Arena groundbreaking is great day for hockey

Groundbreaking for arena means ...

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It was that rarest of mid-summer events: a hockey morning in Pittsburgh.

Paul Steigerwald was at the microphone; Jeff Jimerson sang the national anthem; fans cheered at every mention of Mario Lemieux; and there were several choruses of "Let's Go, Pens!"

But this gathering on a lot between Fifth and Centre avenues in the Lower Hill District was much more momentous than such familiarity might suggest.

In the history of the NHL in Pittsburgh, most people might agree these have been the five most important events: the awarding of the franchise; the drafting of Lemieux; winning the first Stanley Cup; winning the second Stanley Cup; winning the lottery for the right to draft Sidney Crosby.

All were enormously important events for the team, its fans and the region. What happened yesterday, in a symbolic manner, might surpass them. Although work on the new arena has been under way for some time at this site, government and Penguins officials ceremonially broke ground yesterday on the long-awaited, much-debated facility. Everyone knew it was going to happen, but actually seeing shovels in the ground brought home the full impact of what this means.

"Have you ever seen a more beautiful slab of dirt?" Steigerwald asked the crowd.

Gov. Ed Rendell, the politician most responsible for making this project go, said it would guarantee the Penguins being in Pittsburgh for "decades and decades." CEO Ken Sawyer, the Penguins' official most responsible for bringing this project to fruition, said it meant the team would be here "forever."

And so it was at 11:41 a.m. when Rendell, Lemieux, the team's chairman; Sawyer, David Morehouse, the team's president; Allegheny County Chief Dan Onorato, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and John Chalovich, the chairman of the Sports and Exhibition Authority, which will own the new facility, put shovels, with hockey sticks as handles, to dirt. A small gesture by seven men, a large step forward for the continually expanding Pittsburgh hockey universe.

In little more than two years, if all goes well, the Penguins will play their first game at the new building -- possibly named UPMC Arena. And what a building it will be! Drawings are spectacular, and it will rival or surpass anything else the NHL has to offer.

It will seat 18,087 for hockey, 19,000 for basketball -- with the NCAA tournament a distinct possibility -- 14,536 for end-stage concerts and shows and 19,758 for center-stage productions. There will be 62 suites and four party suites, 2,000 club seats and 236 loge box seats.

Some of the amenities the average fan can enjoy: a public bar and food court on the main concourse with a view of the event floor; a public bar and food court on the upper concourse overlooking Downtown; state-of-the-art scoreboard and video displays, 11 escalators, and an enclosed bridge connecting to an adjacent parking garage.

Mellon Arena is a grand old building filled with fabulous memories. But as much as we have grown accustomed to it, it was pretty much of a dump. The way the Penguins' immediate future figures to play out, the new building will begin creating new memories almost immediately.

None of this would have happened if Rendell had not pushed a Plan B, which was his alternative in case the Isle of Capri did not get the Pittsburgh slots license. If IOC was awarded the license, it was going to build an arena at no cost to the Penguins or the public. In presenting a Plan B, Rendell was only doing his job. He was a leader leading. He was in no way attempting to undermine the IOC's chances.

For his good work, he was attacked viciously. People on the radio told lies about him. And for what? For presenting a proposal that made perfect sense. As it turned out, the backup plan was necessary when IOC did not get the slots license.

Rendell looked like a genius, and the people who trashed his plan looked too stupid to comprehend. Some of these media members were at the groundbreaking yesterday. Wonder what they think of Plan B -- which became Plan A and the only plan -- now? That was a mean-spirited time when emotions overruled logic. It's in the past.

The long-awaited arena -- which is fully funded regardless of what happens to Pittsburgh's casino -- is under way. The good fortune that has accompanied the Penguins for the past several years continues.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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