Memories of the Civic (Mellon) Arena

_____ arena

[This was originally a guest post at pittsburghpenguinsblog.net in October 2009 before the season began, but had disappeared a while back and I’d never grabbed it. I happened to find it today during my lunch break and am reposting it here before it disappears again. I’d wanted to post it originally back at the end of the 2009-2010 season, so I suppose better late than never. Enjoy. -BHR]

The first time I ever stepped foot into the hallowed Igloo, it was 1995 and I was attending my first-ever Penguins game. Granted, it was a preseason game against the Rangers – not to mention the first real date with my then-girlfriend-now-wife – but it was still a moment I remember keenly in my mind of hockey memories.

“Do they open the dome at all?” I’d asked. Because that? Would’ve been the ultimate cool. A Pittsburgh winter night, with outdoor hockey? Awesome.

Alas, my thoughts disappeared less than a moment later when my then-girlfriend laughed at me. A lot.

Back then, it was the Civic Arena. (Still is, depending on my mood when I’m watching a Pens game.) And back then, it was already one of the oldest venues still showcasing the coolest game on ice, with one of the hottest franchises. I’d mourned the loss of the old Chicago Stadium only months before, having been a frequent visitor there to watch the Blackhawks play. Now, I was walking in another historic hockey building.

And make no mistake, the Igloo is historic to us Penguin fans. It may never be recognized as such by any official authority, but to old and new Pens fans alike, it’ll remain our second home for hockey. (I still remember the radio wars when the news broke about it being renamed to Mellon Arena.)

Since that preseason visit, we became frequent visitors to the Igloo. Usually we had seats in F 16, right over the visitor goalie; on occasion we had other seats, but when given a choice, the high back end was our spot of choice. I could sit back and watch the whole game unfold, steal glances at the owner’s box and the broadcast booths, and chat with surrounding fans. Even when the nets went up, it didn’t dampen (much) the thrill of watching a breakaway unfold between Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis, or Jagr power his way around the boards and stuff it behind a stubborn Marty Broduer.

The Penguins have been “my” team since Lemieux was selected; even though I followed the Blackhawks during my time in Chicago, I always rooted for and devoured news of the Penguins. I was in love with Super Mario’s talent and speed, Jagr’s brashness and strength, and Francis’ grace and skill. When I finally moved to Pittsburgh, attending games at the Igloo was about as religious an experience I could have without being blasphemous.

Even during the harder years of the Baldwin era, I remained faithful. It wasn’t always easy; remember the horrors of Sudden Death? (Luc Robatille was the sole saving grace of that tour-de-farce of action.) Or the emo-mullet days of Jagr before he was “rescued” by the Caps. Or the constant pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass power plays of Eddie Johnston era.

At least then, tickets were cheap.

I’ve enjoyed a few hockey milestones at the Igloo. Was in attendance for Mario’s 600th career goal. His 5 goal night against St. Louis. Mario’s return in December 2000. Jagr’s 7 point night against the Isle in 1999? There too.

But also, the memories of Penguin seasons past still burn brightly in my mind. Darius Kasparaitis leveling pretty much anyone in front of him, Francis’ calm, cool demeanor as Captain, Martin Straka, Jiří Hrdina, Larry Murphy, Matthew Barnaby’s antics, Tom Barrasso and his temper, Kenny Wregget, Patrick Lalime’s rookie run, Eddie Olczyk’s coaching debut, Herb Brook’s silent stares, Johannes Hedburg and the moose antlers…

And let’s not forget the Igloo’s own little foibles – the fantastic nachos (even when stale), high-priced beer, dome ads bigger than my neighborhood, the ‘new’ scoreboard. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” played to the Cheers clip, Iceburgh’s shenanigans while the little tykes skated their hearts out. John Barbaro’s goal-calling. The constant belittlement of Flyer, Ranger and Caps fans.

Sheer in its awesomeness, the Igloo is a bastion of my hockey memories. Even if it wasn’t “all that,” it was, in all its rickety glory, the haven for hockey for my wife and I.

Sadly, we relocated to Washington, DC shortly before the 2005-06 season started. Thanks to the NHL lockout during the 2004-05 season, we never had a ‘final trip’ to the Igloo. While I hope we’ll be able to make a trip back to the ‘burgh to go to one last game, with the amazing and awesome resurgence of the Penguins in the Crosby Era, tickets will be next-to-impossible to get. So the best thing I can do is sit and watch from my couch here in Northern Virginia, listening to Mike Lang on the internet radio, and remember the sights, the sounds and the atmosphere of the greatest hockey arena on Earth.

Thank you, Igloo. You will be missed.

 

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