Friday, August 29, 2008

Empty Headers?

The Boss takes note of a blog entry at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that is a thinly-veiled slap at Caps fans and their “devotion” to their team. On the matter of the likelihood that Verizon Center will once more, as the line of argument goes, be a “home game” for the Penguins when they visit, blogger Seth Rorabaugh opines that fans of the Penguins will be able to get tickets without having to pay the $15 premium added to the price for that game…

“…getting those tickets might be a little tougher than they have been the past three seasons. But considering how many tickets were available on StubHub and other ticket broker sites for the March 9 game, Capitals season ticket holders will probably be more than willing to help you again in 2008-09.”

Ted chose to take the “high road” in his blog by reminding folks, via photograph, of the sea of red that was the norm as last season was hurtling to its exciting finish. We do not feel so encumbered. So, here’s a tip from your Uncle Peerless, Pens fans…

Get over yourselves, already.

The Capitals, in the throes of the meltdown of a season that was 2003-2004, having underachieved, overpaid, and ultimately cratered as a franchise under the weight of bad contracts and bad play, still managed to average almost 15,000 a game while earning 59 standings points. That attendance figure was good, if such a term could be used, for 25th in the league

Meanwhile, up at the confluence, the Penguins, themselves enduring a season of woe – finishing with 58 standings points – couldn’t manage that. 11,877 fans, on average, trudged their way to Mellon “Arena” to suffer an insufferable season…dead last in the league in attendance. They were 28th in the league in capacity filled (the Caps were 25th).

The Penguins and the Capitals have been teams joined at the hip in a lot of ways over the last two decades, the Penguins enjoying the upper hand on the scoreboard in most years. In one of the ways the Penguins and Capitals have shared a struggle is in the matter of filling seats. The Penguins went to the Eastern Conference finals in the 2000-2001 season, one in which they also drew more than 16,000 fans a game, almost 99 percent of capacity. Not coincidentally, that happened to be the last year in which Jaromir Jagr skated for the Penguins.

And there is something in that. The Penguins, having had the blessings of a Mario Lemieux, a Jagr, and now a Sidney Crosby, might be said to be a “star-dependent” franchise. Truth is, from 2001-2002 through 2003-2004, the Penguins – without a Lemieux (at least the one fans knew from years past), a Jagr, or a Crosby – averaged 14,091 fans a game (including that 30th-in-the-league in 2004). And that included one last hurrah for Lemieux in 2002-2003 when he had 91 points in 67 games. Over those same three years, in two of which the Caps failed to make the playoffs, Washington averaged 15,949 a game, although those years did include the presence of Jagr. Jagr, though, was largely reviled for his lackluster effort as those years wore on.

The point here is that the insufferable look-down-their-noses attitude of Penguin fans toward Capitals fans is largely hollow. Pittsburgh is every bit as much a front-runner, star-dependent town when it comes to hockey as is Washington (and let’s face it Caps fans…Washington is, too). Pittsburgh hockey is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. It has its star into which fans can pour their hopes and dreams, the club is getting a new arena shortly, and the team is winning. In Washington, which seems to have been a year behind Pittsburgh’s curve in their respective rebuilding efforts, fans also have their star. They have a superb arena in which to watch him play. And, most important to the Caps’ success at the gate, the team is winning and showing signs of becoming a perennial contender.

As for this notion of whether the Penguins take over Verizon Center with “40 percent” of the crowd has always, in my mind, been overstated. Sure, the Penguins have enjoyed success at the Caps’ expense in their own building – a sore point among Caps fans, including this one. And that leads to a more enthusiastic response. The Penguins have represented themselves well over the years at Verizon, to their credit. But conversely, who’d want to invest the five hours each way to Pittsburgh and back to watch a game in a decrepit arena such as Mellon?

Pittsburgh is doing well, these days. Good for them. Last year, the Caps gave every indication of following in those footsteps – a marketable star, a talented and successful team being built around him, and full houses in the latter stages of the season that could well carry over into 2008-2009.

Sadly, such things do not generally last for any hockey club not calling Canada its home. Hockey just doesn’t have that kind of foothold in the States. Even in Detroit – “Hockeytown” itself – seats were left empty during last year’s playoffs as Michiganders dealt with a slumping economy.

So enjoy it while it lasts, Penguin fans. And when the Caps host Pittsburgh next February and March, do have a good time watching the game...on TV. Tickets won’t be easy to come by.