Fans' love affair extended 30 years
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Audio: Mario Lemieux tells the Mellon Arena crowd that their Penguins will stay in Pittsburgh.
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On yet another great day for hockey in Pittsburgh -- in the Top Five on a list with both Stanley Cups, the franchise's inception and a certain owner's birth -- yesterday was one to celebrate.
It was a day to construct an aluminum-foil Stanley Cup and tote it into town from Ohio.
It was a day to don the old Steve Durbano blue-and-white sweater and herd into the Igloo.
It was a day for longtime fans, future followers, scalpers, businesses, an entire region to share.
Yesterday's announcement resonated like a victory, like a playoff atmosphere, hours before the Penguins took the Mellon Arena ice for a 5-4 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in front of the requisite standing-room-only 17,132 fans.
It was all because the club's owners and politicians from the city, county and state announced yesterday afternoon that they had reached an agreement, months in the making, guaranteeing that the NHL team formerly known as the Flightless Waterfowl won't waddle away from their Pittsburgh home for the next 30 years, minimum.
Yet a new arena by 2009-10 means more than a place to play 40 regular season games and serve as host to just as many other events. A new arena means more than Mario Lemieux securing his legacy with an unprecedented hat trick: He has saved the franchise thrice.
Rather, such a building represents a new foundation.
He wasn't foiled again
Kevin Gnipp came from Poland just for this -- Ohio, that is. His family moved there from its Troy Hill and McKees Rocks roots a generation ago. But when news arrived this morning that an arena deal at long last was struck, he pulled out the tin foil and went to work.
He fashioned a Cup somewhat resembling the one the Penguins won in 1991 and 1992, and he headed for town. He was skating his Cup down the Centre Avenue sidewalk outside the arena about 90 minutes before game time, hoping to score a ticket to the game.
"I had to make a special trip in," said Mr. Gnipp, a graduate student at Youngstown State University. "A big day."
He attends about five Penguins games a year, he added, and never wavered in his belief that the club born in 1967 would stay true to the only home it ever knew -- that was until March 5, when the Penguins sent out a letter describing their arena talks as at an impasse and re-opened the potential path to Kansas City, Las Vegas and puck ports elsewhere.
"I was depressed for one whole day," he said.
Before skating away merrily yesterday, he suggested a name for the new digs: Mario Lemieux Arena.
"If I was a billionaire," he said, "I'd pay the naming rights, for sure."
All dressed up
They toddled toward the middle-aged arena, a march of the Penguins fans, folks wearing their sweaters bearing the numbers of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and others. And that was mostly the Shipley family of Carrick.
Mother Lisa, a fan since the early 1990s, gets to about 10 games a season while husband, Don, and 21/2-year-old son, Lorenzo, only get to about a half-dozen.
"It's a night out," Mom said with a grin.
"I've been a fan, pshew, forever," she added. "Before last year [and Crosby's arrival], there didn't seem to be much support for the Penguins. The end of last year, they started selling out."
This year, it picked up anew -- last night was the 17th sellout in the past 19 games -- and this fervor didn't go unnoticed by the politicians engaging current Penguins management in what former owner Howard Baldwin once termed "the mating dance of negotiations." They credited fans for the arena accord.
"They have no one to thank but themselves," Gov. Ed Rendell said at the late-afternoon news conference announcing the deal.
Added county Chief Executive Dan Onorato: "Packing that arena night after night after night is what gave us the leverage to save Pittsburgh as a hockey town."
And Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who received polite applause from a smattering of fans as he entered Gate 2 before the game, said he received 1,500 e-mails overnight after the club made the "impasse" announcement.
Such lingering concern was why a bunch of starving college students paid scalpers' prices to witness the game that heralded a new beginning for the Penguins. Alexis Dick drove in from Amherst, Ohio, near Cedar Point, to join Edinboro University pals Courtney Mahronich of Pittsburgh and Natalie Hopkins of Irwin, plus Slippery Rock University friend Eric Fichter of North Hills.
They arrived at the arena at 5 a.m. in hopes of landing Student Rush tickets -- there were none available. So they spent $240 on four seats -- scalpers, Ms. Mahronich mused, "are having a field day." That wasn't as bad as two other Slippery Rock students, Corey Stowitzky of Waynesburg and Tyler Saklad of Pine, who spent $150 for a pair -- their scalper courteously allowed them to hit up an ATM first.
"I thought it was going to be the last season," said Mr. Saklad.
At the adult end of the ticket-buying spectrum, from Little Lorenzo Shipley to the college kids to middle age and beyond, there in a Gate 1 line stood the Durbano-clad Jack Carroll of Upper St. Clair and son, Alex, a University of South Carolina student in a Fleury jersey.
Mr. Carroll has been a Penguins season ticket holder off and on since 1970, he said. That put him in an elite membership among "those of us who have been here when it wasn't sold out, when you used to have Paranoid Night -- everybody had their own section."
"Well, I remember back in the mid-'70s that was scary, with the bankruptcy and padlocking the doors," Mr. Carroll continued. "The bankruptcy [in 1997]. And this."
Giving them the business
The Steelhead bar in the City Center Marriott across Centre Avenue had the arena news conference on its television screens, filled tables and chairs, and smiles across employees' faces. After all, when the lockout rendered the arena hockey dark in 2004-05 and Downtown missed 40 such business nights, estimates put the area's economic loss at $48 million.
"Our city was in the same situation two years ago" before landing a new Sabres owner, said Amanda Magrum of Lancaster, N.Y., sitting in the bar with fellow Sabres fans, her sister Emily and friend Crissy Paulos, 21, of Buffalo, N.Y. "Good for Pittsburgh."
Down Centre and around the corner, The Carlton owner and Pennsylvania Restaurants Association Chairman Kevin Joyce was talking about far more than his sold-out restaurant. A new arena, he said, "is not just about the people of the region; it's also about the business and the taxes it creates."
For the Penguins players, it was a good news day on all fronts.
"Throughout this whole thing, a lot of guys realized -- or I hope they have -- that as players we want to be here," Mr. Crosby said. "Other teams, that might not have been the case. ... We owe a lot of thanks for the support we've gotten here."
"All the guys here don't want to leave," added winger Ryan Malone, raised in Upper St. Clair. "It's a little peace of mind, a little security. But the big winners are the fans and the city of Pittsburgh. Hopefully, in a couple of years, we're going to have a great place to play."
With the scoreboard clock ticking down the final four minutes before game time, a darkened figure walked onto the ice through the Zamboni entrance. The crowd recognized the lithe shape from the get-go, before the spotlight found him, and the old Igloo swelled with applause as if it was a playoff night.
"Well, I have an announcement to make," Mr. Lemieux said over the public address system, then was greeted by more applause.
"Tonight, I'm proud to announce that your Pittsburgh Penguins will remain right here in Pittsburgh, where they belong.
"Thank you, Pittsburgh. Have a great night."
First Published March 14, 2007 12:00 am