Penguins cut through discounted ticket plan

By Tony Jovenitti

A few seconds before the final horn sounded in the sudden-death overtime period of the… A few seconds before the final horn sounded in the sudden-death overtime period of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season opener in Stockholm, Sweden, Tyler Kennedy punched the puck across the choppy Swedish ice and into the mesh behind the Ottawa Senators’ goaltender. The goal prevented the game from advancing into the always exciting, yet unpredictable shootout period, and Kennedy’s efforts kicked off the Penguins’ season in heroic fashion. Half a world away inside Mellon Arena, thousands of fans ‘- including hundreds of students ‘- jumped to their feet as they watched another exciting finish for their beloved Penguins on the arena Jumbotron. Fast forward one week, and the scene was strikingly similar as many of those same black-and-gold clad fans cheered on the team at the arena, again in overtime. But two things weren’t the same. The heroic, last-second goal was not scored by a Penguin, and those fans were sitting outside the arena, not fortunate enough to have tickets for the heart-wrenching home-opener loss to the New Jersey Devils. For the second straight home opener, there were no discounted tickets available for local students. The storming success of the Penguins in recent years has caused the supply and demand of tickets to skew heavily toward the demand side of the equation. And this is taking its toll on the Student Rush program. ‘It’s totally depressing,’ said Pitt student Ashley Wright during the season opening win against the Senators. She was decked out like a die-hard fan, sporting an authentic, embroidered Sidney Crosby jersey, a white Penguins ball cap and a black and gold scarf. She posed for a picture with Iceburgh, the team’s mascot. ‘It’s a shame,’ she added. ‘Everything that made them who they are [as a franchise] is going away because of their success.’ In the past, the Penguins were the only team with a student ticketing program for every game. Others have a few college nights, but Student Rush, now in its 14th year, is unique to the Penguins. With Student Rush, any student with a school ID can wait in line outside Gate 8 before the game, and one hour before face-off, the ticket booth hands out whatever seats are left to those in line for $20. Wright said Student Rush was what set the Penguins apart and helped them sell out the arena. Wright is a freshman at Pitt from Allentown, Pa., and she couldn’t wait to come to Pittsburgh to be closer to Crosby and the Penguins. With the opening game against the Senators tied at one, Ali Romano visited the team store during an intermission. She and three friends, all students at Pitt, browsed the latest gear commemorating the Penguins’ thrilling run to the Stanley Cup finals last season, which ended with a loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Romano is lucky enough to have parents with season tickets, but her friends sometimes use Student Rush to get into the games. This year, the Penguins are forced to scale back the program because ticket demand is so high. There are only four games to be set aside for Student Rush, in which 400 tickets will be reserved for students. But three of those four games are against teams that failed to make the playoffs last year. And in hockey, more than half of the teams make the playoffs. ‘It’s not fair,’ said Romano. ‘But at the same time you have to look at [the team’s] perspective.’ She added that she thinks the Penguins should bring back the big screen so fans who don’t have tickets can get together and watch the game like they did during the playoffs. Chad Slencak, senior director of ticketing for the Penguins, said that the organization is trying to keep the students involved. ‘We think these students, the future fans, are important to us,’ said Slencak. ‘We want to keep trying to find ways to engage them or interact to keep the fan base growing.’ That fan base is growing at record pace. A few years ago, the Penguins were the worst team in the league, and sellouts were rare. But now, the Penguins are enjoying a franchise record 68 consecutive sellouts, and last year was the first season that the Penguins sold out each home game. They’re also selling more merchandise than any other NHL team. With that kind of success, it is difficult to keep a group of fans with tight wallets involved. But Slencak said the Penguins are trying to help these students get closer to the team. Along with the four chosen games, there will be a limited number of Student Rush tickets available for certain games, but it will be decided on a game-by-game basis. Students can join a text messaging club to receive alerts for ticket availability. Also, the Penguins are giving away four tickets to each game to a lucky student on the list. Slencak and other executives must have received several suggestions like Romano’s for the big screen’s return, as they obliged by unveiling a 9 feet by 12 feet LED screen on which fans can watch the first four home games alongside a festival of food vendors, games and live penguins, courtesy of the National Aviary. Still, it’s not the same as being inside. But there will still be fans like Wright, who are willing to cough up the full price for tickets. She is attending two of the three Penguins games, spending more than $100 for both. To her, it’s well worth it. ‘I need my Sidney,’ she said.