Poor home ice conditions affecting Penguins

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There is much for the Penguins to like about Consol Energy Center.

The facilities and amenities are first-rate. Sellout crowds are a given. They are on an 18-2 regular-season roll there, including victories in their first three games this season.

Conspicuously absent from the list is the quality of its ice.

That continues to be an issue with players, as it has been since the arena opened in 2010. A group of players, offered anonymity in exchange for candor, left no doubt about that.

"I hate [complaining] about stuff, so it's not on the top of my concerns," Player B said. "But it's unfortunate."

Nearly every player interviewed -- and a few who declined to be -- agreed that the ice-maintenance staff and the front office are receptive when informed of complaints or problems with the playing surface.

"We try to treat our players better than any other team," said David Morehouse, the team's president and chief executive officer. "We're not 'capped' on how well we treat the players, so if the players have a problem with the ice, we'll do everything we can to fix it."

There's nothing new about that. Management has been responding to players' concerns about the ice since the building opened its doors just over three years ago and summoned NHL ice guru Dan Craig as recently as a few weeks ago after receiving negative feedback from players.

"When the ice guy from the NHL gets to town, it usually gets a little bit better," Player A said.

Although complaints about the ice don't seem to make it beyond the confines of the locker room very often, they are frequent fodder for conversations inside of it. Especially at times, like the Penguins' season-opening homestand, when at least some players are particularly unhappy with it.

"Right now, at the start of the season, I think they're still searching for the right ice," Player A said earlier this week. "Obviously, they haven't found it yet."

It is not, apparently, for a lack of trying. One thing on which all concerned agree is that having the best possible ice would benefit the Penguins, whose style puts a premium on skating and skill.

"When you look at the team we have -- the skating ability and the talent level we have -- you'd think there would be more of an [emphasis] on having really good ice," Player B said.

Morehouse, smiling, made that point even more succinctly, saying, "It's not a fullback-oriented team."

Northlands Coliseum (now Rexall Place) in Edmonton set the standard for NHL ice in recent history, and the Oilers' dynasty of the 1980s fully exploited the benefits of having a superb playing surface.

A perfect storm of factors -- very cold winters, low humidity and relatively few non-hockey events -- helped to make the ice at Northlands so good, and Consol Energy Center doesn't have any of that going for it.

"It's a pretty delicate thing," Player C said. "When you think about how many people are in the building, the weather changes, the [non-hockey events] that are in and out of the building, there are a lot of things to consider."

There is no consensus on where Consol Energy Center ranks among NHL buildings -- some Penguins regard it as middle-of-the-pack, others as clearly below average -- there seems to be agreement that its current slab of ice has more of an impact on puck-handling than skating.

"You can tell when the ice [cleaning] crew gets on [during stoppages in play] and there is a foot of snow and the little girls can barely push the snow by the benches ??? it's kind of snowy and doesn't do well when you try to put a puck on it and keep it flat," Player A said.

Player B, who said Tuesday that the ice conditions for the first two home games "were some of the worst I've seen," acknowledged that multi-purpose venues such as Consol Energy Center face special challenges to making and maintaining good ice, but did not accept that those conditions make the task impossible.

"We joke around here that it shouldn't be hard, because when we skate at Southpointe and skate at town rinks that have zero budget and don't have the tools and technology that they have [at Consol Energy Center], and they all have great ice," he said. "If they can do it, there's no excuse to not have it here."

Morehouse said that, while there was much experimenting in the arena's first year to find the best possible formula and procedures for making ice, "I think we've adjusted and, for the most part, have had good ice."

Players don't share that assessment, although most appear to be confident that efforts to improve the ice will pay off eventually.

"I think they'll figure it out," Player C said. "They're very committed to making sure that they do everything they can to give us the best ice conditions.

"I think it's just a matter of time."


Dave Molinari: dmlinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published October 9, 2013 8:52 PM


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