A small gathering of fans waited anxiously, shivering in the parking lot outside the IceoPlex at Southpointe in Cecil Township Monday, hoping to catch some of the Pittsburgh Penguins after a private practice led by captain Sidney Crosby a day after the NHL announced the end to a 113-day lockout.
“When I found out at 5:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, I was like a little girl on Christmas morning,” said Regan Weiser of Houston, who showed off her personalized “Malkin” license plate on her car, paying homage to assistant captain and reigning NHL most valuable player Evgeni Malkin, and waited for starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to autograph a photograph. “Hockey is my life outside of my husband and two children. And I love ‘Geno.’ He’s my hot Russian.”
Pittsburgh hockey fans had some relief from hockey withdrawal, watching four players with Pittsburgh-area ties, including Washington County native Riley Barber, win a gold medal with the United States national under-20 team at the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships early Saturday. They heard the long-awaited news from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr the next day.
The two parties reached an agreement after a 16-hour marathon negotiating session Saturday, leading into the early hours of Sunday morning.
“I almost fell down the stairs, I was screaming and running to tell my mom,” said Kelly Ruffin of Bloomfield, who waited with two friends, hoping to catch forward James Neal for the final signature on a poster of Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang and Neal at the 2012 NHL All-Star game. “I went to bed Saturday thinking there wouldn’t be a season, then I woke up Sunday and was so happy.”
Sarah Grumet of Murrysville admitted an addiction to hockey, recently taking in a Wheeling Nailers game, the minor league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East Coast Hockey League, to help cope with the lack of NHL games.
“I’m excited; I can’t wait,” said Grumet. “It’s been great to support. I’m addicted to hockey. It’s like my drug. I’ve been watching highlights and videos on YouTube and hockey movies, but it’s not the same. I’m very happy (the NHL) is back.”
The Nailers felt a negative impact from the NHL lockout with a decline in attendance. Craig Bommer, vice president of business operations, said the absence of the NHL kept interest in the game low.
“I think we saw a negative effect, the reason being the NHL’s not on TV all the time, hockey’s not in your head,” Bommer said. “We noticed that with the first strike, that attendance seemed to go down.”
Bommer expects attendance to increase in the coming months.
Some local small businesses also felt the sting of the NHL lockout. Curt Koman, owner of KO Sports, a hockey equipment and apparel store in Canonsburg, said he saw a noticeable decrease in sales of Penguins and NHL merchandise.
“We were way down as far as (NHL) licensed apparel,” Koman said. “Even with our specials we ran – we had a buy-one-get-one-half-off deal, which helped somewhat – enthusiasm just seemed to be down.”
With the success and popularity of the Penguins over the past few seasons, more and more youth players started picking up hockey sticks, but Koman noted a smaller number of youth coming into the store this season with the NHL work stoppage.
After nearly an hour of waiting outside the ice rink, Sidney Crosby exited through the back and drove over to the eager group to sign a few autographs. The Penguins captain thanked the fans for their continued support during the long negotiating process.
“I’m just excited to play,” Crosby said. “It’s been a long time coming, and I’m just excited to play.”