With the Pittsburgh Penguins blazing through their most promising playoff bid in years, you'd think fans couldn't be happier. But one faction of Pens supporters is disgruntled that former play-by-play announcer Mike Lange remains absent from the team's television broadcasts.
As the voice of the Penguins for 30 years, Lange was something of a Pittsburgh institution: Even non-hockey fans can run off a few of his signature catchphrases like "Buy Sam a drink and get his dog one too." But FSN Pittsburgh, which carries Penguins games on cable TV, dumped Lange prior to the 2006-2007 season, replacing him with color-commentator Paul Steigerwald. Lange moved on to the Pens radio-broadcasting team heard locally on WXDX FM-105.9.
Almost two years later, some fans are still resentful. An online petition set up more than a year ago continues to grow, and a Web site, www.BringBackMike.com, has recently appeared, instructing fans to call and e-mail FSN demanding that Lange be put back on television.
"We just lost Myron [Cope]. We threw away Bob Prince. How much longer is this going to go on?" says Alisa Carafo, bar manager of Excuses in the South Side. On April 19, the venue held a Mike Lange Appreciation Day attended by about 20 fans.
At the start of the hockey season, the bar catered to Lange's fans by installing "Delay Play" device, which allows perfect synchronization of FSN's high-definition television feed and Lange's radio broadcast. (For years, Steelers fans similarly muted their TV sets so they could hear the legendary Cope on radio. But while that works for the stop-and-start rhythm of a football game, the perpetual motion of hockey makes the time lag between radio and TV much more noticeable.)
"I've called FSN a few times asking what we have to do to get him back on television," said Paul Castorina, who drove from New Kensington to the South Side to attend the Lange appreciation day. "He's the best."
All calls to FSN got Castorina was a standard promise to "relay his concerns to the appropriate people."
Pens fans were angry when Lange was unexpectedly canned. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in June 2006 that the move was financial. When he renegotiated his contract the year before, Lange took a pay cut, the paper said. That two-year deal also gave the station the right to terminate the deal after one season, which they did. But the fans' anger never amounted to much in the way of protest, at least not enough to make FSN reconsider its move.
Ross Township resident Bill Soles hopes to change that. Soles was watching a Penguins game on TV earlier this season when Steigerwald mistakenly said Jarkko Rutuu had scored a short-handed goal; in fact, Rutuu had just emerged from the penalty box to put the Penguins at even-strength.
"I decided then that it was time for someone to do something," Soles says. "There are tons of new Pens fans tuning in to see [Sidney] Crosby and [Evgeni] Malkin, and they deserve to listen and learn from Mike Lange, like I did growing up."
A month-and-a-half after launching the "Bring Back Mike" site, Soles says he's received about 3,500 unique visitors. In that same time, signatures to the online petition have nearly doubled. He hopes that some of those supporters are also taking the time to contact FSN to voice their displeasure.
FSN and the Penguins did not return phone calls or e-mails inquiring about fan response. However, the Penguins' success is drawing viewers, regardless of who is announcing.
The team's television ratings are the highest of any FSN-affiliated NHL squad in the country, according to the Pens' NHL Web site. A late March game against the New York Islanders drew a 10.7 rating (meaning nearly 11 percent of all greater Pittsburgh area households were tuned in), the team's highest regular-season viewership since Mario Lemieux's comeback game in 2000 scored a 15.9.
But FSN is under new ownership, Liberty Media, and management installed a new general manager, Ted Black, a former Penguins executive, in March. Paul Steigerwald's contract expires after this season, and the two sides haven't yet started new negotiations, according to a March 27 P-G story.
The Lange die-hards are holding out hope for a return next season.
"It's hard to get anyone to do anything these days," says Soles. "I'm sure there are some people who don't care who the announcers are. But I think hockey fans in particular pay attention to those details."