See an NHL game, get a job -- all for nothing, all at once

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh pENGUINSIt's an unemployed hockey fan's hat trick: a free NHL game, a first look at a brand-new arena and a job fair all at once.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are giving away all 18,000 tickets for its Sept. 25, preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the new Consol Energy Center. Eight-thousand of the ticket-holders, mostly college and trade school students, will get to discuss hiring prospects with local businesses such as Lanxess, Bayer, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse, PNC Bank and Highmark at an in-game meet-and-greet arranged by ImaginePittsburghJobs.com.

It's no token gesture. The Penguins will be sacrificing a million bucks in gate receipts, according to Associated Press, and don't really need to fill seats. Their season ticket waiting list is climbing toward 4,000.

Sure, it's just an exhibition game, but the cheapest seats available for the next Penguins exhibition, against Chicago on Sept. 28, run between $55 and $75. (Season-ticket holders are still getting their regular allotment of two preseason games. The freebie was added later.)

Compare the Penguins' attitude with that of the miserly Pittsburgh Pirates. The baseball Pirates, who have not had a winning season since 1992, have shown that being cheap is profitable. By restricting the team payroll to the Major-League basement ($34.9 million this year) and reaping the league's shared TV revenue, the Pirates finished $29.4 million in the black in 2007 and 2008, according to documents that weren't supposed to be seen. Some have accused the team of not trying to win, which would mean paying higher salaries to better players.

No such public relations black eye happening with the Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and boast high-priced marquee players such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins are calling their inspired largess the Ultimate Home Game, and are billing it as the first of its kind. WalletPop figures the club can call it whatever it wants. It's the kind of recession-era, goodwill-spreading that might win over fans who perhaps will be able to afford hockey tickets in the future. It might also keep young corporate talent, perhaps discouraged by a municipal unemployment rate that is nearly 2% higher than the national average, from seeking greener pastures.

This WalletPopper covered hockey in 2003-04 for the New York Times, and I remember leaner times. A dwindling fan base at the old Igloo cheered in vain for a Penguins team that was headed for its third last-place finish in a row, and was also last in attendance. I reported on a game there that was so quiet I thought I could hear my cursor blinking.

Now the Penguins are among hockey's elite with a winsome charitable streak to boot. But job seekers who don't already have tickets for Saturday's big freebie will be frozen out. Four-thousand registrants at ImaginePittsburghJobs.com won two tickets each in a lottery of 18,000. The other 10,000 tickets are going to youth programs.

Maybe next year.

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