Pens wind down days at old arena

The visiting team’s dressing room is so small and cramped, goalies dress in a separate room from their teammates. Lockers? There might be a few down the street at the YMCA.

Inside the oldest indoor arena still used by a major American pro sports team, the concourses are far too narrow for 2010-sized bodies, the concession stands far too scarce, and nearly all modern amenities are missing.

Go to the rest room, and you might miss half a period. Sit down, and you’ll likely be occupying a bright orange seat that was installed in 1961.

Still, Pittsburghers will be more than a little nostalgic when the Penguins play the last of their 1,667 regular-season games at 49-year-old Mellon Arena, the old barn affectionately known as the Igloo, against the Islanders on Thursday night.

More than 50 former Penguins players will return to celebrate, including Andy Bathgate, who scored the franchise’s first goal on Oct. 11, 1967.

"There’s a lot of, I feel, history here and memories, good games and bad games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. "There’s a lot about this building I’m going to miss."

Built nearly 50 years ago for the Civic Light Opera, a building that was long known as the Civic Arena until a bank bought the naming rights in 1999 remains one of a kind.

After all, what other arena could house the Winter Classic?

An engineering marvel to this day, the arena features a retractable steel roof, a concept designed and implemented long before anyone thought of putting such a lid atop a football stadium. Or before anyone in Pittsburgh knew Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby would be the downtown arena’s primary performers, rather than the cast of The Marriage of Figaro. Or before the NHL began playing outdoor games.

The massive steel roof accounted for one-tenth of the arena’s publicly funded $22 million in construction costs, and was designed to roll back so nearly the entire audience could sit outdoors for a performance. What wasn’t anticipated was opening the roof would cause the sound to vanish, and the opera soon moved out.

The Penguins moved in six years later in 1967, when the NHL doubled in size through expansion, and the arena finally went big league. The name Penguins was suggested by the wife of co-owner Jack McGregor, who felt the name fitting because the structure was already being called the Big Igloo.

In addition to the opera, the arena played host to thousands of concerts, from the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Doors, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, the Jackson 5 and Bruce Springsteen to Streisand, Sinatra and the Beach Boys, some in the open air. (Luckily, too, given that smoking was allowed for decades.)

Hundreds of basketball games were played at the Civic Arena; it was Duquesne’s home court for nearly 20 years, and the first national high school basketball all-star game, the Roundball Classic, was played there starting in 1965. Over the years, various expansion projects raised the capacity from 10,500 to 16,940.

Movies were filmed there ("The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” and the hockey-based "Sudden Death,” shot during the NHL lockout in 1994). American Basketball Association, World Team Tennis, Major Indoor Soccer League and Major Indoor Lacrosse League teams played there, as did the AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets until the Penguins were born. And while Arena Football was supposed to be an indoor game, the Pittsburgh Gladiators opened the roof for some games.

But it was the Penguins who supplied most of the arena’s signature moments. From the blown 3-0 playoff series lead against the Islanders in 1975, Mario Lemieux’s arrival as a No. 1 draft pick in 1984, and the subsequent drafting of stars Jaromir Jagr, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, hockey kept the arena going far longer than many such buildings last.

Lemieux has been the arena’s most prominent personality, progressing from an 18-year-old rookie who could barely speak English into one of the NHL’s biggest stars and, later, the Penguins’ co-owner. The Penguins won two Stanley Cups with No. 66 as the star, in 1991 and 1992, and another last year with Lemieux as the co-owner.

Some of Lemieux’s most remarkable performances were at the arena, including his five-goal game against New Jersey on Dec. 31, 1988, in which he scored every way possible (even strength, short-handed, power play, penalty shot, empty net), his five-goal playoff game against Philadelphia later that season and his Dec. 27, 2000, comeback following a 44-month retirement. Some fans still recall that night as producing the longest, most sustainable din at any Penguins game, even those in the postseason.

That roof may have been bad for the opera, but the crescendo of noise created by thousands of cheers echoing off all that steel could rattle any opponent.

"It’s LOUD,” Penguins forward Jordan Staal said. "It really helped us take the momentum to another level.”

The new Consol Energy Center that is rising across the street from Mellon Arena may be the House that Sidney Crosby Built — the string of sellouts that followed his 2005 arrival gave the Penguins the political clout to lobby for a new arena — but the Igloo will always be Mario’s Arena.

"I always think of it as Mario’s place, you look at what he’s done here in the city and so many nights here and what he did, it’s pretty safe to say that this is his place,” Crosby said.

The arena may not stand long after Consol Energy opens this summer, as the Penguins own redevelopment rights at the site. However, many residents want to preserve at least the distinctive steel roof which, after nearly five decades, remains modernistic.

The roof made of 2,950 tons of, what else, Pittsburgh steel still works, but hasn’t been opened since the mid-1990s because of the rigging used for the current scoreboard. Once the scoreboard is taken down following the last Penguins playoff game this spring, tentative plans are to open the roof for at least one more event.

To area residents, the arena is as distinctly Pittsburgh as a Primanti Bros. sandwich or a ride down one of the inclines across the Monongahela River from downtown. Bad features, and all.

What the players won’t miss are the rats that love munching on leftover concession items, the numerous leaks whenever it rains and the crammed dressing room and workout areas.

"They (opposing players) they hate this building because the visitors’ locker room is so bad. They hate to dress here. They hate to play here,” Talbot said. "It’s another advantage for us.”

Defenseman Jay McKee feels nostalgic about losing one of the last arenas where a player can sit in the very same dressing room seat once occupied by Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe.

"The players who really built this league have played in this arena,” McKee said. "It’s pretty neat to be part of the history of the NHL. It’s always sad to see the old buildings go. There’s something to be said about all that tradition.”