I was there because I was lucky enough to have been invited to a bloggers’ tour of the Penguins’ new arena. As I parked the car and headed over to the gate to meet up with everyone else, a million things were going through my mind, not the least of which that it felt somewhat strange heading to a Pens function at the arena but not looking up at that giant silver dome. When we were all called into the building a few minutes later and I stepped through the doors for the first time, all those thoughts went from “asdfhfjkahsfiqweurhfjsfj” and quickly settled on one word.
That was it.
“Finally” was the reality of more than a decade of waiting actually starting to set in and manifest itself in the form of this giant new building. It was the reality of everything we’d anticipated as a fan base since Monday, March 12, 2007.
March 12, 2007 was probably just another nondescript Monday in the middle of March in Pittsburgh. Long day at work. Crappy weather, probably. There was no Pens game that night for you to watch. The team was off until the following night, a home game against the Buffalo Sabres. Maybe this wasn’t a bad thing. Maybe we needed the night off, too.
I’d say that being a Pens fan during that 2006-07 season was a rollercoaster of emotions, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It was more like seeing your fandom made the subject of an episode of “Will It Blend”.
There was plenty to be excited about. For the first time since 2000-01, the Pens were almost certainly playoff-bound. A 3-2 overtime win over the Rangers on March 10 had the Pens at 84 points with almost a month left to play in the season. Just minutes before Sidney Crosby’s 28th goal and 100th point of the season tied the game, we were watching the new kid – Evgeni Malkin – score his 30th goal of the year. 2006 first-round pick Jordan Staal not only made the team but was also sitting with 24 goals on the year. And if you paid attention, you started to see random “WWGRD?” signs popping up around the arena; new GM Ray Shero had just acquired longtime NHL badass Gary Roberts a couple of weeks before, and Roberts had already begun to ascend to cult-like status with his warrior mentality.
The team was on a tear, the infusion of young talent energizing the fanbase. Games were selling out again. We had a new core of world-class superstars – guys who could legitimately make this team not just a playoff contender, but a Stanley Cup contender. Was this a budding dynasty? Could be.
And the harsh reality was that it was also THISCLOSE to going away.
With the existing lease on Mellon Arena expiring that summer, the 2006-07 season proved to be the final showdown in what was nearly a decade of wrangling between Penguins ownership and local and state politicians over funding for a new building. With the arena lease up that summer, the future of the Penguins in Pittsburgh was in doubt.
Talk of relocation had been flying since the summer of 2004. And every threat was met with the same response – no public money available to fund an arena. It carried all the way through the lockout, making a winter without hockey even worse.
Hockey returned in the fall of 2005 under a new economic system that made it easier for teams to retain their star talent. The arena issue seemed like a cruel bit of irony.
When the ’06-07 season started and Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and Staal proved to be as good as advertised, along with a new general manager with a set plan to overhaul the franchise and build a winner, the arena issue seemed like a bad practical joke.
In December of 2006, when the Gaming Control Board bypassed the bid from Isle of Capri and the $290 million arena that they would’ve built, it seemed like a bad dream.
Just as everything was falling into place, the bottom was in serious danger of falling out.
We became sworn enemies with Kansas City and the Sprint Center, Las Vegas, Houston and Hamilton, Ontario. We wanted to see the NHL return to Winnipeg or Hartford, but not with our Pens as the means to that end.
And as the situations developed and we learned more about what other cities were offering, it became pretty apparent that it made the most sense for ownership to keep the team here. But there was always that chance that something would screw it up, and it was tough to not acknowledge that.
We wondered whether we’d be another Quebec or Hartford – watching another city’s fans celebrate as our Pens carried the Cup around their new home ice wearing different jerseys in another town.
We rationalized the purchase of NHL Center Ice to maybe watch those Kansas City Penguins, or Hamilton Penguins. Or maybe we decided we couldn’t do it because it would hurt too bad to watch. Maybe it was just easier to stop watching the game.
After all, it’s just a game, right? Most of us are grown adults or close to it. Most of us have bills to pay and more important, practical things to worry about. It’s silly and stupid to get this worked up over a sports team, to get this upset over what amounts to a giant convention center with an ice rink. Right?
Or is it?
What about the group of friends who get three or four seats together on a twenty-game plan not just because they’re all fans of the team, but also because it’s one of the only times they get to catch up with each other on a regular basis?
Or maybe some of it’s about getting to the arena early, sitting down with a beer, saying hello to the same regulars or heading up during intermissions to meet up with the old D-23 crew. Maybe it’s about taking two or three hours and forgetting about work or whatever other stresses that life’s monotonies are causing you.
When you were standing there on the Boulevard of the Allies or Grant Street watching Sid and Fleury drive by with that Cup last summer, and you look up and down the street and see nothing but people – 300,000 to 400,000 by some counts – maybe it doesn’t seem quite so impractical. Maybe it’s more so an integral and valuable part of the community.
It’s all of these same sorts of things that almost went away, too.
So when KDKA led their 11:00 PM newscast on March 12, 2007 with the news that the deal was done, and then Mario stepped to the ice prior to that Buffalo game on March 13 and did this…
…maybe for all of us, it means something more than just a new building.
And that brings us full circle, from what was in such a state of flux starting almost ten years ago, confirmed on March 12, 2007 and now to August of 2010 when we see the real thing.
There are a ton of things that Pens fans will love about the new arena. The sight lines are terrific. The place is spacious and comfortable. The seats are great. It’s absolutely state-of-the-art. It’s going to be louder than hell in there for games. There are a whole slew of amenities, conveniences and experiences that were never available or maybe even possible at Mellon Arena.
It’s all pretty overwhelming at first and it’ll probably take a couple of trips before you’re really able to see and experience most of it, and that’s to be expected.
But if you get a chance, at some point after you walk in, just stop. Take a good look around.
Remember that it allowed us to have a final night at Mellon and just move across the street the following season.
Remember that it’ll give you that place to go with family and friends for at least the next thirty or so years to watch your Pittsburgh Penguins.
Our Pittsburgh Penguins.
On Thursday, August 5, 2010, I stood outside on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place, looking up at a wall of dark, curved glass that seemed to stretch the entire block north to Centre Avenue. Just beyond the edge of the glass but mostly obstructed from the view sat Mellon Arena. I was looking up at the wall of its successor, the Consol Energy Center.