For the Penguins: A new home for a new Ice Age
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The lightning and sideways rain of a late summer thunderstorm hardly mattered after the Penguins won the inaugural pre-season hockey game at Consol Energy Center. Symbolically, the tempestuous struggle to secure the new building was relegated to a distant memory as well.
Destiny has a new home, as the marketing slogan says, and it's a great time for hockey.
"We had high expectations for this place. It's exceeded those already. I couldn't imagine it being any better," said president and chief executive officer David Morehouse after the win over the Detroit Red Wings. "It feels like home already. It felt like it was our place."
Although the Philadelphia Flyers will officially christen the new season in the NHL's newest palace on Thursday, the steel, stone and glass became a home about 12 seconds after the first puck dropped when fans chanted "Let's Go Pens!" while a patron held up a homemade sign that said "Hey Mario, We Love What You've Done To The Place."
Coach Dan Bylsma deadpanned that with the new high definition TV screen at center ice -- one of 800 HD TVs of all sizes located throughout the building -- he'll have to pay more attention to his hairstyle. Then he added, "I love the atmosphere."
According to the old saying, nobody wants to hear about the labor pains, they just want to see the new baby. But the story behind the $321 million arena actually began in the last century as Mario Lemieux shepherded the Penguins from bankruptcy in 1999 and said the franchise couldn't survive without a new arena. While the Pirates and Steelers got their new digs under Plan B, the Penguins faced a long tough slog over ice so thin that, more than once, the very existence of the franchise was in jeopardy.
No more tax money was available for an arena. The National Hockey League went dark for the entire 2004-2005 season. And even when money from state-licensed casinos seemed to be the answer, the team's lease was within four months of expiring at one point in 2007. Remember those flirtations with Kansas City and Las Vegas? Or the sale to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie that fell through?
Ultimately, funding comes from three primary sources -- $7.5 million annually from the owners of Rivers Casino, $7.5 million annually from a state economic fund back by slots revenue and $4.3 million annually from the Penguins.
When the key elements of the deal were agreed to in March of 2007, one of the loudest ovations ever at the Mellon Arena followed the announcement by Lemieux that the Penguins would stay in Pittsburgh "where they belong."
For the official groundbreaking on Aug. 14, 2008, Lemieux and public officials wielded shovels made with the shafts of Sidney Crosby hockey sticks. Concerts and other events aside, it's time for hockey. Lady Gaga, make way for Lord Stanley.
"It was an odyssey," said Tom McMillan, the team's vice president of communications. "After all the work on so many fronts, after all the battles just to get the hole in the ground, it's an indescribable thrill to see it come to life. I don't think anybody imagined it working out this well."
A franchise that was born in 1967, the same year as the Flyers, would never have been in a position to draft Lemieux or Crosby if it had not endured its share of struggles. But the opening of the new arena ranks up there with the franchise's birth and the hoisting of three Stanley Cups because it solidifies the future. Under their lease, the Penguins are locked in until June 30, 2040.
Even the prolonged struggle had its silver lining. The Penguins were able to borrow and build upon ideas from Minnesota, Columbus, Phoenix and other cities that have built new arenas.
"One advantage about being last is you get to see what they did in other places. The best question we asked was not what do you like, but what do you wish you had done differently. Every decision was made with the intent of making it the best experience for the fan," McMillan said. "But when you walk in, you will know it's a Pittsburgh arena. It fits our brand -- a young team with young fans. It reflects the new Pittsburgh, the technology-driven Pittsburgh while still paying tribute to the blue collar past."
The new place is right across the street from the old one, but there is a giant leap forward in amenities. The upgrades will likely be as striking as the difference between the old Duquesne Gardens, a converted trolley barn that housed the city's first hockey teams, and the Civic Arena.
"It's hard to imagine a more dramatic change," McMillan said. "The world was a different place when the arena opened in 1961. It opened about 10 years before Three Rivers Stadium and lasted about 10 years longer."
Not only does the Consol Energy Center have that new arena smell, it has none of the old aroma of cigarette smoke and spilled beer that built up over five decades in the well-worn seats of The Igloo. (That said, there will be no unkind words about the old arena, the city's first real community center where relationships formed that led to marriages and where the Penguins had a run of 166 consecutive sellouts and now have a waiting list to buy season tickets.)
The new place already connects generations, starting with the fact that Lemieux and Crosby ventured out together for the ceremonial first skate this summer. There are 66 luxury suites, a tribute to Lemieux's number, and the capacity is 18,087, the last two digits matching those found on Crosby's jersey. So whose house is it?
"Mario built it, and Sid will define it," said McMillan. "But none of this happens without Mario."
Some of the most dazzling upgrades are behind the scenes. For example, co-owner Ron Burkle told the organization to identify the best locker room in the NHL, and he would bankroll a better one in the Consol Energy Center.
"A team can't spend more on players than the salary cap allows, but there was no cap on making this a first-class facility for our players," McMillan said.
To a man, the Penguins are appreciative.
"It's a beautiful place. We're lucky to have it," Crosby said.
Visiting teams will notice quite an upgrade. In the old arena, visitors dressed in an austere room that had little more than hooks on the wall to hang their street clothes.
"Some high school teams were embarrassed to change in there, but the Red Wings had to use it in the Stanley Cup final," McMillan said.
The workout room and training facilities are top-notch too, including a pool with a submersible treadmill so injured players can lessen the impact on injured legs.
"I don't think they missed a single detail," said forward Chris Kunitz. "People have their memories of the old place, and now it's time to make new memories."
For the record, the Penguins won all three pre-season games in their new digs and played to capacity each time.
"We want to make it tough for the teams that have to come to Pittsburgh to play," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
It took many hands over many years to complete the building. The hearts that endured the storm and the rain have already made it a home.
First Published October 6, 2010 12:00 am