He's banged out beastly Homer-esque comments with a high level of consistency.
December 7, 1996. That’s as far back as I can trace my direct attachments to Mellon Arena. That was the first Pens game I ever attended. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. I still have the ticket stub somewhere.
The first time I set foot inside Mellon Arena, it was, well…it wasn’t Mellon Arena. It was still the Civic Arena, a few years away from Mellon Bank buying the naming rights to the building. Whatever the name, it seemed absolutely enormous inside; unlike anything I’d ever seen to that point, at least in terms of an indoor arena. I grew up with ECHL hockey…the Erie Panthers, who played in the Erie Civic Center, which sat 7,000 or so at full capacity. If you’ve ever been to Wheeling, you get the idea.
I was a junior at Washington & Jefferson College in December of 1996 and in those pre-“student rush” days, the school used to sponsor trips to one or two games a year. For us poor college kids, this was really one of the only ways to get tickets. With Buries It still on the ice and Jagr beginning to take the hockey world by storm, games were packed and anything other than single-seat tickets were tough to come by.
So it was that when I walked into seating area at Mellon for the first time, I couldn’t help but stop for a second. Orange and red seats everywhere, the balconies at each end, and a domed ceiling that seemed to trap all the arena noise and deflect it back downward.
The rest of it was kind of a blur. I remember the Pens won the game. I remember seeing Lemieux score a couple of goals and watching the crowd stand up almost as one when each goal hit the back of the net. I remember being able to see everyone kind of move to the edge of their seat every time Mario or Jagr led a rush up the ice.
Beginning that night in December of 1996, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been back in that building, be it for Pens games, collegiate games, Pens camp practices or the one opportunity I had to skate on the ice there. Just a few months after my first venture there, I walked out having witnessed history as Mario Lemieux scored his 600th career goal, beating the Vancouver Canucks – the team I loved growing up. Later that year, I sat in E balcony as Sir Buries It buried a wrist shot past Garth Snow and damn near brought that domed ceiling down. Not an eye in the house was dry; we thought we’d all just seen his last goal scored in Pittsburgh. Little did we know.
So tonight, after a little more than thirteen years, I’ll walk out of Mellon Arena for the last time. I’ll have had the fortune of being able to say that I’ve seen the greatest Penguins to ever play there – Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. I’ve seen the worst villains - Gretzky, Messier, Lindros, Ovechkin – and some of the most honorable opponents – Yzerman, Modano, LaFontaine and Patrick Roy – to grace the Mellon Arena ice. I watched memorable goals – Hossa eliminating the Rangers in the 2008 playoffs, for instance. I’ve seen fights there that I’ll never forget, like Tyler Wright beating the bejesus out of Peter Worrell, all watched from the vantage point of the Gold Circle suite my friends and I kinda-sorta commandeered for the evening…or at least the second and third periods.
I saw the first Pens games ever coached by Michel Therrien, when a loss to the Sabres never looked so good because the team was playing with a structure they’d completely lost under Ed Olczyk. I watched some new interim coach named Bylsma lead the team to an ugly 1-0 win over the Islanders Feb. 25 of last year, giving absolutely no inclination what the pending five-game road trip would lead to in terms of momentum.
I’ve seen so many highs, equaled by the lows of Lemieux’s first retirement, the lean years of 2002-03 and 2003-04 and the ownership saga that allowed tonight’s game to be turning a page to a new chapter and not closing a book on franchise.
And that’s what I’m most thankful for as a fan when it comes to Mellon Arena. I’m sad to see the Mellon go, but don’t get me wrong - for a very long time, I couldn’t wait for this. As the arena saga dragged on a few years ago, Mellon Arena for me became automatically associated with all the mud that we as fans were dragged through during that arena process. The fate of my favorite hockey team remaining in Pittsburgh was directly tied to Mellon Arena. If Mellon stayed, my team went. It was really that simple.
Now it’s almost here. Now I know I’m going to be able to walk into that brand new building on the other side of Centre Avenue in six months, and I can’t get wait to get there. But I’ve come to realize I’ll miss the Mellon Arena, too.
I won’t miss the lack of legroom or the cramped seats, the chalk letters on the steps to identify the rows, or the lack of hot water coming out of the bathroom faucets during those couple of lean pre-lockout seasons. I can’t wait to be able to walk around a souvenir store without feeling like I’m trapped in a mosh pit and I won’t miss the crowded concourses.
But I am going to miss the old arena atmosphere a little bit; I’m a sucker for some of the old stadiums, if only because so many new ones seem to be nothing more than giant warehouses with a frozen floor. I’ll miss that old arena smell – that odd combination of zamboni fumes, popcorn, nacho cheese and beer.
I’ll look back on Mellon fondly. But it’s time. It’s a good time for this page to be turned. We’re blessed with a dynamic team that features several marquee players – two of whom are almost universally regarded among the best three in the game. The club is bolstered by one of the strongest US-based fanbases in the sport. The Consol Energy Center is going to be a fitting new home for this team and its fans. It’ll be like going from Three Rivers to PNC Park, with the added bonus that we’ll have a team playing in Consol that doesn’t perpetually suck.
Everything that the Consol Energy Center will be won’t change the fact that the Mellon Arena memories will endure. Ideally, this ride continues on for another two months and the Pens close out the old gal in style. Sidney Crosby said as much when the Consol Energy Center became a reality a few years ago. Nothing would make turning that page better than winning the Stanley Cup on home ice for the first and last time.
Some abbreviated thoughts, dudes…
- Don’t look now, but Tampa Bay is in line for a lottery pick. If the standings hold and they wind up with one, does that mean their fans have to start dealing with accusations from fans of the other 29 teams that they tanked three straight seasons to get lottery picks? Or is that something that only Pens fans still have to deal with? *Cough* Caps and Blackhawks *Cough*
- File this courtesy of the “I’m Not Sayin’…I’m Just Sayin’” Department. Three of the current lottery teams are Southeast Division teams.
- It’s going to be very tricky for the Pens to keep Sergei Gonchar beyond this season. Shero will do his best to do so, but Gonchar is one of the top names out on the UFA market this summer and this is going to be his last chance to cash in. In the event that it cannot happen, a very suitable replacement may be found already on the roster. Keep an eye on Jordan Leopold and his abilities to get the puck to the net through traffic from the point. When Gonchar missed time with strep throat, the points on the power play were generating the most chances when Leopold was out there. If you get a chance to watch Cooke’s game-tying goal against the Leafs, Leopold placed that puck in a terrific spot to allow Cooke to get the deflection. Just some food for thought