Steve Willamson is my newest hockey hero.
The Orlando-based Tampa Bay Lightning fan completed every hockey fan's dream last winter, visiting all 30 NHL arenas in 30 nights.
Including Mellon Arena in Pittsbugh.
Why is that significant, you ask? It appears Williamson is not welcome in Mellon Arena. Neither are residents of New England, the South, the West, or much of the Midwest. Visiting from Canada? Forget about it.
Yes, geographic discrimination is alive and well in Steeltown. You see, when the Penguins put tickets on sale at the start of the season, the following appeared on Tickemaster's website when you clicked on any given game.
"Mellon Arena is located in Pittsburgh, PA. Sales to this event will be restricted to residents of PA, OH, WV, MD, NY, NJ, DE, VA and the District of Columbia. Residency will be based on credit card billing address. Orders by residents outside of PA, OH, WV, MD, NY, NJ, DE, VA and the District of Columbia will be canceled without notice and refunds given."
In other words, forget about road trips for visiting fans. That is, unless you're a hometown fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers, the New York Islanders, the Buffalo Sabres, a Washington Capitals fan who lives in any D.C. suburb -- but not the city itself, or a Detroit Red Wings fan residing a few miles south of the city in Toledo.
Illogical? Yes. Unethical? Yes.
The policy did not come to light until an AOL blog pointed out the policy was in place for the Stanley Cup Finals. Several Penguins fans pointed out the policy was in place all season long, which makes it even worse.
Traveling to road games has long been a part of being a hockey fan. Most die-hard fans have great memories of road games -- they are a place to meet fellow fans from your team in a unique setting, a place to meet fans from other teams, and a place to show your overall hockey support.
Not in Pittsburgh. Yes, I know tickets are hard to get -- there is a season ticket waiting list and single-game tickets sell quickly. Yet tickets are still a lot harder to get in Toronto, and the Maple Leafs are far too classy to institute such a policy. Same goes for Montreal, or Detroit during the late 1990s.
This is not the first time this has happened. Ironically, Pittsburgh fans were up in arms when Washington restricted ticket sales to everyone but people from Pennsylvania in the 2001 playoffs. Those same fans need to speak up in this case. Anything less would be hypocritical.
In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes limited ticket sales to fans in the mid-Atlantic states. Interestingly, the Detroit Red Wings were the opponent in that year's Stanley Cup Finals as well.
The Hockey Gods have a sense of fairness. In both of those cases, the team employing geographic discrimination lost.
And it is not like Pittsburgh has always been a tough ticket. Just two years ago, this team appeared on the verge of bankruptcy -- and perhaps on the verge of heading to Hamilton. Jim Balsillie attempted to purchase the struggling team, a team that failed to fill a smallish, dated arena despite the presence of Sidney Crosby, and many speculate he would have moved the team north to Ontario.
Eventually, a new arena was approved, and the team stayed in Pittsburgh. The crowds increased, season ticket sales were capped, and the Penguins were the hottest thing since the Steelers won the Super Bowl.
Now, the success has gone to their heads. Or perhaps, they remember the many years when the Penguins struggled to draw fans. From their entry in the league in 1967 until Mario Lemieux was drafted in 1984, empty seats were common at the Igloo. When Lemieux retired for the first time in the 1990s, the same thing happened. And it happened again in the early 2000s as the team struggled with mediocrity.
During those times, it was common for visiting fans to take over the Igloo in large numbers, as tickets were easy to get. So perhaps the policy is not just one of arrogance, but also one of insecurity, as the Penguins recall what it is like to be the road team in their own arena.
As a fan who someday hopes to visit all 30 NHL arenas, as well as all junior and minor league arenas, policies like this are infuriating. If this catches on, going to road games will be a thing of the past. So will going to a game as a neutral fan when you are visiting a city on vacation or a business trip.
The NHL needs to act quick and forbid teams from discriminatory policies such as this one. In the meantime, the answer is simple. Every other NHL team needs to put the address of every city, suburb, and municipality within the greater Pittsburgh area in their Ticketmaster database and forbid sales to fans from those cities.
Perhaps then, those Penguins fans would complain to their own team and get the policy changed. After all, it is absurd the Penguins can shut out fans from other teams, yet Penguins fans can still buy road tickets.
In a perfect world, geographic discrimination would never exist on ticket sales. But until that happens, the other 29 teams might have to act in order to force change.
FINAL THOUGHT/BAD PUN OF THE DAY: It will be interesting to see if Johan Franzen comes out especially fired up in game three after Gary Roberts' cheap shot to the head of a player returning from concussion-like symptoms.
If so, to borrow a line from an upcoming Adam Sandler movie.... you don't mess with the Johan.