Penguins' move produces Mellon Arena memories

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In the early years of what was then the Civic Arena, and in the earliest days of the Penguins, a fan club that flourished in Section D-24 began a chant that echoes through the ages.

"We don't have any documentation, and I don't know how you could validate it, but we were the first ones to chant 'Let's Go Pens!'" said Bob Walde, who was a hockey fan before the Penguins came into existence. "I'm going to miss that old building. It's like an old girlfriend. You never forget those memories."

The fan club was Bob Woytowich's Polish Army, named after a defenseman who spent three-plus seasons with the Penguins, beginning in 1968. Although he died in 1988 after suffering a heart attack while driving his car, his army still forms at reunions. Some members will see a game or two this season -- the final hockey season at Mellon Arena before the Penguins move into their new place across Centre Avenue.

The sentimental journey already has begun for the distinctive building, where the Penguins raised their third Stanley Cup banner in pregame ceremonies Friday. Unless a preservationist finds a compelling reason to save it, the arena will join Duquesne Gardens, Exposition Park, Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium and Pitt Stadium on the list of Pittsburgh sports sites that are not there anymore.

Originally called the Civic Auditorium or Civic Arena, it officially was dedicated with pomp and ceremony Sept. 17, 1961. What was then the largest retractable roof in the world opened to expose the city skyline, but it was quickly closed because of fears the outside temperatures would melt the ice.

The first event -- a day after the ribbon-cutting -- was an ice show, but it did not involve pucks or hockey sticks. About 7,000 patrons enjoyed a performance of the Ice Capades, featuring Sonja Henie and Dick Button.

The building, adorned in stainless steel made in Pittsburgh, created a national stir from the outset.

Writing in Esquire magazine, architecture expert Herbert Kubly said: "Like Rome's Coliseum and the arenas of Syracuse and Athens, it will be one of the great public meeting places of the world, a cultural and sports center bringing to the people symphonies, operas and drama, basketball, hockey and tennis, conventions, forums and exhibitions."

Hockey fans who were used to seeing games at Duquesne Gardens, a converted trolley barn, were suitably impressed.

"The first time I was in the arena, my jaw dropped. It was like walking into a flying saucer," Walde said at a recent muster of the old army. "The dome is a symbol of old Rome, and some of the early Penguins losses were so lopsided, that it seemed like it was the lions vs. the martyrs. But look at them now. And new generations are chanting 'Let's Go Pens!'"

The first hockey played there was by the Hornets, a minor league team, Oct. 14, 1961. The Hornets went out of existence six seasons later, winning the American Hockey League's Calder Cup championship trophy in their last appearance at the arena.

The Penguins were born in 1967 when the National Hockey League doubled its size to 12 teams. Their dome-shaped home had gotten the popular nickname The Igloo, and it apparently did not matter that real penguins reside at the South Pole while the Eskimo and the igloo are features of the North Pole.

The early days of the Penguins are remembered for ownership changes, losing teams and smallish crowds. The throngs that gather to watch sold-out playoff games on the video screen outside the arena would dwarf the turnstile counts on many a Wednesday or Saturday night when the team was struggling.

But passion for hockey burned white hot for fans who followed the new team. And then along came Bob Woytowich, obtained from Minnesota for a No. 1 draft pick before the Penguins started their second season. He caught the attention of two local cousins -- Tom Niemiec and Ken Rusnak -- who had ventured to Brantford, Ontario, for Penguins training camp.

They got to talking to Jim O'Brien, a local author who wrote sports for The Pittsburgh Press. At the time, golfing great Arnold Palmer had a nationwide following called Arnie's Army, and an idea was floated about starting a new alliance -- years before the city was awash in Steelers fan clubs such as Gerela's Gorillas or Franco's Italian Army.

Not only was Brantford the home of Wayne Gretzky and comedian Phil Hartman, it was the residence of Alexander Graham Bell. And in the bar of a hotel named after the telephone pioneer, Woytowich's Polish Army was born.

"My cousin and I were Polish, but you didn't have to be Polish to join. A lot of the original members were Irish," laughed Niemiec, 70, a former city firefighter.

The fan club put up a sign at the arena for the first home game of the 1968-69 season. Ultimately, the size of the sign reached 30 feet in length, and fans of all stripes congregated to Section D-24, a nosebleed section where general admission tickets cost $2.50.

Over time, the army grew to six-dozen volunteers. The fan club honored its favorite player in ceremonies at center ice, and the Penguins once had an appreciation party for the fan club.

"Joining the army was an excuse to drink," joked Rusnak. "Actually, the whole thing just kind of snowballed."

Even when Woytowich was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the 1971-72 season, the bond between him and the fans was unbreakable.

"The Kings came to town, and we still had the sign up. Even though he was on the opposing bench, he'd look up at us," Niemiec said.

The arena, meanwhile, became something like a village square. Zeke Stawski, a member of the army, met his wife at a hockey game.

"Somebody missed a goal or something, and I kicked the seat in front of me. The woman sitting in it turned around and said, 'Are you crazy?' I said 'yes,' and we started talking," he said. "The next thing you know, we were married. I wore Penguin blue at the wedding."

Over time, as the responsibilities of raising families and pursuing careers took precedence, the foot soldiers of Woytowich's Polish Army attended games with less frequency.

But their ranks were held together by Rich Garstka, who was organized enough to assemble a reunion every year or so. Recently, about a dozen members of the original group gathered at Dave and Buster's on the Waterfront in Homestead.

"It was just a good group of guys who shared a love for the game," he said. "Nobody wore numbered jerseys. Nobody painted their face. Basically, this thing started in a bar four decades ago, and we're still here. There was a time we lived and died with each rush up the ice. They were so bad for so long I never thought I'd see a Stanley Cup. Now we have three, and hockey has a new home for its future."

Robert Dvorchak can be reached at . First Published October 5, 2009 4:00 AM


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