Wednesdays With Stoosh 03.07.2012

In which we force opposing fans into the harsh realization that it's time to come up with something better.


Staff did a great job recapping this earlier in the week, but there’s one loose end we’d like to tie up here in the wake of that  series of blog posts from Denver Post columnist Adrian Dater.

Dater got to watch in person Saturday night as visiting Pens fans turned the Pepsi Center into this season’s version of last year’s Columbus Invasion. Dater used his blog to take shots first at the Pens fans in attendance. Then, after hearing back from Pens fans via comments, Twitter and emails, he took another shot at the Pens fanbase in general.

The former was one of the most bizarre things written by a mainstream hockey journalist this year, basically assailing fans in his own media market. The latter? Dater simply pulled out his copy of the Official Anti-Pens Fan Talking Points Memo the Flyers and Caps fans posted back around 2007, and looked up bullet point No. 1.

Namely, where were all these Pens fans before 2005?

Ahhh, yes. It’s not just restricted to Craps, Flyers and Rangers fans, folks.

And there’s nothing like posting a stock photo from the 03-04 season of a half-empty Igloo to hammer your point home, right, Mr. Dater? Never mind that the photo was taken during warm-ups, probably 30-45 minutes before the opening face-off was even dropped.

Look at the photo. 

If that was taken less than three minutes before face-off, players wouldn’t be stretching at center red on the opposite wall of the benches. They’d be on the bench. Nice try, Dater, but you fail.

But you know the drill. The claim is that the Pens never drew well before the arrival of Crosby and Malkin, usually citing the 2001-02, 2002-03 and especially the 2003-04 seasons as evidence of such.

So let's help out Mr. Dater. After all, there is nothing like good old-fashioned facts getting in the way of a ridiculous argument. And nothing derails a troll taking shots at a supposed "bandwagon" opposing fan-base than actual attendance figures. So thanks to Rick Buker and page #699 of his book "Total Penguins" – in which he outlines the attendance figures for every year of the franchise's existence up to 2009-10 (when the book was published) – we can dispell this ridiculous myth.

Let's go back 25 years.

Pre-Cup Seasons (1986-90)
Season Avg. Attendance Capacity

% Capacity

86-87 14965 16033 93%
87-88 15166 16168 93%
88-89 15734 16025 98%
89-90 16018 16236 98%

This list begins with Lemieux's third season in the league and just two years removed from the team drawing just over 10,000 fans per game. 1987-88 brought the acquisition of Paul Coffey and the team's first playoff appearance since 1981-82. The 1989-90 team missed the playoffs in the last game of the season. The team sold out more than half of its games in the first two years of this block, and 34 of 40 games in each of the last two.

The Cup Years and The Worst Thing Ever (1990-1995)

Season Avg. Attendance Capacity % Capacity
90-91 15927 16164 98%
91-92 15993 16164 99%
92-93 16105 16164 99%
93-94 16714 17537 94%
94-95 16108 17181 94%

There are two banners in the rafters of Consol Energy Center that tell us all we need to know about the first two seasons here. As expected, there was a carryover boom in attendance into subsequent seasons, though this was impacted by a few things well outside the control of the team. 1992-93 began with the Pens fielding one of the greatest offensive teams of the NHL's post-expansion era, but that was overshadowed by the gut-punch that was Mario Lemieux being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. In 1993-94, Lemieux and Tocchet both missed substantial time with back problems. 1994-95 brought a lockout that killed the first half of the season, and Lemieux made the decision to sit the entire season out to rest his back, having never fully recovered from the surgery the previous season.

Passing the Torch (1995-2000)
Season Avg. Attendance Capacity

% Capacity

95-96 16239 17181 95%
96-97 16691 17181 97%
97-98 15069 16958 89%
98-99 14825 16958 87%
99-00 15517 16958 92%

1995-96 brought the last great offensive team we may ever see. People lost their shit when the Caps scored 318 goals a few years ago; that Pens team scored 362. Lemieux retired after the 1996-97 season and with Roger Marino entering the picture, there was legitimate wonder when that season ended how the fans would respond. The fan base had grown exponentially since Lemieux arrived in 1984, but with him entirely out of the picture (or so we thought) and with an owner who made little attempt to hide his disdain for Pittsburgh, it was bad times. To top that off, it was the middle of the Dead Puck Era, and Ron Francis left in free agency after the 1997-98 season.

That said, Jagr was brilliant through those seasons, particularly in 1998-99. That was the same year the Kovalev-Lang-Straka core began to emerge.

Incidentally, the Student Rush program was instituted right around the 1998 and 1999 seasons. And of course, Lemieux assumed ownership of the team just prior to the start of the 1999-00 season.

The Comeback & The Lean Years (2000-04)
Season Avg. Attendance Capacity % Capacity
00-01 16398 16958 97%
01-02 15650 16958 93%
02-03 14755 16958 87%
03-04 11877 16940 70%


2000-01 saw the return of Lemieux from retirement and the team make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. The summer after, Jagr was traded. The team was expected to contend for the playoffs in 2001-02, but that season saw Lemieux, Kovalev, Lang and Straka all miss major time with injuries. Lang left prior to the 2002-03 season. Kovalev was traded in February of 2003. Marc-Andre Fleury was drafted in the summer of 2003. The dismantling of that core was complete in the fall of 2003 with the trade of Straka. With the lockout looming, the NHL economics a mess and the arena issue looming larger than ever, it was rock bottom.

When non-Pens fans point to poor attendance, 2002-03 and 2003-04 are those seasons they always talk about. Interesting how only two other seasons in this entire list – 1997-98 and 1998-99 – even remotely approach these numbers.

The Crosby-Malkin Era/"Bandwagon City" (2005-present)
Season Avg. Attendance Capacity % Capacity
05-06 15804 16940 93%
06-07 16424 16940 97%
07-08 17078 16940 101%
08-09 17058 16940 101%
09-10 17078 16940 101%
10-11 18240* 18087 101%

*thanks, ESPN.

2005-06 brought the euphoria of the end of the lockout, a new NHL economic system and the arrival of Sidney Crosby. Unfortunately, it also brought Ed Olczyk back as a coach, who couldn't have been more over his head if you would've dropped him to the deepest floor of the ocean. Thirty games into that season, the Olczyk era was mercifully put to an end.

The arena issue also hung over the team until the latter half of the 2007 season, at which point we had also already been introduced to one Evgeni Malkin. The rest, as they say, has been history.


So what have we learned?

Well, in 24 full seasons played in the last 25 years, only four times did that fall below the 90% mark for a season. In only seven seasons did attendance average 93% or lower.

And let's not pretend more "traditional" US markets are immune to attendance problems. For a little perspective, just four years ago (2007-08),  two American-based Original Six markets played to 82% capacity (Chicago – 88 points) and 88% capacity (Boston – 92 points and a playoff team).

Are there bandwagon fans? Of course there are. There are bandwagon fans in every fan base. When the team is doing well, they're out in full force. When the team has a bad season, they'll be gone in a flash and won't come back until the team does well again. Hence, the very definition of a "bandwagon fan".

There's no doubt that this Pens fan base grew over the last five or six years. There's no doubt that there are fans on board now who weren't there in the lean years, or who didn't go back to the Cup seasons. Will they stick around when this team inevitably has a bad season, or three? We'll find out, won't we?

But this notion that this Penguins fan base didn't exist before 2005?