Old Mellon Arena functional despite lack of amenities

The images beamed from the interview area of Mellon Arena look the same as those from the most modern of buildings -- a background with the logos of the NHL and the Stanley Cup, coaches and players seated in front of microphones, the media posing questions from a carpeted area.

But only behind the scenes is there a glimpse of the scrambling done to transform a building designed in the Eisenhower administration so it can accommodate the requirements of the high-tech age.

For example, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman met with reporters, the backboards of basketball's Harlem Globetrotters could be seen across the hall and a peek behind the curtains revealed stacks of chairs and other stuff in storage.

Just a few weeks ago, the area where the media meets with the playoff participants was storage space for the Britney Spears concert. At other times, it's a dining area for roadies.

"The space we have serves a lot of different purposes," said Jay Roberts, general manager of the hockey rink that fans call The Igloo.

"We have a lot of challenges that other building managers don't have to deal with, for sure. We've become very good at improvising. By and large, 95 percent of the time, we figure out a way to come up with an answer that works within our abilities. But there are certain things we just can't give to people, and they just have to live with it."

The future is taking shape just across Center Avenue, where the steel skeleton of the new arena juts from the ground. But the Penguins will need The Igloo for another year after this postseason until the new place is ready for the 2010-11 season.

So despite the occasional leaky roof or power outage, the staffs of SMG, Aramark and the Penguins combine ingenuity with sweat and duct tape to keep the old building serviceable for something as big as the NHL playoffs.

Just for the first round, there are seven TV trucks parked along Mario Lemieux Place to meet the needs of Canadian, American and visiting media. The arena doesn't have enough power to take care of their needs, so there's a generator truck and some support vehicles gobbling up space, too.

"It's a mini-city up there," Roberts said.

"It takes a little bit of special maneuvering. We shoe-horned them in there."

The arena never had what could be called a main entrance. Stars and VIP's enter through Gate 5, but that's also where the trash compactor sits.

When the NHL requested more space as a dressing room for officials, the arena staff converted a restroom by taking out some stalls, putting in some showers and setting down some rubber mats. (Hint: it wasn't the men's room.)

While it may lack amenities, the room is functional. So is the dressing room for the visiting team, but the facilities are cramped and more spartan than in many minor league rinks.

Every fan has to struggle for elbow room in the corridors between periods, but the playoffs add special demands.

There's not enough room for all the Penguins' wives and families, but, with the help of some stanchions and blue curtain, space for dining has been set up on the concrete floor of the lower corridors.

Any homeowner with a garage knows what it's like to juggle the storage of tools depending on the season. The arena rearranges its stuff, too, but, for big events like the Stanley Cup playoffs, non-essential goods are taken to a warehouse or the Convention Center for temporary storage. That could be anything from basketball hoops to the 3,500 chairs used for concerts.

Remarkably, the arena is performing functions its planners could not have dreamed of when it opened in 1961.

"They never would have thought of any of this," Roberts said. "The Beatles had one 24-foot box truck of production equipment when they played here in 1964. Britney Spears had 20 truckloads when her show was here at the end of March.

"We don't have a loading dock. We don't have a grid for rigging. We don't have any of the things that modern arenas do. But there's almost always somebody on my staff -- whether it's a rigger, or electrician, or a carpenter -- who will figure out a way to make this building work pretty darn well."

One advantage the arena had going for it through the years was its design as a multi-use facility.

Space that was once set aside for conventions and such has been converted into the East and West Lounges, kitchens and coolers for storing beer.

"There's always a tradeoff. But the updates made to the building over the years by the people before me were very useful. They helped keep the building relevant for as long as it was," Roberts said.

In a sense, the building is like a vintage truck that must be hand-cranked to start. It may wheeze and sputter, but the arena crews know how to keep it running.

"If you took the staff out of here and handed over the keys to all new people, you'd be in big trouble," Roberts said.

But, if the Penguins have a successful playoff run, the quirks and lack of amenities won't matter.

Page B-1

Pittsburgh's new arena not only will be the newest in the NHL when it opens in 2010 but the greenest in sports.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com. First Published April 23, 2009 4:00 AM


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