Thanksgiving is synonymous with many traditions.
Football, family and banquet.
The night before Thanksgiving has some traditions, too.
Mostly, going to establishments and drinking in ways one wouldn’t normally do on a weekday night.
Or go to a Pittsburgh Penguins game.
Among the Penguins’ first 55 years of existence, they played a Thanksgiving Eve game on 48 occasions with 43 of the games being staged inside friendly boundaries at either the Civic Arena or PPG Paints Arena.
That “tradition” will continue with Wednesday’s home game against the Calgary Flames.
Captain Sidney Crosby has been in many of those games since joining the franchise in 2005. The atmosphere is something that sets him apart.
“I remember some of these games were fun games and people were into them,” Crosby said. “Normally, games during the holidays always seem like there’s more action, for sure.”
What is not certain is how the Penguins managed to get so many home games on Thanksgiving Eve over the course of their half-century of existence.
It may not be accurate to call it an “imitation” per se. It’s a collision of circumstances that has led to penguins often being hostesses the night before the holiday.
American teams usually have more trouble selling tickets for games in the early part of the season when they have to compete with the NFL. So it appears that the Penguins, from their early days, have asked the league to give them home games the day before Thanksgiving. And given that Pittsburgh is relatively close to other Eastern Conference venues, especially for Western Conference foes on long trips in the eastern part of the continent, scheduling a road game in Pittsburgh can be convenient for a visitor on a multi-city road trip.
In their first season, 1967-68, the Penguins earned one of their first wins against one of the so-called “Original Six” franchises when they defeated the Boston Bruins, 4-1, at Civic Arena on November 22, 1967.
From that moment on, the penguins are almost always home to celebrate Thanksgiving, at least the night before.
In total, the Penguins didn’t play on Thanksgiving Eve seven times, and four of them had to have a schedule glitch of some kind (three due to lockdowns and in 2020 the pandemic has grounded much of the world).
During the 1970s, the pre-Thanksgiving game became an event because it was one of the relatively few times the Penguins had a sell-out (or close to it) in the pre-Mario Lemieux days.
“Going back in the day (the ’70s) — maybe parts of the early (80s) — when there wasn’t a lot of selling, it always seemed like a spontaneous sale,” said Tom McMillian, the Penguins’ former vice president of communications, Tom McMillian. “You were always talking about college kids being home and people home for the holidays. It was always this kind of festive atmosphere before Penguins hockey was really big in Pittsburgh.
“It has persisted. It was probably less noticeable in this era when there were lots and lots of selling. It didn’t stick as much. But it’s pretty unique.”
Even during the Lemieux years as well as eras synonymous with stars like Jaromir Jagr, Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, the penguins always seemed to be home for (the night before) the holidays.
Their last road game before Thanksgiving was a 6-1 road win over the New York Rangers on November 23, 2016. Since then, they have played four straight home games (with the 2020 pandemic hiatus).
The Penguins request certain dates from the schedule maker, and they’re certainly not the only ones who request home games the night before Thanksgiving. They have been more successful in their applications than other franchises.
“The available dates advance well before the start of the season when the schedule is set,” McMillian said. “Penguins have always been lucky to have this date. Obviously everyone loves holiday games for obvious reasons. This is just one that worked.”
The Penguins aren’t perfect at home games before Thanksgiving. They have a record of 23-18-7 (including four ties). But the impact of the home crowd that night isn’t oblivious to those on the ice.
“During the warm-ups, we’ll say, ‘I caught it tonight.'” Let’s go guys! “I just knew it was a little different in the building. This is all you need as an individual and as a group of alpha males. When you see a group of people so excited in the warm-ups, you know it’s not just one of the 82 (matches).”