How Penguins' off-ice staff makes NHL playoffs a fan event

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan remembers during the 2009 Eastern Conference Final seeing two college students carrying a couch up the street toward Mellon Arena, the team's former home.

“It was from their dorm room at Duquesne University,” McMillan said. “That’s when I knew putting a big screen outside the arena was a great idea.”

Other NHL teams station large televisions outside their arena during the playoffs. “(But) it’s rather iconic here,” McMillan said.

Last year before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, police had to close four roads near the arena to accommodate people watching the game on the big screen outside PPG Paints Arena, now the Penguins' home arena.

“There were actually more people outside the arena than inside the arena,” McMillan said.

While the Penguins are trying to become the first Stanley Cup champion to repeat since 1998, their marketing group’s objective is to put as much effort into creating a memorable event as the Penguins' show on the ice.

“What we do here is exactly what hockey operations does,” said Terry Kalna, senior vice president of sales and broadcasting. “This time of year everyone expects (players) to raise their game, to have a stronger attention to detail, and it’s the same for us. Fans and sponsors expect more from us. It’s not the regular season anymore.”

It’s the same story in the other 15 NHL playoff cities. You can never over-hype the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“The atmosphere is going to be there naturally,” McMillan said. “But we try to push it a little bit.”

The big screen tradition began in 2008 after Penguins marketing vice president James Santilli witnessed a Bassmaster fishing tournament showing the weighing of fish on one outside of Mellon.

“If people will watch fish being weighed on a big screen then they will for watch hockey on a big screen,” Santilli told his staff.

The first time the Penguins tried it there were 200 people watching. For Thursday’s Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, fans will begin staking out space at 3 p.m. ET for a 7:30 start. If the Penguins reach the Stanley Cup Final, fans will start showing up at 8 a.m.

“The whole downtown proper is electric,” said Penguins season-ticket holder Jackee Ging, who added that the atmosphere around the arena has “gone to a new level.”

Ging said the Penguins have created a new generation of younger fans with their efforts.

Team president David Morehouse has made it his tradition to wander into the crowd to give away two free tickets inside the arena to randomly chosen fans.

As important as the big-screen tradition is, it’s only one element of playoff planning. Banners are placed all over the city. In this round, bus trips and plane trips to Columbus were planned. Promotional T-shirts and towels have to be ordered for every game, even though no one knows how many games will be played.

This year, the Penguins worked with Dick’s Sporting Goods to have 40,000 "Penguins" yard signs distributed around the area.

Last year, the Penguins gave away 260,000 gold T-shirts during the playoffs. The Nashville Predators, Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers were also giving out gold T-shirts.

“At one point, we had trouble finding enough shirts and we had to overnight them across the country, get them printed and have them here by the time our gates opened,” Santilli said. “It wasn’t easy.”

The Penguins even make sure the opposing owner’s suite in Pittsburgh is decorated with his or her his team’s colors. The opponent’s logo will go on cupcakes served in that suite. Kalna said they want them to feel at home.

The Penguins have 150 corporate partners, and Kalna said he knows it’s playoff time when “every single partner is totally available to come to whatever you invite them to.”

The Penguins have a strong social media presence with more than 2 million followers on Facebook and 1.3 million on Twitter.

“You have to feed off what people tell you,” McMillan said. “They tell you whether you have a good idea or not.”

Morehouse said he can tell it’s playoff time in Pittsburgh when the enthusiasm of the fan base rises.

“You are in a grocery store and all of a sudden people are talking to you about the Penguins,” he said. “There is a general elevation of the energy and anticipation.”

Kalna said the workload behind the scenes increases three to five times what it is during the regular season. But he’s not complaining.

“It’s all fun,” Kalna said. “Back to the hockey operations comparison, the playoffs are what the players play for and this is what we live for."

USA Today
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Penguins fan punches Blue Jackets fan, scurries away (Video)

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ series against the Columbus Blue Jackets is a physical one on the ice and apparently in the arena concourse as well.

After the Penguins lost Game 4 of their series on Tuesday night, there was an incident in Nationwide Arena involving a Pittsburgh fan appearing to sucker-punch a Blue Jackets fan.

As you can see, a guy in a Sidney Crosby jerseys is in a verbal disagreement with some Blue Jackets fans. He moves away from the pack, and a Jackets fan is still engaging with him. The Penguins fan then hit him with his right fist to the face and then headed to the exit.

Walking, and then briskly walking through the metal detectors, with an angry mob of Columbus fans chasing him.

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