A Great Day for Dollars

Fame…and shame. From March 2012, the new statue of Mario Lemieux in front of Consol Energy Center, with the disintegrating Civic Arena in the background.



As many of you know already, I have been a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins since I was a teenager. Some of my fondest memories of growing up involved Saturday night trips to Pens games. A bunch of us would catch the same 16A bus, walk up 7th Avenue to the Civic Arena, and go to the ticket window for a seat in the ‘E’ balcony. 


After the ticket and round trip bus fare, there was still enough of a $10 bill left for a popcorn or a drink. 

Pittsburgh Civic Arena, circa the 1960’s. Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

I have a common feeling of nostalgia, with many others that I know,  about the ‘Igloo’. I saw lots of other things there besides hockey – tennis, soccer, Roller Derby, concerts – once with the roof open. Its loss makes sense only to those who possess a greater vision for the vitality of the city and the region that surrounds it. That’s a nice way of saying that the arena wasn’t special enough to save because of the land it sat on. 


Like many other Pittsburghers, along with the ghost of perhaps the region’s greatest architectural visionary – Edgar J. Kauffman – I politely reply, “Hogwash”.  It doesn’t make sense to go crying over spilled landmarks, though.


The arena’s construction in the 1950’s took out a large chunk of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and they want it back. Can’t blame them, really. 

Consol Energy Center interior. 

In the arena’s place is the Consol Energy Center, which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit twice since I moved back to Pennsylvania. I got to see the Penguins several times in Denver and Phoenix, and managed to to see my first home game there last month. I brought Leslie, who had never been to any Penguins game before.


Since my most recent hockey viewing experiences had been in Denver, while at the game I was comparing Consol to the Pepsi Center, and one word kept creeping into my thought process – tight. 


The Consol center’s website claims that the venue has “the most comfortable seating arrangement in the NHL — seats up to 24 inches wide, with an accompanying increase in legroom”. Those seats must be really expensive, because the very expensive ones I had were just the usual size, with a little less legroom than similarly sized arenas such as Pepsi Center. 


I also noticed that the hallways behind the seats were a bit narrower than what I’ve seen before. While there is a lot of space allocated to food courts, reducing wait times for consumers, there appear to be fewer public restrooms, increasing wait times for those who have consumed, and need to go

This is sort of understandable – they decided they had to wedge a full-size multi-purpose arena in between Centre and Fifth Avenues. Not as easy task to design and build, and equally not as easy to navigate around. 

In the larger scheme of things, these are minor annoyances in comparison to what you’re there to experience – and for that part of it, Consol achieves what it was designed to achieve. It provides the capability to use all manner of multimedia tools and marketing gimmicks common to today’s professional sporting event. I’m familiar with the 360-degree LED display rings and advertising blimps from watching the Colorado Avalanche. 

The audio-visual capabilities, leveraging of text messaging and Internet resources as part of the overall entertainment experience, sweet digs for the athletes, and the apparent commitment to making customer service a priority all seem to cement Consol’s reputation as a first-class venue of its kind. I wonder what their evacuation plan looks like, though…

As a result, Pittsburgh is back on the map for all manner of sports and entertainment events – and the money that they bring in. The NCAA Basketball tournament, numerous high-end concert tours, and next year’s NCAA Frozen Four – all will help support the hotel, restaurant, parking, drinking, ticket scalping, and related sub-economies within the city and the immediate metropolitan area. 

The Penguins are an exceptional organization, much improved over those intermittent lean years, what with multiple bankruptcies, changes in ownership, and uncertainty over whether the team would stay here. In remembering that last obstacle – getting a new arena – and reading about it from Colorado, it felt as if no one wanted to fail, but also that the Pens were going to do what was necessary to thrive – not just survive – on their terms. That attitude is a testament to the team’s owner and most famous face.

Which brings us to the present day, as the Penguins prepare to begin another playoff run, this time what is sure to be an entertaining series against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Pens have displayed the same level of class and professionalism as that displayed by Mario Lemieux over his storied career as both a player and an owner. 

This does not sit well with a lot of other teams and media in other cities. The Pens’ most recent visit to Denver was a lovefest for the visiting team. A friend that was there said it looked and sounded as if there were more Pittsburgh fans in attendance than Avs fans. 


The voices elsewhere claim that the Penguins enjoy special treatment from NHL management. Sidney Crosby is vilified , not only by the fans in other cities, but by national media both in the US and Canada. This includes NBC analyst and former coach Mike Milbury, and CBC commentator and former coach Don Cherry, who reminds me of Classy Fred Blassie of WWE fame.

Don Cherry is kind of directly responsible for a feature in the new Consol Energy Center that was first started in the old Civic Arena – the rigid tunnel that is slid out when opposing teams enter or exit the ice. 

Cherry was the coach of the Boston Bruins when, after a controversial 2-1 win over the Pens during the 1979-80 playoffs, he and his team were showered with beer and pelted with debris on the way to the locker room, which they had to cross the ice to get to in the old arena. I was there, watching (not participating) from above in the E seats. The Pens lost the series in Boston, and the tunnel made its debut the following season.

This is one of many interesting memories from many years of watching the Pens, and hockey in general. The level of excitement, intensity, speed, and endurance is something that doesn’t exist in any other sport. 

To excel as a team, a marketing force, and as an entity willing and capable of significant charitable contributions and community good will, the Penguins need to be financially viable. This process has led to ticket prices that are out of reach for the majority of us on a regular basis. A fact of life, no more or less than that. 

I’ll probably plant myself in front of a big screen at a local watering hole at least once or twice during this playoff run, and may check out the really big screen outside of Consol if the opportunity presents itself. 

Luckily, I’m also a baseball fan. PNC Park is another incredible stage for the interactive community theater that is the essence of the game. I also enjoy minor league baseball – Grand Junction would get a team the year I moved away. From what I’ve heard, the Wild Things and the Curve are also worth the trip. 


Beat ’em Bucs. Let’s Go Pens.

See you in the cheap seats.


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