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Last hurrah for 'The Igloo?'

by John Kreiser /

The Pittsburgh Civic Arena, now known as Mellon Arena got its popular nickname 'The Igloo' from the common misconception that igloos and penguins are associated with one another.
PITTSBURGH -- Igloos and penguins are found at the opposite ends of the Earth. Except in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Penguins got their name partly thanks to the nickname for their home, the Pittsburgh Civic Arena -- known as "The Igloo" for the shape of its signature retractable steel dome -- when the NHL awarded the city an expansion franchise in 1967. The building, now known as Mellon Arena, predates the arrival of the Pens and ranks as the oldest facility in the NHL.

"It was actually named because people thought of penguins and igloos," said Tom McMillan, the Penguins' vice president of communications, who grew up in Pittsburgh. "Of course, igloos are found at the North Pole and penguins at the South Pole. But when people around hockey say 'The Igloo,' everyone knows what you're talking about."

The Civic Arena, which is hosting its third Stanley Cup Final this week, opened in 1961 and soon got its nickname from its circular shape. It was actually constructed as a home for musical events, not sports.

"The building wasn't built for sports. They built it for the Civic Light Opera, and it had a retractable roof," McMillan said. "They thought it was a great idea, but they quickly found out that the sound all went away. The orchestra moved out in a couple of years, and it became a multipurpose arena."

The new building brought hockey back to Pittsburgh. The AHL's Hornets, a Red Wings farm team, played at the Civic Arena for six seasons, ending in the spring of 1967 when they beat Rochester to win the Calder Cup. In the fall, the Penguins brought NHL hockey back to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1930. Andy Bathgate scored the Pens' first goal in their debut, a 2-1 loss to Montreal on Oct. 11, 1967.

Back then, the balcony-less building seated 12,580 -- up from its original capacity of about 10,000, but far below today's listed capacity of 16,940.

"They added the first balcony in the mid-1970s and the second one in the 1990s," McMillan said. "But with the balconies, there are a couple of thousand seats that don't have great sight lines -- they can't see the Jumbotron, and the Jumbotron has become a big part of the experience."

By far the most unique feature of the building is its retractable roof, designed to open or close in just a couple of minutes -- though the addition of a scoreboard in the mid-1990s has limited how much the roof will open, and that feature is rarely used these days. Movie fans got to see the how the roof works when a fictional Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final was shot for the 1995 film Sudden Death, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

In addition to the Penguins, the arena, which got its current name when the Mellon Bank signed a sponsorship deal in 1999, has hosted ABA and college basketball, numerous musical acts -- including both the Beatles and Elvis Presley -- wrestling, ice shows, boxing and figure skating.

Ironically, the building's unique shape is also one of the reasons it's being replaced. The Penguins are scheduled to move into a new 18,500-seat arena across the street from the current facility in the fall of 2010. Construction is slated to begin this summer.

"The circular roof was iconic and unique," McMillan said. "But when Mario Lemieux's group bought the Penguins in 1999, one of the options was 'Can we re-fit or renovate the arena?' The answer was no. It had been renovated so many times that at some point, there was nothing more you could do. There was no space.

"Trying to fit a Stanley Cup Final into this building reminds us why it's going to be so great to move. We're going crazy trying to get things to come up to NHL media requirements. A lot has changed since 1992. We have to put together auxiliary seating for the media -- put in 250 tabletop seats, sound systems, televisions, phone lines. This is what you have to do with a 1961-built building to pull off a 2008 event. It's a big challenge."

Though a new arena is only a couple of years away, McMillan says the Penguins' surprising rise from next-to-last in the standings in 2005-06 to this year's Final has put most of the arena talk on the back burner for now.

"Not quite yet," he said when asked if Pittsburgh fans are getting nostalgic. "That's mostly because the team has been so exciting that most of the focus is on them. There's never been the level of interest -- even in the Cup years (1991 and 1992).

"I think we'll have some fun in the last years of the building. Guys my age -- in their 40s and 50s -- spent a lot of time there, grew up there. It's hard to believe that the grand old lady of NHL arenas is here in Pittsburgh. But it opened in 1961, meaning that it was designed during the Eisenhower administration, and they couldn't have imagined the needs of the 21st century fans. It's time to move on."


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