Arena that saved the Pens truly shinesThe Penguins beat the Red Wings during Wednesday's exhibition to open their new arena. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)
PITTSBURGH – They stood inside Consol Energy Center, looking back at Mellon Arena through a wall of windows. Dan Curry, 20, sporting a black Evgeni Malkin(notes) sweater, snapped a picture. His mother, Pam Vranich, 51, wearing a gray Sidney Crosby(notes) shirt, felt a mixture of sadness, excitement and relief.
Sadness, because she had so many fond memories of watching the Pittsburgh Penguins at Mellon. Excitement, because Consol certainly seemed state of the art. And relief, because, well, her family is from Johnstown, Pa. That's where they filmed the cult classic "Slap Shot," about a minor-league hockey team in financial trouble. That's where a real-life minor-league hockey team – the Chiefs, whose name came from the movie – just left for Greenville, S.C.
Curry and Vranich knew all too well that if the Penguins hadn't been able to move across the street, they might have moved across the country.
"It's just crazy, because a couple years ago, they weren't even going to be here," Curry said. "And now, like, all you have to do is look around."
"Now it's kind of comforting, because you think, 'At least we know we're safe for a while,' " Vranich said. "We were worried we weren't even going to have a team, and now we have this building."
In that respect, Wednesday night's game was one of the most significant in the history of the franchise. It was only the preseason opener, a 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, but it was sold out and loud. It was the first hockey game at Consol Energy Center, and without this new home of beige brick and glass, the Penguins – Crosby, Malkin, the Stanley Cup banners, everyone and everything – would have found a new home elsewhere.
"It was really close," said Travis Williams, the Penguins' senior vice president of business affairs, who oversaw the construction of Consol. "They were in Kansas City, and Kansas City put an offer on the table. They went to Vegas; Vegas put an offer on the table. It was only after we got to that point that they finally said, 'OK, we're done playing games' – so to speak – 'and let's make this thing happen.' "
After a bankruptcy and years of hard bargaining, owner Mario Lemieux's group convinced politicians to put together a financing package in March 2007. The Penguins committed to Pittsburgh for 30 years, agreeing to pay $4.5 million a year, with $15 million a year coming from casino gambling. Ground broke in August 2008. Twenty-four months later, the $321 million palace opened for business.
The NHL did lose something in Mellon Arena – formerly known as Civic Arena, affectionately known as the Igloo. It's where Lemieux worked his magic and Crosby blossomed. Its metal dome was distinctive and provided a sense of place. The last unique rink left in the league might be Calgary's Saddledome, with its trademark roof. Some will miss Mellon, including preservationists who hope to halt its demolition.
"There's something about the history, and there's something about places where you see it and you know what it is," said Ed Olczyk, who knew every vantage point of the old place as a Penguins player, coach and broadcaster. "It had obviously a certain shape. It was a great place to play and to be a part of it. It's disappointing. I never thought they'd tear down Chicago Stadium. I never thought the Forum would be gone or Boston Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens. But you've got to change with the times."
Let's face it: The Igloo was way behind the times. It looked like a Martian spacecraft or an enormous upside-down wok. It had few amenities, if any, and not enough modern, revenue-generating features. The Penguins had to cross their opponents' zone to get on and off the ice, and the visitors' dressing room was comically cramped. The organization was split – hockey operations based at Mellon, the business side in an office building nearby. The only thing coach Dan Bylsma might miss is that the players don't have to walk by his door anymore when they enter the rink.
"Now I have to check a computer to see if anyone was late," Bylsma said.
Consol is no consolation prize. It's simply a prize. The benefit of the long wait for a new building is that the Penguins were able to study other arenas and incorporate the best ideas. There is still a sense of place, from the murals of Penguins players to the capacity itself – 18,087, in honor of No. 87, Crosby. There are 68 suites – the sweetest of which is Suite 66, in honor of No. 66, Lemieux. Posh and full of Mario memorabilia, Suite 66 sits on ice level, with a view of the dressing room and the path to the Pens' bench. The arena has wide concourses and tons of high-tech toys, from the hundreds of HDTVs to gigantic scoreboard screens that Bylsma called "way too clear."
"I'm going to have to worry about my hair," Bylsma said. "When I look up, there's not much there."
The players' area might be unparalleled. The dressing room itself is shaped like an oval, the ceiling resembling the one at Mellon, with pictures of Penguins legends ringing the top of the wall. (Lemieux's picture isn't right above Crosby's seat, but it's close.) Just outside is a lounge, with a rod hockey table, places to hang out and more HDTVs. Then there is the training room, weight room and equipment room. The place is so sprawling, you worry the team won't feel like a team.
"You want to be around the guys as much as you can," Crosby said. "I think that was kind of a concern coming in. But we've seen here that we get a chance to see everyone, so that's the main thing."
The arena is equipped to host high-end musical acts, but there is no forgetting it's a hockey rink at heart. Consol actually opened with two Paul McCartney concerts in August. The first night, McCartney played one song with a guitar he has had for 20-some years. In reference to his Wings days, it has a Red Wings logo on it. Penguins president David Morehouse sent Williams an email saying essentially that it was bad karma and they needed to get a Pens sticker on that guitar for the second concert.
"I won't tell you exactly what he put in the email, but it was pretty funny," Williams said. "The next day, we scrambled."
McCartney's handlers agreed to put a Pens sticker on the guitar. But shortly before McCartney was about to play the song, his handlers told Williams the logo they had was backward. Williams rushed to the dressing room and frantically found a proper sticker. They got it on the guitar just in time. Instant karma.
The song was "Yesterday." But now at Consol, Pittsburgh and its Penguins can believe in tomorrow.