder Betsy Thompson, 44, of O’Hara Township. “I think our executives get lumped in with everyone else, but our guys are special.”
The promotions will continue during the Penguins’ next three home games: Tuesday vs. the Islanders, Feb. 2 vs. the Devils and Feb. 7 vs. the Capitals.
With the Pens off to a solid start, there is no question that the fans will be with this team for the long haul. Pittsburgh entered its home opener with two road wins against division rivals under its belt, which had the fans buzzing.
“Nothing pleases me more than ruining the Flyers’ home-opener,” Terry Gill, a 52-year-old Penguins fan and Danville native, said. “Then to go into New York and take care of the Rangers, that was just the perfect way to start the season and it really set the stage for this game.”
The fans hope the Penguins can continue to produce favorable results in this lockout shortened season, and most agreed that if the players remain healthy, the Penguins should be favored to win the Stanley Cup.
“We have a very, very solid team with solid personnel and I think they’ll be able to win the Cup,” Mark Wolford, a 53-year-old fan from Latrobe, said. “If everyone stays upright, I don’t know who can match up against them.”