Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Consol Energy Center - The Pittsburgh Penguins' New Home

 “It’s a hockey night in Pittsburgh!”  A new era of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey began on October 7, 2010 with the opening of the Consol Energy Center to NHL hockey.  Sure, Paul McCartney may have issued in the arena with a pair of concerts in August.  But, NHL hockey is why this edifice stands on 5th Avenue today.  Gone, but not forgotten is the Civic Arena (we can’t call it Mellon Arena anymore – the naming rights expired October 1st).  After all, “The Igloo” sits vacant across the street from the Penguins’ new digs.  It served as the Penguins home since franchise inception in 1967.  Forty-three years later, the building had become the oldest in the NHL.  The concourses were cramped, as were the seats.  The maintenance crew at the Igloo had a full-time job keeping the arena viable on a daily basis, especially for warm May and June playoff games.  It lagged behind other facilities in technology, amenities, training areas for the players, and money-making potential. 

The Consol Energy Center (foreground) is the new home for the Penguins.  The old home, Civic Arena (background), is just across the street.  (Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette)

How Did It Get Here?

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ road over the past decade has been a bumpy one.  Mario Lemieux was the individual who turned Pittsburgh into more than a football town as a hockey player, leading two Stanley Cup championship teams in 1991 and 1992.  After retirement, Mr. Lemieux bought the Penguins in 1999 to save the franchise from moving.  He took on terribly mismanaged financial debts from previous owners, Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg.  Despite trading away high-priced talent and deferring some of his own player salary (upwards of $30 million), the only option in Lemieux’s eyes to maintain hockey in the city of Pittsburgh was to get a new arena.

But, that was not forthcoming anytime soon.  The other professional sports franchises got their new stadiums using tax revenues (Pirates: PNC Park in 2001, Steelers: Heinz Field in 2001).  Of course, the tax money ran dry due to other priorities, putting the status of Pittsburgh hockey at a significant risk.  Then came the National Hockey League lockout in 2004 where no games were played.  These were some dark days in Steel City.  On top of that, the Penguins no longer were an elite team.  The team was bereft of talent despite Mario strapping the skates back on for parts of the 2000-2006 seasons.  His health simply would not permit him to play a full slate of games.  Pittsburgh wallowed in the standings, causing attendance in the middle part of the decade to plummet.

In January 2006, Lemieux stated that the team was again for sale to buyers who would keep the team in Pittsburgh.  Nine months later, it appeared that all of the problems were solved.  Jim Balsillie, a multi-millionaire from southern Ontario, had agreed to purchase the franchise.  However, rumor had it that Balsillie was going to relocate the franchise to Hamilton, a suburb of Toronto.  He rescinded his offer in December 2006, which infuriated Mario Lemieux because he violated the agreed contract.  The Isle of Capri gaming company then attempted to win the slots license, which would have allowed for development of a new arena; that fell through.  Lemieux’s beloved Penguins were once again unsettled without a future home.

Lemieux was forced to try and find a buyer…any buyer, who could take on the floundering Penguins.  He had discussions with officials in Kansas City and Las Vegas about the possibility of selling.  This move provided the necessary leverage on Pittsburgh city and Pennsylvania state officials to work out a deal.  In March 2007 (four short months before the team’s lease was due to expire), a final agreement was announced for construction of the Consol Energy Center, a multi-purpose arena.

Funding for the $321 million facility comes from three primary sources: $7.5 million per year from Rivers Casino, $7.5 million per year from the state, and $4.3 million per year from the Penguins.  The 30-year lease will keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh until 2040.

The Building Itself

The official groundbreaking for the CEC took place on August 14, 2008, with Lemieux and public officials digging their shovels into the earth.  These weren’t just ordinary shovels.  They were made from shafts of hockey sticks used by current Penguins superstar, Sidney Crosby.

The overall seating capacity is 18,087 with more than 100 standing-room tickets available.  Not coincidentally, Crosby’s jersey is 87, matching the final two digits of the number of stadium seats.  There are 66 luxury suites, which matches franchise savior Mario Lemieux’s jersey number.  Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan stated, "Mario built it, and Sid will define it.  But none of this happens without Mario."

The black and gold seats provide a striking contrast

Recent stadiums in Minnesota, Columbus, and Phoenix gave arena developers a plethora of ideas. 

The Consol Energy Center has more than 800 high-definition TVs of varying sizes throughout the arena.  The scoreboard at center-ice can show replays in HD, along with the customary scores and detailed game information.

A peek inside the oval-shaped home team's locker room

The footprint of the building is more than twice the size of its predecessor, which allowed for a top-notch training facility for both home and visiting clubs.  The workout area has the traditional weights and bikes, but also includes a hydrotherapy room, housing a pool with a submersible treadmill.  A submersible treadmill?  Yes, this would allow injured players to have low-impact workouts without risk of further injury.  Players will also enjoy enormous dressing rooms, a kitchen, lounge, and can relax with a game of bubble hockey in their down time. 

There is an abundance of food concessions inside the new facility, including a Smokehouse featuring barbecue dishes, Chef's Carvery with stir fry and pasta meals, Stack with specialty sandwiches and wraps, and Brewhouse with a wide array of alcoholic beverages. What Pittsburgh sporting arena would be complete without Primanti Bros. sandwiches? The CEC has one of those, too.

The boards have exhibited some erratic behavior in practice sessions. Some players said that the boards have dead spots, while other spots are far livelier. Pucks rimming around the end boards may accelerate. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said that the boards are "tough to read," comparing them to the liveliest boards in the league at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.  Penguins players have found that the glass above the boards is pristine, providing true bounces when pucks are deflected off the glass. Players have said that the ice surface isn't the fastest yet. "It's kind of sticky, kind of slow," Chris Kunitz said. "It will be broken in, and it will be fine."

There is climate control being done through airlocks. This will make maintenance of the ice surface much easier than in the Civic Arena. Also, a reverse osmosis system is in place to treat the tap water that Zamboni drivers use to clear the ice.

The most spacious seats in the NHL are in Pittsburgh's new arena. Seats are up to 24 inches wide with ample legroom. There are nearly 2000 club seats, each of which offers a spectacular view of the ice. Also available are 236 Loge Box seats. These semi-private seats offer cushioned swivel chairs, wait service, televisions, and wireless internet capabilities.

The vantagepoint from the loge boxes

The Mario Mosaic may be the most stunning display in the new arena.  It stands in the main lobby of the CEC at 20 feet by 8 feet.  The mosaic contains over 21,000 fan and construction worker photos in a canvas that features six photographs of Lemieux as player and owner.  Those photographs featured on the mosaic were purchased to support the Mario Lemieux Foundation.  The foundation raises funds for cancer and neonatal research.

The Mario Mosaic - I highly encourage fans to visit mariomosaic.com to see the true magic of this artwork

The First Game

The first regular season game in the Consol Energy Center on October 7, 2010, pitted the Penguins against archrival Philadelphia Flyers.  A pre-game ceremony featured a red carpet arrival for the home team players as they entered the arena from their vehicles.  Cameras rolled, which allowed fans to watch the hoopla on an outdoor TV screen.  A scoreboard tribute was paid to John Barbero, who had been the public address announcer from 1972 to 2009.  He passed away in July due to a brain tumor.

Sidney Crosby signs an autograph as he enters the Consol Energy Center at the red carpet pre-game

The biggest flashbulb-popping moment of the night (unfortunately for Penguins fans) came during the pre-game as a solitary spotlight shone on Mario Lemieux, adorning a tuxedo and skates, poured out water melted down from the ice surface at the Civic Arena onto the new ice surface, melding together the old and new arenas.  He also dropped the ceremonial first puck moments later.

Mario Lemieux, pouring out the Civic Arena melted ice onto the surface of the CEC

Im Jimerson, a fixture at Penguins home games when it comes time for the National Anthem, sang the anthem to christen the new arena.

Marc-Andre Fleury in net, taking in the National Anthem

An above-capacity crowd of 18,289 walked through the turnstiles tonight to take in the action once all of the pre-game festivities had concluded.  This was the 167th consecutive sellout for the Penguins.

The first game was just that…a first game.  As might be expected, both teams played sloppy hockey.  The Penguins may have held the edge early in play, but didn’t take advantage of their opportunities.  Crosby hit a post that left the crowd oohing about ten minutes in, and Mike Comrie narrowly missed on a few chances in the first period.

The opening faceoff as seen from the upper level

The tide started to turn as the Flyers took advantage of costly turnovers to tilt the game in their favor.  Six short seconds after Deryk Engelland was penalized for hooking, Daniel Briere of Philadelphia netted the first goal on a deft redirection on the goal line at the 2:51 mark of the second period.  Blair Betts gave the Flyers a two-goal cushion with a rebound tap-in prior to the second intermission.

Tyler Kennedy gave the home crowd hope with a sharply angled shot that found the top of the net with 19:16 left to play.  The Flyers lead was cut to 2-1.  But, Kris Letang made a casual pass on the man-advantage inside the Penguins blue line.  Claude Giroux pounced on it for a short-handed breakaway opportunity.  He deked, causing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to fade to his right and Giroux easily buried it in the gaping net for a 3-1 advantage.  Nineteen seconds later, newcomer Zbynek Michalek ripped a shot through traffic to notch a power-play goal and draw the Penguins to within 3-2.  The Penguins could not capitalize on a power play as time expired and dropped the first game at the new joint.

The surprise #1 star of the game was Philadelphia goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky.  Due to Michael Leighton’s injury that will keep him sidelined for a few weeks, the expected starter was veteran Brian Boucher.  Flyers coach, Peter Laviolette, went with Bobrovsky, who stopped 29 shots in his NHL debut.  The 22-year old netminder was solid and deserving of the night’s top star.

View for the Future

The Consol Energy Center is a gleaming example of perseverance by Mario Lemieux and current Penguins management.  Their efforts brought the dreams of a new arena to fruition.

I viewed the game on television and felt that the crowd was ‘flat,’ for lack of a better word.  The noise level was quieter than I would have expected.  Perhaps everyone was taking in the surroundings and not as boisterous as they could have been.  Maybe, spectators treated the arena with the respect of an art gallery or museum…afraid to be too loud or make too much of a ruckus.  Hopefully, a few games of beer spills and nacho cheese stains will let the crowd know that they can crank it up a notch.

As with the Civic Arena, the home opener was a one-goal loss.  Pittsburgh lost to Montreal 2-1 on October 11, 1967 in that building’s maiden voyage.  Hopefully, it won’t take 24 years to raise a Stanley Cup banner in the CEC.  The marketing slogan for the sparkling new facility of steel, stone, and glass states “destiny has a new home.”  Indeed it does. 

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