The sweltering sun signalled summer’s arrival in the Steel City. 95 degrees Fahrenheit and 65% humidity made my drenched shirt stick to me. There it was the iconic building which soon enough would be closing its doors for the very last time. The Mellon Arena’s silver roof glistened as the Pennsylvania sun shone off it, it had been home of the Pittsburgh Penguins Ice Hockey team for almost 50 years.
Aptly named the ‘Igloo’ by locals, it was soon to melt away and be replaced by a brand spanking new arena...........50 yards across the street. The irony of playing Ice Hockey in the midst of stifling heat is a quirk which now thrives across the USA, as the National Hockey League (NHL) goes from strength to strength.
It was a great privilege as part of my job for ESPN Radio Pittsburgh to cover the last ever regular season practice at the iconic venue. It had witnessed many of Ice Hockey’s greatest stars in action over the years and has also held concerts for the likes of The Beatles, Britney Spears and other cult heroes. During the training session past greats who had played for the Penguins assembled to glance around their former place of work one last time.
Scenes like this sent shivers down my spine as I remembered the final whistle at the Dell after the friendly win against Brighton in 2001. I was also present when Matthew Le Tissier scored the last ever league goal at that famous old ground and I still have the plastic seat and lump of turf in my garden to prove it!
The Penguins have been successful of late and last year won the Stanley Cup, Ice Hockey’s biggest and most prestigious title. They gave the old building one final send off that it truly deserved. In the 2009/10 season that has just passed, the Penguins were heavy favourites to retain their title. However they fell in the play-offs to Montreal, meaning the Igloo was not going to have its fairytale ending.
The new home of the Penguins, the ever so slightly commercialized “Consol Energy Centre” is being built right next door. This trend is rife across the USA and it seems they use land just across from the previous stadium. I have seen this in Tampa, New York and many other venues and it seems like a great idea instead of completely relocating the team. Never do you hear of stadiums being renovated and improved. They would just simply build a new one, it’s the American way!
The ageing Igloo was very much like the Dell, perhaps that is why I became so attached to it as I walked through its halls many times during my various stints of work for local media outlets. Poorly placed poles, decaying toilets, cramped seats and above all an electric atmosphere made it a cauldron of noise and excitement, with enough fervour to scare the life out of any opposing team. The rise to the press box included taking two different lifts and conquering a labyrinth of tight staircases that would have made the maze at Hampton Court palace a walk in the park! Many fans are sad to see it go, but realise it is time for a change. As the Penguins, with star players such as Captain and Olympic Gold Medal hero Sidney Crosby (scored the winning goal for Canada versus USA in overtime at the recent Winter Olympic games in Vancouver) and Russian superstar Evgeni Malkin push on as a true powerhouse of the NHL. They need a stadium to fit.
“One more game guys, One more game.” These were the words of Dan Potash, a former colleague of mine at Fox sports. He looked towards the ceiling after a shower of sewage had just missed him after falling from the terracing above, seconds before he was due to go live on air. The rest of the gathering press who were waiting to get into the locker room to interview players barely commented, this was something they had become accustomed to over the years.
Yes the Igloo was ageing, but it had matured over the years like a fine French wine ready for the last cork to be plucked out of its bottle. Get the glasses of celebration ready, it’s been an emotional last 50 years. Here’s to the next 50 years being just as exciting, across the street in the mega-structure which will surely be know across Pittsburgh as, “the new Igloo.”