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If you are interested in catching a hockey game at the Pittsburgh Penguins' current home, Mellon Arena, allow me to offer a word of advice: Hurry.
On Thursday, April 8, 2010, Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh hosted its final regular season game after 43 seasons. With the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Playoffs for the third consecutive year, there may still be a few weeks of hockey left in the building known as "The Igloo." When - or should I say if - the Pens are eliminated from the playoffs, the oldest professional sports arena in the United States will forever close its doors. The shiny new Consol Energy Center, located right across the street from Mellon Arena, will be the Penguins' home when the 2010-11 NHL season begins.
The Pittsburgh Civic Auditorium, as it was known at the beginning, was built in 1961, not for hockey or even basketball, but for a theatre organization called the Pittsburgh Light Orchestra. A sizeable chunk of the funding for construction was provided by department store tycoon Edgar Kauffman, and the place was built using steel made from the mills in Pittsburgh, most of which have long since closed. The structure featured a retractable, stainless steel dome roof - the largest in the world. Because of its odd appearance, someone somewhere decided it should be known as "The Igloo," and this name has stuck. It was even the inspiration for the naming of Pittsburgh's 1967 expansion NHL team.
Through the years, the Mellon Arena (which was known as the Civic Arena until 1999, when Mellon Bank bought the naming rights) has provided a unique venue for a variety of events. Basketball at every level thrived there, and the Pittsburgh Pipers, the first ABA Champions, called it home. The Pittsburgh Spirit, an indoor soccer team, actually outdrew the Penguins one year in the mid-1980s. The Pittsburgh Triangles, a professional tennis team, played at Mellon.
The retractable roof made it an ideal concert venue, and many of the big acts from the 1970s up through today have played there. The building was featured extensively in the underrated 1995 movie Sudden Death, which used actual Penguin players. Mellon also hosted regional games in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament in 1997 - when 15-seed Coppin State toppled 2-seed South Carolina - and 2002.
The Arena has also seen some pretty good hockey, as the Penguins have evolved into one of the league's model franchises. It has hosted four Stanley Cup Finals, though the Cup was raised there just once: in 2008 by the Detroit Red Wings. Mellon Arena also hosted the NHL All-Star game in 1990, when Mario Lemieux memorably scored four goals in the first period.
Mellon Arena's end has been inevitable for years now. Here is one last look.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The fare at Mellon Arena seems pretty drab by stadium standards: hot dogs, chicken fingers, pizza, etc. But there are other options, including local Pittsburgh fare. The highest recommendation goes to the Primanti's Sandwich, which includes steak, tomato, coleslaw, and French fries all tucked together between two slices of bread. Also, the nachos at Mellon have somewhat of a cult following because of their tastiness. Perhaps they are still using the same nacho-cheese formula from the 1970s. Beers are about $7.50 apiece. Beware of long beer lines.
Few people can honestly say they've had a bad time at Mellon Arena, whether the Penguins are trotting out perennial all-starts or giving away tickets like hotcakes. The building has great acoustics - it was built for the opera, remember - and it gets extremely loud during important games. With the smaller-sized seats and steep stairways, you get the sense that the crowd is really on top of the ice.
It also helps that the Penguins have an innovative and talented marketing team. The giveaways and promotions are frequent, and nearly every game features between-period entertainment. This franchise has gone through two bankruptcies since the mid-1980s and seems to truly value the everyday fan. Even today, with all the sellouts, there are still a few games a year when certain tickets are held for college students, and anyone with a college ID can get in for $20.
Mellon Arena doesn't really lie in a single neighborhood but sits between a few different ones. It is located just outside of downtown Pittsburgh, near an old community known as the Hill District. The area is centrally located, but there isn't a whole lot to do nearby. This may change when the Consol Energy Center opens. For now, the best place for a pregame drink and meal is Pizza Milano's, a local Italian eatery located a few blocks from the Arena on 5th Avenue. There are a few other bars in the vicinity, but that's about it.
Mellon Arena has been sold out for 150+ games and counting. The Consol Energy Center already has a season-ticket waiting list of over 7,000, even though it will have a few thousand more seats than Mellon. Pittsburgh hockey fans are savvy, enthusiastic, and usually go heavy on the Iron City Beers. They will applaud a good shift, pound the glass during a hearty round of fisticuffs, and always seem to find the right moment to unleash a "Let's Go Pens!" chant. Though the mustaches and mullets of the mid-90s glory days are gone, and many of the blue-collar fans have been priced out, there are still lively and intelligent crowds filled with enough hockey-crazed fans to create a distinct home-ice advantage.
The Arena benefits from the central location; it is, in theory, easy to get to from any part of the city. However, traffic in all directions is typically a mess, and the parking situation isn't much better. Virtually all of the highways and bridges get clogged up on game days, and the problem is complicated because fans usually have to navigate through downtown Pittsburgh's suffocating rush-hour traffic. Once you get near the stadium, it's easy to make a wrong turn and there aren't many parking spots to go around. Be prepared to shell out at least $10 to get into one of the lots. Brave ones can park in the Hill District; it's free if you know the right spots. Be sure to read the street signs carefully. The T-Train also stops near the Arena, and many buses do as well. This is a good option for city dwellers.
The Pens have one of the best young teams in hockey and are currently trying to make a third consecutive run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Naturally, tickets aren't cheap. Seats in the higher sections regularly go for $100 or more. It's not a terribly great deal, especially considering the building has been around since the Kennedy administration. There aren't a whole lot of bad seats, but there are some that are deep within the sections that are obstructed by an overhang. And I don't think there's an HD TV located anywhere. And I haven't even mentioned the cramped concourses, long bathroom lines, or vertigo-inducing stairways. But there's always quality on the ice. If you look up at one of the banners, it lists every Penguin player who has led the league in scoring. Amazingly, a Penguin has captured the Art Ross Trophy 13 times since 1988. You can't put a price on that.
From the outside, Mellon Arena is unlike anything you may ever see. It looks like a giant silver spaceship landed right in the middle of the city. The glistening silver dome has taken on an iconic status in western Pennsylvania as the Penguins have had mostly steady success on the ice for the past 20 years. It may be cramped, dirty, smelly, outdated, crumbling, and ready for the wrecking ball, but to the Penguins, it is home. It has been their only home, and some special things have happened there. Lemieux's comeback in 2000 ranks high among most people's list, but there are probably a dozen other moments like that you could pick from.
If you have the chance to get to Mellon Arena in the coming weeks, you will be seeing a slice of history. The place was designed when Dwight Eisenhower was President and has outlived its usefulness in many ways. Though it is near and dear to the hearts of Penguins fans, most would agree that it's time to move on. But there is little doubt that Mellon Arena is truly one of a kind, and there may never be anything quite like it again.
I know Mellon Arena is no longer used but some of the info in my review will be valid for the new Consol Energy Center as well.
Mellon Arena was built in 1961 with a retractable roof and was originally designed for theatre. Most people just referred to it as The Igloo.
The food & beverage at Mellon Area was always good. The local fare included Pirmanti Bros. Sandwiches and the very famous nachos. As stated in the official review, the beer lines were always long. You could also buy glasses of wine.
The neighborhood is a little different for it being right in the middle of the city. There just isn't too much around for eating and drinking. There is a huge parking garage just down the street which has $10 parking and hopefully that stays the same even with the new arena.
Penguins fans are very loud and into their team. Due to the team having some of the leagues top players, the fans never really feel out of the game even if they are down a few goals. They are also quite in tune with the rules and don't just boo every call they don't like.
Parking and traffic is usually pretty rough. Lots of one way roads in the area so if it is your first time, make sure you are paying attention to where you are turning. I'm always looking for free parking but that only exists in the hill district and I don't recommend it. The consol energy center is being built in the same area so this info should stay the same. There were also usually long lines to get through the gates and into the arena.
The return on investment is always tough to gauge for a hockey game. Hockey tickets are usually some of the highest priced in professional sports, but the Penguins do a "college rush" promotion some times that allows college students to get in for $20 with id. Normal priced tickets start around $60 and are usually sold out early, so you have to go through the ticketmaster resale site, where prices are usually well above face value. However, the Penguins are a top team in the league right now and every game has been a sellout for a few years now.
While Mellon Arena was old, I always liked it. Concerts held there always sounded great and if you are into theatre and art, you could make a hockey game part of an entire week of fun in the city. Also, a double header weekend with a Steelers game would rank up there with any city in terms of fan passion for both teams. Finally, something I wish they still had, when the Penguins were an expansion team in 1967, they had a real Penguin as a mascot.
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