The Pittsburgh Penguins’ rise from worst team in the NHL a decade ago to perennial contender and model franchise has greatly lifted hockey’s profile in western Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.
One way to measure that buzz is television viewers, where the Penguins’ local ratings on Root Sports Pittsburgh are the highest of any big-league team in America. Or we could look to attendance at Consol Energy Center, which has yet to fall short of a sellout in the nearly 300 games it’s hosted.
However, perhaps the most meaningful (and promising) metric is the number of people playing organized hockey in the region. According to numbers released by USA Hockey and posted by Chris Peters on his comprehensive United States of Hockey site, the total of registered hockey players in western Pennsylvania rose for the eighth-straight year.
USA Hockey splits Pennsylvania into halves for administrative purposes, which any Penguins or Flyers fan can appreciate. Cross-Commonwealth rivalry aside, Pennsylvania is now the fifth-largest hockey-playing state in the Union by participation, with the western half providing over 13,000 of the 30,000-plus aggregation.
It’s a bit presumptuous to attribute all of regional hockey’s grassroots growth to the Penguins’ meteoric improvement, but you’d have to be blind to ignore all the Pittsburgh youngsters wearing 87 and 71 these days, or the adult recreational skaters with black and gold jerseys and socks. Also, to the franchise’s credit, the Pens have made it an expressed focus to spread the gospel of hockey from the lofty platform they enjoy.
So let’s give credit to the ones sowing the seeds of passion, in addition to the folks fostering the growth. Hockey’s main barrier to captivating the public is its relative lack of recreational play, at least when compared to baseball, basketball and football.
Thanks largely to the Penguins and their followers, those barriers are lower than they’ve ever been in western Pennsylvania.