Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ode To The Igloo

On New Year's Day, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced off against the Washington Capitals in the annual NHL Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, home of the NFL's Steelers. With the 'Burgh on my mind, I pay tribute to the Penguins' former arena, which closed at the end of the 2009-10 season...

It is one of my favorite NHL arenas -- yet it essentially no longer exists.

In an era when many state-of-the-art arenas are now cut from a similar cloth, making it tough to decipher which building you're actually in...Pittsburgh's Civic (Mellon) Arena was distinctive. The structure that now sits empty at 66 Mario Lemieux Place housed the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins from the franchise's inaugural year in 1967 until its closure in 2010.

The arena is unmistakable as you approach it. In the "Steel City," its hemispherical stainless-steel roof dominates the landscape. It was that shape which gave the building its beloved nickname -- "The Igloo." Divided into eight sections, the dome once had the ability to open within minutes...making Civic Arena the world's first major indoor sports stadium with a retractable roof!


The stainless-steel roof of The Igloo

It was a Sunday in March when I attended my final game there; an afternoon contest between the Penguins and Boston Bruins. Across the street, the dazzling new CONSOL Energy Center was under construction. It will become home to the Penguins for the next generation -- yet on this day, all of my attention was devoted to a building that originally hosted the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera when it opened in 1961.

Upon entering through its glass doors, I couldn't help but reflect upon my previous times at Mellon Arena. During my college years, it became a very familiar place. Whether it was to take advantage of the Penguins' "Student Rush" program, see various NHL stars in action, or just escape from reality for a few hours...The Igloo became my sanctuary.

Back then, tickets were easy to come by. The Penguins were struggling on the ice, as well as financially...and there was a question of whether the team could even afford to stay in Pittsburgh. At one point, the franchise filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. It was the underdog appeal that continued to draw my support, and gave me added respect for the Pens' faithful who were showing up at the arena.

For my final game at The Igloo, I decided to tour the building on my myself one last opportunity to soak it all in. This time, the circumstances were different. During the last few years, the Penguins have evolved into a perennial NHL power -- capturing the Stanley Cup in 2009 and seeking even more accolades in 2010. The franchise had an unprecedented active sell-out streak; a standing-room-only crowd of 17,132 was now the norm. The Pens were one of the hottest tickets in town...yet the building was fundamentally the same as it was almost a decade ago.

Center Sidney Crosby is a big reason for the Penguins' resurgence

The steel exterior was not the arena's only distinct feature. Inside, the roof stood out as well. The faded-white ceiling stretched over the entire seating bowl, with numerous floodlights shining from inside small square holes. It was like watching a hockey game from inside a gigantic, opaque snow globe. Hanging from the ceiling were numerous rigging cables, the Jumbotron scoreboard, and banners detailing the Penguins' successes and greatest players over the addition to the American and Canadian flags.

The Igloo's distinct ceiling

My favorite arena feature, however, was the balcony seating at each end of the rink. Not part of the original structure, the "E" balconies were added in 1975...increasing The Igloo's capacity by 3,000 seats. They provided a great view of the action -- especially in the lower rows. The seats were just high enough to watch plays develop, but low enough to where you could still sense the intensity that was emanating from the ice surface. The "E" balcony was where I sat for my first game at The Igloo -- and on this March afternoon, it was where I saw my final game in the old barn.

Watching the action from the "E" balcony

Following the Penguins' consecutive Stanley Cup victories in 1991 and 1992, the new "F" balconies brought an extra 1,000 seats to the building. The "F" balcony was not for those who were squeamish about heights. The seating arrangement was steep, to allow an unobstructed view of the ice surface...and in the top row, you could actually reach up and touch the arena's ceiling! The quirky seating arrangement gave the arena a personality that was unmatched by its NHL counterparts. When you saw the balconies on television, you knew exactly where the game was being played.

You can touch the ceiling in the last row of the "F" balcony

Walking through the Mellon Arena concourses, you could feel western Pennsylvania's connection to sports. The Pittsburgh Sports Hall of Fame was located on the lower concourse, featuring plaques of great athletes from all walks of life. In another hallway, the jerseys of the entire Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League were proudly framed and displayed -- with special attention shown to that year's division champions. It is that sense of community in Pittsburgh which makes the city feel more like a town.

High school hockey jerseys are displayed in the lower concourse

The concourses were also an example of why the Penguins needed a new building. Narrow and dimly-lit, the hallways produced numerous chokepoints for people walking around the arena during intermissions. Ramps and stairways seemingly popped up out of nowhere, especially on the cramped balcony levels. If you wanted food or needed a trip to the restroom, it required advanced planning to avoid missing any game action.

It's a virtual maze on the balcony level concourse

Inside the seating area, the building got loud -- creating a distinct home-ice advantage for the Penguins. The shape of the building, coupled with its acoustics, assisted in reverberating the crowd noise throughout the arena. Chants of "Let's Go Pens!" echoed when they were shouted by the sell-out crowd...and cheers for a Penguins' goal, big hit or great save can cause some ringing in your ears!

With both teams contending for Eastern Conference playoff spots, this particular early March game -- my final Igloo game -- carried an intense edge. After a scoreless 1st period, Boston got the scoring underway on a power play goal by Blake Wheeler. Mellon Arena was briefly silenced...but when Pascal Dupuis tied the game at 1 roughly five minutes later, Pens' fans erupted as the goal horn blasted. Then, early in the 3rd period, Evgeni Malkin's tally would eventually prove to be the game-winner...a wicked wrist shot from the top of the right circle that snuck past Bruins' goalie Tim Thomas.

The final minutes ticked off the clock as a nervous packed house watched. The Bruins desperately attempted to tie the game, while the Penguins tried holding down the fort. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the Penguins won the battle...and Pittsburgh emerged with a 2-1 victory.

The Penguins celebrate a hard-earned victory over Boston

Following the game, I sat and watched as The Igloo emptied...fully knowing that I would never again set foot inside this arena. I gazed at the building's various seat colors -- orange, navy blue, and red -- none of which involved the Penguins' team hues of black-and-gold. I reflected upon all of the games I had witnessed there in the past, taking pictures to ensure that my memories of the arena would not become distorted over time.

An emptying Igloo, complete with those familiar balcony seats

Someday, The Igloo -- after almost 50 years of service -- will disappear from the Pittsburgh landscape forever. However, its legacy -- and quirks -- will not be forgotten.

Old and new together -- Igloo in the foreground, CONSOL Energy Center behind it

1 comment:

  1. Excellent job, as always. I was glad I made a trip out to see the Igloo in its final season, as it was truly a unique experience. Keep up the good work my friend!