January 20, 2012; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: A young Pittsburgh Penguins fan celebrates after the Pens tied the score against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens won 5-4 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Youth interest will make Penguins' popularity long-lasting

In the lead-up to Wednesday night’s Penguins home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs, much of the local media coverage has been focused on the unprecedented level of hockey buzz in the Tri-State Area.

No matter whether we judge by the growing size of the fan base, eye-popping local TV ratings or firsthand anecdotal evidence, the Penguins have never been more popular – and it’s not even close. In fact, Pittsburgh’s blossoming passion for pucks has hoisted the franchise to heights rarely seen by non-NFL North American pro sports franchises.

January 16, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun (92) makes a glove save against Penguins center Dustin Jeffrey (15)during the shoot-out period of the Penguins intrasquad scrimmage at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ah yes, football. It’s always in season in western Pennsylvania, right? Well, that may not be the case with the next generation of consumers. As cited by the Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic in today’s daring column, a 2011 statewide poll revealed that the Penguins are Pittsburgh’s most beloved team among locals aged 18-29.

As a 27-year-old who’s followed the Penguins for the past 15 years of my life, I can personally attest to the noticeable spike in hockey interest among my peers since 2005. Of course, that was the year Sidney Crosby arrived in Pittsburgh by luck of the draw (and the merit of three mostly terrible seasons before the 2004-05 lockout).

But before we attribute the entire youth infusion to great recent on-ice successes, let’s acknowledge the foundation work done by the Penguins for the past decade-plus. As a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I can testify that the Mario Lemieux-mandated economy section ($10 youth seats!) played a large role in getting my family and friends to Civic/Mellon Arena.

In my college years, the now-storied Student Rush program served a similar purpose. It’s been said, accurately, that seeing hockey live has made countless folks instant fans for life. I can’t quite claim the same, as Mike Lange and Penguins’ telecasts initially reeled me in, but getting in the building certainly fortified the bond between fan and team.

Regrettably, I’m about to exit the youthful demographic cited above, but the Penguins will soon reap the benefits of their activated core group reaching their 30s and 40s. With age comes financial stability, and as team CEO David Morehouse said in a recent interview, a huge crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings at last week’s free intrasquad scrimmage indicates there is a massive undercurrent of Pens fans ready to become more extensive consumers.

Pittsburgh hockey has been incredibly fortunate, with Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Malkin, Lemieux and Crosby displaying their talents here over the past three decades. Countless other near-greats and interesting personalities have also donned the Penguins’ crest since the team came into being in 1967.

If only there were a way for every NHL city to experience what Pittsburgh has watched on its ice sheets. Nonetheless, there is no shame in great players helping this region fall in love with the game. No, we don’t have the depths of hockey tradition that Canada and select other areas in the United States can boast, but let the dead bury the dead.

Not to be overly harsh, but what happens next is what matters most. The Penguins have youth on their side: on the ice, in the seats, and in front of TVs, computers and mobile devices.

The true test will come in the post-Crosby, post-Malkin era, but by then an entire generation will have grown up Penguins fans. With that investment set to mature in more ways than one, I like hockey’s chances to stay at or near the top of the Pittsburgh sports hierarchy for decades to come.

Tags: Mario Lemieux NHL Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby

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