Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t won a championship since 1979 or delivered a winning season since 1992. They moved out of Three Rivers Stadium (built in 1970) in 2000, hoping that the incredibly beautiful $216 million PNC Park would help their beleaguered franchise turn things around. As most of their cheap players wouldn’t crack the starting roster on any other major league team, perhaps the Pirates should’ve invested some of that $216 million in their team’s payroll instead. Once the home of Hall of Famers and champions like Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, the Pirates – by all accounts the embarrassment of Pittsburgh the last two decades – haven’t qualified for the playoffs once since 1992 and last year even broke the professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons with seventeen.
Conversely, the Pittsburgh Penguins have played hockey in the silver-domed Civic Arena since 1967 and have qualified for the playoffs a dozen times since 1992 and collected three Stanley Cup championships since 1991, the third coming last year. The Civic Arena, no more than a 17,000-capacity hunk of stainless steel, is the oldest functioning arena in professional hockey and aesthetically leaves a lot to desire. Although it features a retractable roof that was the first in major sports history when the arena was constructed in 1960 for the Pittsburgh opera at a cost of $22 million, the roof reportedly hasn’t opened since the filming of a Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie was filmed in Pittsburgh in the early 1990’s.
Still, as a kid growing up in suburban Pittsburgh in a family unable to afford tickets to more than one or two Penguins games every few years, parking on the cusp of the Hill District and walking over to the Civic Arena with thousands of hockey fans was a supreme thrill. Driving through the city on an ordinary day, the arena actually appeared dull and inconspicuous, like an overturned silver disc used for flying down snow-covered hills in South Park; but in the rare event I attended a game it was like a fabulous giant spaceship beckoning me to experience something wonderful and exciting inside.
And it’s true – getting to see the 1990’s Penguins (with Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Mullen and Co.) play – and usually win – at the Civic Arena was always wonderful and exciting. At the time, the team featured about a dozen future Hall of Famers and sometimes literally scored a dozen or more goals a game. In between periods, my older brother and I would invariably walk behind the balcony seating to a souvenir stand to buy cheap pins featuring the logos of teams from far away states like California and Illinois, places I sincerely never dreamed I’d get to visit, let alone live in or perform in as I would later in life. As a teenager whose parents had never lived more than a couple miles from where they grew up and who expected to do the same, getting the rare chance to step inside the Civic Arena’s big, loud world – the world of professional sports we watched on television constantly – seemed about as fantastic as life could get.
But the Civic Arena, dubbed the Mellon Arena since 1999 after a deal with Mellon Financial, didn’t only feature the Pittsburgh Penguins, Spirit, Phantoms, Gladiators, Hornets and other sports teams. The Doors, Beatles, Rolling Stones all played there in the 60’s, and from 1971 to 1989 the Grateful Dead headlined the arena nine times.
My first concert at the Civic Arena was in June of 1994, just a few months after my grandfather died. My older brother Jeff was 17 and had a beat up old Honda handed down from our aunt and uncle, so he drove me (an eighth grade rock n’ roll fanatic) to see George Thorogood and ZZ Top – two perennial Midwestern favorites – play to a capacity audience at the arena. In high school I’d see acts ranging from the Smashing Pumpkins to Bob Dylan at the Civic Arena, but I always remembered my brother driving me to see ZZ Top in that shoddy Honda that almost filled your shoes with water when it rained.
Mellon Arena leaks when it rains, too. Hockey players regularly complain about the puddles on the ice when it rains before or during games in Pittsburgh, and visiting players complain about the tiny dressing room the road team gets. Like the arena itself – and, to some, Pittsburgh – the visitors’ dressing room is ugly, modest and suffocating. But the legendary names that’ve put on gear in there – celebrated and agonized in there – are staggering: Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Brodeur, Bourque, and on and on.
If there’s one thing Mellon Arena hasn’t hosted, it’s a Stanley Cup championship clinching victory by the home team. Since the Penguins’ inception in 1967, they’ve brought three Stanley Cups home to Pittsburgh, but the deciding games were in Chicago, Minneapolis and (last year) Detroit. But that could change in June.
Whereas the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992 and haven’t been able to translate countless high draft picks into success on the field, the Penguins had a few bad seasons in the early 2000’s that resulted in the drafting of high-scoring young centers like Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, the clutch baby-faced goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and the next in a line of world-class superstars dating back to Gretzky and Lemieux, Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby, who won hockey’s MVP award in 2007 at age 19. Thanks to the revenue created by the sustained (and lucrative) on-ice success of those players and others, the Penguins finally move into their second-ever home next season: the high-tech, $321 million Consol Energy Center, which is being built right now across the street from Mellon Arena. This season – the playoffs start in about a week – is their last chance to “Win One For Old Lady Mellon.”
Affectionately called “The Igloo” by Penguins fans and players, The Civic Arena / Mellon Arena will be sorely missed. Not for the quasi-futuristic architecture, the archaic video screen that hangs from the ceiling, or even the lack of “luxury boxes,” but for the atmosphere. Fans at the arena wildly cheered Mario Lemieux in 1988 when he became the only player in history to score five goals five ways (even-strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot and empty net). They erupted into a guilty-pleasure fervor in 1998 when fierce Russian defenseman – and my favorite Pittsburgh player of all time – Darius Kasparaitis effectively exterminated the blossoming career of Philadelphia star Eric Lindros with a bone-crushing hit. They roared at the triumphant return of Mario Lemieux after his cancer treatments in 1993 and again when he came out of retirement as a player/owner in December 2000 (Lemieux had the highest points-per-game average among NHL players from his 2001 return until his final retirement in 2006). And they even gave the Detroit Red Wings a standing ovation when they clinched the Stanley Cup Championship at Mellon Arena in 2008, defeating the Penguins in six games.
Plus, in the fall of 2008 then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama held a campaign rally at Mellon Arena at which he was given the endorsement of iconic Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, whose family has owned the Steelers since 1933. Some believe that rally won Obama Pennsylvania, which arguably won him the presidency.
Like the six-time Super Bowl champion Steelers, the Penguins were barely competitive for their first few decades as a franchise and then emerged as an unforgettable dynasty. Neither team has been able to clinch a title in Pittsburgh; the Penguins have a chance these next few months, but either way the Civic Arena / Mellon Arena will be remembered as a place where, in the loveably colloquial recent words of former Penguins winger Robbie Brown, “good things happened.”
Finally, I doubt anything could serve as a better closing tribute to 50 years of hockey, ice capades, monster truck rallies, rock concerts, political rallies and opera at “the Igloo” than this statement from former Penguin goaltender Gilles Meloche last week:
“It’s nice in there.”
(If you have any memorable Civic Arena / Mellon Arena stories, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org)