Thanksgiving is synonymous with plenty of traditions.
Football, family and feasting.
The night before Thanksgiving has a few traditions as well.
Mostly, going to establishments and imbibing in ways one would not typically on a weekday night.
Or going to a Pittsburgh Penguins game.
Of the Penguins’ first 55 years of existence, they have played a Thanksgiving eve game on 48 occasions with 43 being staged within the friendly confines of either the Civic Arena or PPG Paints Arena.
That “tradition” will continue with Wednesday’s home contest against the Calgary Flames.
Captain Sidney Crosby has participated in several of those games since he joined the franchise in 2005. The atmosphere is something that stands out to him.
“I remember some of these games being fun games and people being into it,” Crosby said. “Usually, the games over the holidays always seem like there a little bit more excitement, for sure.”
What isn’t sure is how the Penguins have been able to get so many Thanksgiving eve home games over their half-century-plus of existence.
It might not be accurate to label it a “tradition,” per se. It’s more of a collision of circumstances that have led to the Penguins being a host so often the night before the holiday.
American teams typically have more trouble selling tickets to games in the early part of the season when forced to compete with the NFL. So the Penguins, seemingly from their first days, have asked the league to give them home games on the day before Thanksgiving. And given that Pittsburgh is relatively close to other Eastern Conference locales, particularly for Western Conference foes on long trips in the eastern portion of the continent, scheduling a road game in Pittsburgh can be convenient to the visitor on a multi-city road trip.
In their first season, 1967-68, the Penguins got one of their first wins against one of the so-called “Original Six” franchises when they defeated the Boston Bruins, 4-1, at the Civic Arena on Nov. 22, 1967.
From that point on, the Penguins were almost always at home for Thanksgiving, at least the night before.
In total, the Penguins have not played on Thanksgiving eve seven times and four of those have involved a disruption in the schedule of some sort (three due to a lockout and in 2020, the pandemic had much of the world on hold).
During the 1970s, the pre-Thanksgiving game became something of an event because it was one of the relatively few times the Penguins had a sellout (or close to it) in their pre-Mario Lemieux days.
“Back in the day of the (1970s) — maybe parts of the early (1980s) — when there weren’t very many sellouts, that always seemed like the automatic sellout,” former Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillian said. “You would always talk about college kids being home and people being home for the holidays. It was always that kind of festive atmosphere before Penguins hockey was really big in Pittsburgh.
“It has continued. It’s probably been less noticeable in this era when there have been lots and lots of sellouts. It didn’t stick out as much. But it is rather unique.”
Even through the Lemieux years as well as the eras synonymous with superstars such as Jaromir Jagr, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins always seem to be home for the (night before the) holiday.
Their last pre-Thanksgiving road game was a 6-1 road win against the New York Rangers on Nov. 23, 2016. Since then, they’ve played four consecutive home games (with the 2020 pandemic gap).
The Penguins do request certain dates from the schedule maker, and they’re certainly not the only ones who ask to play home games on the night before Thanksgiving. They just happen to be more successful with their requests than other franchises.
“You give available dates well before the start of the season when they’re making the schedule,” McMillian said. “The Penguins have always been fortunate to get that date. Clearly, everybody loves the holiday games for obvious reasons. This is just one that worked out.”
The Penguins aren’t perfect in home games before Thanksgiving. They have a 23-18-7 record (including four ties). But the effect the home crowd has on that night is not oblivious to those on the ice.
“During warmups, we’d be like, ‘They’re fired up tonight. Let’s go boys!’” said Penguins radio broadcaster Phil Bourque, a forward for the team in the 1980s and 1990s. “You just knew it was a little bit different in the building. That’s all you need as an individual and as a group of alpha males. When you see a bunch of people that are pretty fired up in warmups, you know it’s not just one of 82 (games).”