Now, almost 50 years later, the Penguins are the most popular tenant occupying the brand-new, state-of-the-art facility right across the street -- the $321 million Consol Energy Center.
And while the building officially opened its doors Aug. 18 with the help of Paul McCartney, Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS) will mark the beginning of an even stronger bond between this sports-crazed city and their 44-year-old NHL franchise.
The first regular-season game to be held at Consol Energy Center is, in some ways, a tribute to the fans who made it all possible. It certainly didn't hurt that Mario Lemieux was able to save the franchise from bankruptcy back in 1999, either, stating at the time the organization wouldn't survive without a new arena.
"If they didn't come here and support us then we wouldn't have it," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "There's no doubt that (the fans) are why this building is standing. We realize that and don't take that for granted. It makes us excited to be here."
Tom McMillan, the Penguins' Vice President of Communications, offered NHL.com the grand tour of Pittsburgh's hockey palace on the morning of the season-opener. Needless to say, you could sense a special buzz and energy the moment you entered the administrative offices on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place.
McMillan admitted Consol Energy Center, which covers approximately eight acres, is the "house that Mario built, but that Sid will define."
Some of the features that immediately caught our eye included the countless rows of black seats and then a single row of gold seats mixed in to give the arena a distinctive Pittsburgh feel. There's also a monstrous, four-sided, 70,000-pound scoreboard, and as seen from the upper concourse, a spectacular view of the Golden Triangle.
There were students camping out in the early-morning hours outside the arena hoping to be the first in line to purchase one of the 200 $25 seats made available at noon. McMillan, Penguins president David Morehouse, GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma brought coffee and donuts to those fans to show their appreciation.
There are 66 luxury suites -- a tribute to Lemieux's number, as well as 15 more than Mellon Arena. And the capacity is 18,087 -- the last two digits matching those on Crosby's jersey, and 1,147 more than Mellon. There are also 32 loge boxes (Mellon had none), which offer semi-private seating and television screens. And speaking of TV screens, Consol Energy Center houses 800 of the high-definition variety throughout the building.
There's also a special box on the lower level next to the Penguins' bench called "Suite 66." It features a glass wall that allows fans to watch the Penguins make their walk from the locker room to the bench area. It also holds plenty of history.
"Unless you were actually in Mario's house, you wouldn't have been able to see the trophies he decided to share in Suite 66," McMillan said. "Here, you can see replicas of all his individual trophies (six Art Ross trophies, three Hart trophies, two Conn Smythe trophies and a Calder Trophy) and three of the most important sticks he owns -- the ones he used to score his 500th goal, his 600th goal and five goals five different ways in 1989 (against the New Jersey Devils)."
The main lobby and box office area is open to the public at 10:30 a.m. each morning and the gates to enter the seating area open at 5:30. Within the huge lobby area, fans are treated to a technological flashback through Penguins history.
"There are video stations for 15 players, five honorable mentions and a builder's category where fans can watch video, check out photos, bios and statistics on Penguins of the past," McMillan said. He then tapped Lemieux's screen to access the first goal of his Hall of Fame career.
CONSOL scoreboard (Mike Morreale/NHL.com)
"We'd ask them what they liked about the old arena and what they wanted to see in the new arena," Morehouse said. "A couple of things we learned were that they wanted the openness and the wider concourses, they wanted comfortable seats and these seats are wider than those in Mellon. Our fans tend to be younger and more tech-based, so we went with a lot of technology instead of going with artifacts in our all-time team area. It's all electronic and the fans love it."
There's an area to witness the virtual Stanley Cup, where fans touch a video screen and view the names etched on hockey's Holy Grail, including those of the Penguins. There's also a high school and junior hockey area where jerseys are prominently displayed and teens can view the latest scholastic and junior statistics with the tap of a television screen.
Shero admitted that equipment manager Dana Heinze and head athletic trainer Chris Stewart worked closely with the building's architects to design the team's locker room.
"Really, ownership was great in getting everyone involved in getting opinions so we had plenty of meetings from our training staff, to our equipment manager and medical team," Shero told NHL.com. "So the facilities for the players are incredible. Over the last couple years, our staff took pictures and notes of all the other rinks and tried to incorporate all the things they liked. It worked out really well."
The spacious workout room and training facilities include a pool with a submersible treadmill so injured players can lessen the impact on aching legs; hot and cooling tubs; a lounge with several televisions; a kitchen area; a juice bar, and even a bubble-hockey game. The ceiling of the room includes panels that resemble those of the outer shell of Mellon Arena.
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