The Pittsburgh Penguins, and David Morehouse, push to stay ahead of the curve

The team’s ability to stay ahead of the curve is demonstrated with the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township — a first-of-its-kind facility combining an NHL practice rink with a world-class medical center.

Morehouse says players can go straight from the locker room to an MRI, X-ray or CT scan, with access to concussion experts and top sports medicine doctors. In addition, fans who are rehabbing at the complex can watch the Penguins practice.

The facility is also used by youth teams. And when Morehouse’s son, who was 14 at the time, lost an edge, went headfirst into the boards and knocked himself out, within a few minutes he was seen by the same concussion expert who works with players.

“That facility alone, in partnership with UPMC, has spurred all kinds of economic development around it. It’s becoming known as the best facility in the country,” he says.

This summer, for example, a prototype of safer boards, which react to the puck the same way but give when impacted by a larger mass, was installed in a section of the practice rink.

Working together

Partnerships are a key component of the Penguins’ culture. They not only help the team stay innovative but help in its mission to impact the greater community.

Morehouse says the team built 12 deck hockey rinks around the region with Highmark, and it has put gym hockey equipment in more than 600 schools through a FedEx partnership. This year, the Penguins also provided 2,000 children with free hockey equipment, courtesy of donations from the team, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sidney Crosby and Adidas.

“We’ve always looked at corporate partners not as corporate sponsors, but as corporate partners. We don’t just sell them on our brand. We ask them what their needs are,” he says.

If a company wants more brand presence in the region, it could build a playground, but it would get limited media coverage, Morehouse says.

“They do it with us, we have 2 million Twitter followers. We put it on our website. We put it on Instagram. We bring local news,” he says, adding that when people see other people doing something good, it spreads.

These relationships don’t always have to do with people who give the team money, though, Morehouse says.

“I just had someone call me from another team who said, ‘We’re thinking of outsourcing our naming rights — it was in another sport — and outsourcing our corporate sales.’ And I said, ‘Well, that would be the exact opposite of what we’ve done.’ What we’ve done here is we’ve built relationships, and those relationships don’t just pay dividends in sponsorship dollars. They pay dividends when a board member from that company introduces me to a new CEO of another company and they’re interested in our real estate, or they’re interested in our foundation,” he says.

Morehouse, who knows the value of long-term relationships from his background in politics, is also seeing the dividends with the team’s development on the former Civic Arena site. After the plans were announced in March and the project kicked off with the I-579 cap to reconnect the Hill District, many local and national businesses reached out.

Juggling priorities

Deciding where to partner — to keep the brand strong — is more art than science. It’s based on personal interaction and face-to-face meetings more than analytics, Morehouse says.

“We work on having lunches with people, meeting people, bringing them to the games, bringing them on the road with us and building relationships. And we don’t go in the first meeting with a pitch,” he says.

It also comes back to using the Penguins as a platform to do something good, like when the Penguins raised $700,000 in two weeks after the Tree of Life shooting, which it gave to the Jewish Federation and first responders.

Another initiative is to try to get the city to build an indoor rink in Shadyside. All of the existing rinks are in the suburbs, and Morehouse says the team wants to get more diversity in hockey, including minority communities.

However, having such a broad scope — such as spearheading a mixed-use development — can stretch resources, even with strong executives on the business side and an unparalleled hockey operations staff, he says.