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Penguins Fans Searching for Keys in NHL Lockout

Season ticket holders, Student Rushers prepare for long, hockey-free winter.

For much of the summer, Erin DiPietro and Bobbi Jamriska anticipated receiving their yearly Penguins season ticket packages only to be disappointed that there are no games to attend.

One of the main reasons Stephen Bosela attends college in Pittsburgh is because he had access to the Penguins hockey and now worries his senior year will be devoid of his favorite sport.

"I really wanted to come here and go to hockey games pretty cheap," Bosela said.

The National Hockey League lockout doesn't just affect the league and its players but strains the lives of the cheering fans, leaving some feeling lost and heartbroken.

While the NHL and NHL Players' Association negotiate details of their collective bargaining agreement that expired on Sept. 15, Pittsburgh fans are wondering when the Penguins will take the ice and how a fourth lockout in 20 years will impact hockey's reputation and affect the Penguins' shot at another run at the Stanley Cup.

Jamriska removed herself from the daily updates on negotiations over how owners and players split over $3 billion a year in revenue.

"The stuff they're doing turns me off so I've checked out so it's not a bad experience for me," she said.

The NHL and NHLPA failed to reach terms for the new CBA, battling mostly over contract options and revenue sharing. The league seeks to decrease its revenue afforded to the players from 57 percent to 50 percent. The players union is fighting to guarantee at least $1.8 billion of the league's revenue.

Team officials, including the Penguins', released refund information for season ticket holders over the course of the past few days. The Pens front office stated via email, "The NHL is hopeful that it can negotiate a new CBA with the players before any games must be canceled," and included refund details. Unfortunately for ticket holders and fans who already purchased preseason tickets, league officials have announced the cancellation of the entire preseason, adding that talks resume on Friday, Sept. 28.

The Penguins are practicing informally at the Iceoplex at Southpointe this week. Leading practice is ROOT SPORTS analyst and former Penguin Jay Caufield. The team is not permitted to train with Penguins staff until a new CBA is signed.

DiPietro, a Penguins season ticket holder since 1999, is one of thousands of fans who feels disappointed and disenchanted by the league's inability to renew the CBA, possibly canceling Opening Day.

"I'd love to express my displeasure with the whole situation," she said. "I feel the art of compromise is a lost art in society."

DiPietro and her husband received season tickets the week former NHL superstar Mario Lemieux purchased the Penguins in 1999. During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, DiPietro travelled to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to watch the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate play. It wasn't the familiar confines of the old Mellon/Civic Arena, but it helped ease losing an entire season.

DiPietro's phone was lying on the table protected with a Pens cover. She was visibly upset, an air of helplessness in her voice as she spoke about her options in letting the team and league know that the fans are not pleased.

"A lot of reporters say the only way you will affect the owners is with your pocketbook—cancel your season tickets," she said. "Well, then I don't get to go back. It could be my whole lifetime before I get a shot to go back."

DiPietro isn't just a fan of the Penguins but of hockey as whole. Winter is for watching and experiencing hockey at various levels of the sport, be it the NHL, college or the minor and junior leagues. For the casual fan, the lockout may provide one less distraction available to ease boredom. For the diehard and committed whose winters are filled with "hockey, hockey, hockey," as DiPietro put it, the custom and bonding experience associated with attending games is irreplaceable.

Jamriska obtained season tickets in 1991 when the Penguins won the first of back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. She is walking into the fourth lockout of her career as a season ticket holder. Canceling her ticket package is not an option because her love for hockey remains strong, but she can see where this lockout may be the straw that breaks the backs of some fans.

In an interview via Skype, 40-year-old Jamriska described the aging holder demographic that could be swayed by the lockout to cancel its ticket packages.

"Coming to games has become a hassle," she said regarding how some might think. "They complain about the noise. They complain it is too cold. The people not having a good experience at CONSOL (Energy Center)—this could be the thing that turns them off."

Jamriska echoed DiPietro's sadness of missing fellow season ticket holders.

"It's more to me about the ritual and the people," Jamriska said. "I go to the games with close friends that I've been sitting with for half my life. That's going to be hard."

Also a fan of the sport at large, Jamriska works monthly in the Silicon Valley of California, and it isn't uncommon for her to attend four to five San Jose Sharks games per season. Even across the country, she formed a family of remote Pens fans. She watches Pens games at a bar near her California office with around 10 people. The lockout affects these relationships and forces a lifestyle adjustment.

Bosela, a 23-year-old senior at the University of Pittsburgh, applied to Pitt largely due to the proximity of the Penguins and affordable ticket prices. Bosela participates in the Penguins' American Eagle Student Rush program roughly 10 to 15 times per season, paying only $25 per ticket, as well as at least one game per playoffs round.

For his interview, Bosela donned a brand new Tomas Vokoun shirt. The Penguins new backup goalie signed a two-year contract on June 4. Bosela's opportunity to wear his Vokoun shirt to a game may be delayed by his December graduation and budding career as a construction engineer.

Bosela explained, "I work in an industry where I could be moved every three months."

As a dedicated fan, Bosela will welcome back hockey with open arms when the lockout ends and may take up dek hockey to pass the time usually spent watching games. He expressed great concern for people that the strike directly affects.

"That's the shame of it," he said. "They're (NHL and NHLPA are) all fighting over millions and millions of dollars, and it's the people who work at the arena who lose the most."

Decreased work for arena employees nationwide is devastating when their livelihoods depend on the NHL's functionality.

General sentiment from Bosela, DiPietro and Jamriska is that the Penguins, due to Pittsburgh's size, will not feel the effect of losing fans. The fan base in Pittsburgh is large, and the Penguins showcase a great, competitive product on the ice each season, keeping fans engaged and energized.

Smaller market teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets and even Los Angeles Kings, who won their first Stanley Cup in June, stand to suffer revenue loss.

When asked how the Pittsburgh market will gauge the lockout's consequences, Bosela spoke about the season ticket holders.

"The telling sign will be how much the season ticket holder list shrinks both between people getting tickets after the lockout and people taking their name off of the (waiting) list," he said.

The NHL is a business, but the lockout's consequences touch lives more than just financially. While fans have the option to spend this winter taking in hockey at Robert Morris University, in Wheeling, WV, or even in Johnstown, PA, with the return of hockey in the form of the Tomahawks, the potential cancellation of an entire NHL season disconnects fans from each other. Hockey's heart and soul is its human element.

Hockey and its fans will return. The season ticket holders, devoted fans and Student Rushers who stand for sometimes four hours in subfreezing temperatures, like Bosela, just for a taste of glory and thrill being a part of something larger than life will return. Loving hockey far outweighs the obligatory emotional highs and lows.

The Penguins themselves perfectly captured this feeling with their "Essence of being a fan" commercial this past season where they proclaimed that being a fan "is a commitment that requires dedication, desire, and heart ... If being a fan were easy, it wouldn't be great."

It isn't just about hockey. It's about tradition, being a part of a family and losing an aspect of your life that is constant.

The writer is a Baldwin Borough native and Baldwin High School graduate.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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