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Steelers' Rooney gears up for the Winter Classic

by Dan Rosen /
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers President Art Rooney II feels it's safe to be honest now that the on-site preparations for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic are under way at Heinz Field.

"When we first started the conversation (with the NHL) I have to confess I was not optimistic that we could do it," Rooney told last week.

This was back in the summer time and Rooney was concerned for the safety of the Steelers' grass gridiron. His main question before agreeing to host the Winter Classic: Would the stadium's grounds crew have enough hours to re-sod the field in time for a home playoff game the following weekend?

He got an emphatic yes from the NHL.

"It was the NHL folks convincing us that they've done this enough now that they understand the time and man hours that it takes to get the ice in and out," Rooney said. "And, then I had to rely on our own people to make sure they were comfortable that we could get a new field in here at a time of year that we aren't normally re-sodding and have a field that could be playable for what could be a very big football game in about a week."

Rooney's concerns may be a moot point. The Steelers have a legitimate shot at earning a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs, and they could know as soon as Sunday.

If the Cleveland Browns upset the Baltimore Ravens then the Steelers will win the AFC North and earn their bye, giving the NHL leeway in getting out of Heinz Field and the grounds crew extra time to prepare their football field.

The Steelers can also win the division and earn their bye with a win in Cleveland on Jan. 2.

"We took our time trying to make sure we understood every scenario and weather possibilities because when you're doing these things you have to plan for what could go wrong," Rooney said. "John Collins and his team at the NHL office were great to work with and walked us through everything. The fact that they have done it a few years in a row and it worked in these other buildings without any problems made it easier on us."

Fortunately it did, because bringing the Winter Classic to Pittsburgh has extra special meaning to Rooney, who was born and raised in the city and grew up around the Steelers, a franchise that has been in his family since his grandfather founded the team in 1933.

Art Rooney I parlayed his winnings at Saratoga Race Course in New York into starting one of the most successful franchises in sports history. Now his grandson is awash in the buzz that the NHL's signature regular-season event has created in his town.

"Anywhere you go in the city people are talking about it and people are excited about it," he said. "It has created an excitement level that I don't think we've seen around here for many events over the years. In addition it'll generate some good revenue for the city and the businesses in the city. It's going to be a big event from a lot of different standpoints.

"Pittsburghers are proud of our city so this gives us a chance to show it to the world. I remember watching the first one in Buffalo that year. It's going to be very exciting to see it here on our home field."

Rooney is putting off his own travel plans to Cleveland for next weekend's football game in order to be here for the Winter Classic. The team is scheduled to bus out of Pittsburgh at 2:30, but Rooney said he'll make the two-hour drive on his own after the game or early the next morning.

Don't be shocked if he watches the game sitting beside Penguins co-owner and chairman Mario Lemieux because the two are good friends and represent the connection between Pittsburgh's two favorite franchises.

"Between these two franchises (Steelers and Penguins) there are a lot of connections and I think that'll be on display next Saturday," Rooney said. "We've never hosted a Super Bowl here in Pittsburgh, but I have to say it probably rivals something like that in terms of the level of enthusiasm, excitement and the coordination that has to go on with various entities to make it work. I hope the city and all of the fans of both the Steelers and Penguins look back on it as a great and memorable weekend."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl.

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