The Pittsburgh Penguins are pulling out all the stops in hopes of welcoming back a skeptical fanbase after the NHL lockout. Following an official apology from their ownership group that promised to “do everything we can to regain your trust and show you how much we value your amazing support,” the team announced:
- that training camp sessions would be free and open to the public, including a special Black and Gold scrimmage Wednesday night designed to replicate the feel of a game;
- a week of contests leading up to the home opener, with prizes like a pair of tickets to every home game of the season, autographed jerseys and a road trip to see the team play in New York; and
- promotional items for fans attending the first 15 home games, along with selected free concession items and 50 percent off all merchandise during the first four.
If the standing-room-only crowd at the Penguins’ Southpointe training facility Sunday was any indication, however, the team doesn’t have much to worry about. When the players offered a stick salute to the packed house, fans responded with a spontaneous, sustained chant of “Let’s go, Pens.”
“It’s something you never take for granted,” said forward Matt Cooke. “You’re overwhelmed by the support, and I think Pittsburgh’s a unique demographic and fanbase. It’s becoming a hockey hotbed, with all the attention around it and new rinks popping up, and that’s a cool thing.”
“Acknowledging the fans and saluting to them was the players’ idea,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “It’s pretty special to have a packed building … it added to the practice, today especially. I could have changed my schedule and ran a second practice after [that]. The guys were pretty excited.”
There was plenty for the fans to be excited about, too. Although many of the players have been present at informal skates throughout the lockout, this first official practice had an especially fast and energetic pace. Newly acquired center Brandon Sutter and goalie Tomáš Voukon settled in with their new team, while established Penguins like Sidney Crosby and James Neal worked to transition their hard work during the offseason into game shape.
“I thought the pace that started that practice was extremely high; torrid by some accounts,” Bylsma said. “It was fast, it was quick, and certainly Sidney Crosby was revved up and going, flying up the ice at times. [But] once we got into some battle areas and some five-on-five, you saw some bumping and grinding and the physical play down low that these guys, most of them, aren’t prepared for … so that was part of it today, and we saw our players battle hard, trying to get into that mode.”
“It was nice to get back out there with everyone,” Crosby said. “We had practiced so long with no coaches out there, it felt good to have someone blowing the whistle and making passes and just having to worry about what the drill was and not making one up. I think we all craved [the normal routine]; you get used to preparing, competing, and it’s nice to have that back.”
Along with preparing the team to start an NHL season in less than a week, the Penguins’ coaching staff has a few personnel decisions to make. Their 26-player camp roster includes six who have been playing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL – three defensemen and three forwards, two of whom are in the hunt for one of the best jobs in hockey, skating alongside Evgeni Malkin and Neal.
Big winger Eric Tangradi will get the first audition Monday, when Malkin will rejoin the team after returning from Russia, where he’s been starring for Metallurg Magnitogorsk as the KHL’s second-leading scorer. Other possibilities to skate on that line include Dustin Jeffrey and Beau Bennett, the Penguins’ first-round draft pick in 2010 who has impressed in his first year with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, leading the team in scoring with 24 points in 30 games played.
“There’s opportunity in some aspects to open eyes” at the abbreviated camp, Bylsma said, “but we kind of have a pretty good notion of what it’s going to look like when the first day comes. Over the course of a 22-day training camp, you have an opportunity to see players with other players in different spots, in the event there’s injuries down the road; you see different combinations. That’s just not going to happen so much in six days of on-ice activity.”
After those six days, the Penguins will hit the road for four of their first five games – starting Saturday at Philadelphia, the site of their 2012 playoff elimination.
“I think that’s good,” Neal said. “No distractions at home, we can get right down to playing hockey, and it starts off with Philly. It’s good for myself and for the team – it was a tough way to go out last year against them, so hopefully we’re ready this time around.”