Lemieux, Penguins christen Consol Energy Center

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The Penguins christened their new building with a ceremony featuring the man called the franchise's savior.

When the lights came on for the first regular season game at the Consol Energy Center, Mario Lemieux was at center ice holding aloft a bottle filled with melted ice from the Civic Arena.

Wearing a dark business suit accented by a purple necktie, he poured the contents onto the new ice surface, ritually linking the old with the new, as a sellout crowd roared its approval.

The team owner and Hall of Fame player joined Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, in dropping the ceremonial first puck before the inaugural game with the Philadelphia Flyers.

"You need to give Mario Lemieux and [co-owner] Ron Burkle credit for standing by their team and having the wisdom to know what could be there at the end," Mr. Bett-man said before the game. "It's a testament to them. They believed in this franchise. We always knew Pittsburgh was a hockey town."

A cool baptism, indeed, for a franchise that emerged from bankruptcy 11 years ago and waged an arduous struggle to get the $321 million place built.

But as every hockey fan knows, ice is a slippery surface. The Flyers poured cold water on the occasion, scoring second period goals by Danny Briere and Blair Betts en route to a 3-2 win.

Tyler Kennedy scored the first Penguins goal in the new digs 44 seconds into the third period. He beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who was making his first NHL start. Alex Goligoski also scored for the Penguins.

Historically, inaugural games haven't favored the local hockey team. When the Civic Arena opened 49 years ago, the Pittsburgh Hornets of the American Hockey League dropped a 2-1 decision to the Buffalo Bisons in front of 9,317 patrons, roughly half the size of last night's crowd. When the Penguins entered the NHL in 1967, they lost, 2-1, to the Montreal Canadiens at the place that was known as The Igloo.

Thursday night's game drew a crowd of 18,289, the largest to watch a hockey game in the city. It was the 167th consecutive sellout for the Penguins.

The new ice age dawned with Penguins players entering the building with a walk on a red carpet. When the old arena opened 49 years ago, things were different. Goalies didn't wear masks, and players didn't wear helmets. Also in 1961, the Pirates were a year removed from their World Series triumph over the Yankees and the Steelers were 11 years away from winning their first playoff game.

Given the splendid autumn weather, Thursday would have been a great day for most anything, but it was an especially great day for hockey, except for the final score. The only other thing that detracted from the opening was a traffic jam that made the commissioner about 20 minutes late for a pregame function.

A crowd gathered outside to watch the red carpet march of the Penguins, who arrived in SUVs and signed autographs before entering in building. The festivities were shown on an outdoor TV screen, a reminder of the outdoor TV the franchise put up for the playoffs the past several years.

"The outdoor screen has become such an iconic symbol of playoff hockey in Pittsburgh. We thought it would be great to have the screen for the first game," said David Morehouse, the team president and CEO.

But the TV wasn't the only nod given to the legions of young fans who have formed bonds with the Penguins. When those wishing to buy tickets formed a line -- the first fan showed up at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday -- Mr. Morehouse and general manager Ray Shero served them coffee and Dunkin Donuts.

In what amounted to dress rehearsals, the Penguins had beaten Detroit, Columbus and Chicago in preseason games. But they had special incentive when the lights went on for real against the Flyers, the team the fans love to hate.

"Winning exhibition games is nice and took some polish off the seats, but the real thing will be something different," coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's opening night, and it's Philly. There are a lot of things that make this game special.

"We want this to be a tough place to play. We want this to be a place that visiting teams don't want to be in and don't want to come play in," he added.

On his way to the new arena Thursday, Mr. Bettman glanced one last time at the vacant Civic Arena, not long ago known as Mellon Arena.

"I looked at the building, but not longingly," the commissioner said. "The building served the community well, but it was time to move on."

In hockey terms, except for the ceremonial water poured onto the new ice, it has.

Robert Dvorchak: bdvorchak@post-gazette.com .


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