Crosby’s touch evident as Penguins open new arena

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 favorite

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 top 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 $321 million

structure, which has an exterior that features the walled glass

front and tons of tan-colored bricks.

The seats are mostly black, with a few rows of gold inserted to

add a dash of color. 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 preseason 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 win some

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 finals for the first time in three seasons

last spring. They brought in expensive new defenseman Paul Martin

and Zbynek Michalek after defenseman 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 centered that line but is shifting to a

wing.

Staal, arguably the NHL’s best No. 3 center 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.