Smizik: Penguins need a statue to go with that new arena
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By most accounts, all is going well with plans for the new arena that will be home to the Penguins.
The site has been selected, buildings are being cleared, plans are being developed. ICON Venue Group, of Denver, will oversee the design and construction. World-renown HOK, of Kansas City, Mo., is involved with the architecture.
Almost everything is covered.
One more piece needs to be added to the mix.
Without such an artist in place, the arena won't be complete. No sculptor, no statue.
And without a statue of Mario Lemieux in front of the building, no matter how grand the design, no matter how spectacular the finished product, Pittsburgh's new arena won't be complete.
The Penguins, of course, have more important things to worry about, such as getting the building done on time. Besides, there's a bit of an awkward situation involved. Lemieux is not only an owner of the team, but also a man whose modesty equals his hockey skills. It's understandable the team might be reluctant to talk about a statue, particularly at this point in time.
But there's no reason the subject of a statue honoring Lemieux shouldn't be on the table. It's an absolute necessity to make the building right. It should be finished and in place when the arena is finished. It shouldn't be hurried or late.
There is ample precedent in Pittsburgh.
Heinz Field has a statue of Art Rooney, the great founder of the Steelers. PNC Park has a statue of Honus Wagner, the Pirates' greatest player, at its home plate entrance, and statues of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell on the Federal Street side.
The trend has been set, not that honoring Lemieux required one.
It's not just that no one has done more for hockey in Pittsburgh or for the Penguins than Lemieux. That's a well-known fact. The only athlete who played for a Pittsburgh sports team that is remotely comparable to Lemieux is Wagner, still regarded as the greatest shortstop in baseball history, despite having a career that began more than 100 years ago.
Wagner, whose statue originally stood in Schenley Park beyond the left-field wall at Forbes Field and was moved first to Three Rivers Stadium and then to PNC Park, might have matched Lemieux's accomplishments on the field of play -- he won eight batting titles -- but his contributions to the franchise are not comparable.
Baseball was going to be established in Pittsburgh whether the Pirates had traded with the Louisville Colonels for Wagner (the transaction involved 15 players and $25,000) on Dec. 8, 1899, or not.
But had the Penguins not done their worst late in the 1983-84 season in order to finish last and win the draft rights to Lemieux, there is ample reason to believe the franchise would be elsewhere or out of existence today.
By the sheer magic of his play, Lemieux fostered tremendous growth in the sport both from a playing and spectator standpoint. Little more than 20 years after his rookie season, Pittsburgh amateur hockey has reached the point it is regularly developing professional players, which would have been unheard of before Lemieux. From a spectator standpoint, all it takes is a decent team to draw a capacity crowd to Mellon Arena. In the pre-Lemieux days, when the Civic Arena had a capacity of fewer than 13,000, it was as much the rule as the exception that the building would be half full or less.
Lemieux changed all that and the culture of the franchise. He turned the Penguins from perennial losers to Stanley Cup champions.
He should be honored with a statue and, inside the arena, there should be a Hall of Fame area to honor the many players and people who built the franchise and made it great.
So what will the statue in front of the new building, perhaps to be named UPMC Arena, look like?
It could be the traditional hockey pose, with Lemieux slightly bent, stick crossed in front of him and ready to play.
Better still, Lemieux in full stride, head up, puck on stick with an imaginary goalie quivering in the distance.
Either would be good, but here's our favorite: A joyous and exhausted Lemieux hoisting the Stanley Cup.
What a sight that would be for future generations of hockey fans.
First Published June 2, 2007 10:49 pm