PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Penguins have won three Stanley Cups, and played for a fourth. They’ve experienced two bankruptcies, and multiple retirements by Mario Lemieux.
What they’ve never done until now is play a game in their own, brand-new arena.
All that changes Thursday when the Penguins officially christen Sidney Crosby Arena—er, actually, Consol Energy Center—with a season-opening game against the Philadelphia Flyers before their 167th consecutive sellout crowd.
The arena took one bankruptcy, one Lemieux retirement and seven years of politicking to achieve but, if three exhibition games there are any indication, the 18,087-seat structure should soon move near the top of the NHL’s new arena hierarchy.
While the nomenclature The House That Mario Lemieux Built is more accurate—the Hall of Fame player and Penguins co-owner spent seven oft-frustrating years lobbying for the new building—everything about the arena seemingly has been touched by Crosby, right down to his No. 87 being the final two digits of its capacity. There’s even a cupboard in the team’s expansive locker-room, fitness area and recreation room to house his favourite cereal.
“For a brand-new building, it seems pretty homey right away,” Crosby said. “It’s a little bigger than we’re used to.”
Bigger, better, brighter, cleaner, fancier. All those terms fit following 43 seasons in the Civic Arena, which was built for the Civic Light Opera in 1961 and was retrofitted for hockey six years later after Pittsburgh gained an NHL expansion franchise.
“I’m really excited to play in the new building,” forward Evgeni Malkin said.
He’s not alone.
Crosby and the other Penguins players were given considerable input into the design and makeup of their dressing room at the arena, which was wedged into a lot across the street from the now-closed Civic Arena that was owned by the Penguins. Space is so tight that a Catholic church partially obscures the main view of the arena’s all-glass facade; several Montreal Canadiens players were stunned to learn during the playoffs last spring that the church won’t be demolished.
The Consol Energy Center was long in the making, requiring years’ worth of arm-twisting by Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle, and the effort finally succeeded after the Penguins drafted Crosby following the NHL shutdown in 2004-05 and attendance returned to 1990s-like levels. After feigning moves to Kansas City and Las Vegas, the Penguins successfully negotiated an arena agreement with state, county and city officials.
It doesn’t have a nickname yet but, given that proceeds from Pittsburgh’s year-old, slot machine-filled casino are footing much of the bill, perhaps it should be known as The Slot.
Since the arena was the last of the new wave of NHL arenas to be built, the Penguins incorporated many good touches, and avoided some of the bad, from the league’s other new buildings. The concourses are wide and open, so fans standing in line for concessions can watch the game.
Even if a fan’s view is blocked temporarily, there are 800 TV sets in every possible nook and cranny of the US$321-million structure, which has an exterior that features the walled glass front and tons of tan-coloured bricks.
The seats are mostly black, with a few rows of gold inserted to add a dash of colour. The players area is so expansive, coach Dan Bylsma asked that the weight room be made less fancy so it reminds players they’re in a work area and not a spa.
Visiting players who grumbled for years about the Civic Arena’s tiny dressing room, where each player’s area was designated by a hook in the wall, will rejoice at the much more expansive room at Consol.
What kind of hockey arena will it be? Even the Penguins aren’t certain yet, though they quickly learned during the pre-season that the boards are much livelier than those at the Civic Arena, which was known as Mellon Arena for 10 years until reverting to its original name this summer after a naming rights agreement expired.
“Some of the hesitation about it being so nice and so luxurious has gone away, but it won’t completely go away until we winsome games there,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I love the energy in the building so far. But winning games and making this a home-ice advantage and having teams not want to play here, we still have to build.”
The Penguins themselves have a different look since they failed to reach the Stanley Cup final for the first time in three seasons last spring. They brought in expensive new defenceman Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek after defenceman Sergei Gonchar signed with Ottawa, and forward Bill Guerin wasn’t brought back. They also added valuable role-player forwards Mike Comrie and Arron Asham; Comrie, for now, replaces the injured Jordan Staal on the second line. Malkin previously centred that line but is shifting to a wing.
Staal, arguably the NHL’s best No. 3 centre during his four-year career, still hasn’t recovered from an infection in his right foot that developed after a tendon was cut during the Montreal series. He isn’t expected back until November at the earliest.
The new building will be waiting when he does return.