A Football City Warms to Ice Hockey

The Stanley Cup-winning Penguins are turning the heads of die-hard Steelers fans - a letter about sports in Pittsburgh

WHEN Janice Spicher started dating her husband-to-be a decade ago, she plunged into Pittsburgh sports. She attended home games of the Steelers (pro football), the Pirates (pro baseball), and the Panthers (college basketball). But what hooked her was hockey.

"You're talking to one of the most avid hockey fans in this city," Mrs. Spicher says of her 10-year avocation.

Pittsburgh hockey used to be about as popular as jai alai in Nome. This was the "City of Champions" - borne by the rough-and-tumble Steelers (a record four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s), the Pirates (World Series champions in 1979), and the Pitt Panthers (college football champions the same year). The city's pro hockey team - the Penguins - had never won anything.

When those other teams faltered in the 1980s, the Penguins changed. They picked up a Wunderkind named Mario Lemieux and began winning. In 1991, they snared their first Stanley Cup championship. They repeated the feat last season and are threatening to make it three in a row. Suddenly, football-loving Pittsburgh is casting sidelong glances at the golden boys on ice.

"This town loves a winner," says Tim Shepherd, general manager of Honus Wagner Company. For the first time ever, his downtown sporting-goods store may sell more Penguins paraphernalia than Steelers T-shirts and gewgaws.

"It's hard to distinguish [fan interest] now between the Penguins and the Steelers," says Fritz Huysman, executive sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Steelers have made an astonishing comeback and are on the verge of winning their first title since 1984. But this hasn't dampened Penguin enthusiasm.

"Pittsburgh is becoming a more sophisticated sports town," says Marc Jampole, a transplanted New Yorker. When he moved here in 1984, he would ask acquaintances to a baseball game. "People would look at me as though I was crazy ... but they would hang on every football statistic." Today, his friends in Pennsylvania cities like Harrisburg and Johnstown still follow football exclusively. But in Pittsburgh, "they're more likely to talk about the Penguins or the Pirates," he says. (The Pirates have just misse d being in the World Series for the past two years.)

One can make a lot out of this. As Pittsburgh changes from steel city to service center, is it switching sports, too? Is stand-up, knock-down football just a touch declasse for nouveau Pittsburghers? Well, maybe. But it's hard to tell whether Penguins fans are really any different than Steeler fans. Both sports are hard-hitting and fast-paced. An obvious difference is the unusual dedication of Pittsburgh parents whose children play hockey.

Since Pittsburgh schools don't sponsor hockey, parents must pay to outfit their children. Skates cost $100. Add some $200 for other equipment. Then there are club fees and ice time. Ice rinks here are so scarce that some parents have to arrive at 7 a.m. on Sundays so their children can practice.

These children hold the key to Pittsburgh's sports future. Just as their predecessors looked up to Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, and Franco Harris of the Steelers, youngsters' heroes today are Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Tom Barrasso, and (the latest team idol) Rick Tocchett. Keith Kearney, president of North Hills (Penn.) Amateur Hockey, says two more championship years from the Penguins would seal the city's future as a center for hockey talent. His group, which has already doubled in size in the last five years, is planning to start a girl's team next year.

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