Many Penguins fans around the world rejoiced Thursday.
Perhaps none were as elated – and relieved – as Mario Lemieux.
The Penguins co-owner and chairman, along with other team officials and politicians, shoveled one of initial loads of dirt as ground was officially broken for a new multipurpose arena across the street from Mellon Arena.
The moment signaled a beginning to a new, state-of-the-art venue to watch the Penguins as well as enjoy many other events and shows. It also marked a symbolic end to the long struggle Lemieux and others endured to ensure the Penguins franchise would remain in Pittsburgh indefinitely.
“It felt pretty good; it’s been a long time coming and a lot of hard work from a lot of people through the years from the Penguins side and, of course, our politicians,” he said. “To be here and to see it going up in the next couple years is something that is exciting for all of us – not only the Penguins, but the region in general. The entire community should be proud of this building going up in the next two years and being able to enjoy it for the next 30 years.”
Lemieux, who forged a Hall of Fame career playing for the Penguins, worked just as hard off the ice to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The only way to do that was to build a new arena.
“It’s been a long process. Our vision was to get a new arena to give ourselves the opportunity to put a good team on the ice and be able to keep players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury and all these guys, which we’ve been able to do thus far,” he said. “That was our goal from the beginning – to be able to compete with the rest of the league and generate enough revenue to do so. As you can see, we’re pretty close to the salary cap now and we will be for the next two years and we’ll be losing money doing so. That’s something we decided to do; it’s important to keep the team going in the right direction and making sure we put a great product on the ice for our fans. In two years, we’ll be in a better position to go to the cap.”
Securing a new arena was a difficult process, which led Lemieux to wonder, at times, if he’d ever see the day where he’d be part of a groundbreaking ceremony.
“There were a lot of ups and downs throughout the negotiations. I got frustrated a few times, but, at the end of the day, I wanted this team to stay here,” he said. “I have been with this franchise since 1984 and it would have been a shame to see this franchise go somewhere else. The Penguins belong in Pittsburgh and that’s where we are today.”
Lemieux, who was drafted by the Penguins in 1984, watched Pittsburgh develop into a tremendous hockey market. He’s proud it will remain that way for many years to come.
“That was my goal. When I came in in 1984, I gave myself five years to build a great team and it took a little longer, but I knew from the start this was a good hockey city. Certainly, it took a while to build it up to where it is today. Overall, I am very proud with what we’ve been able to accomplish here with the team we have and the support that we have in this region,” he said. “The politicians let us know we had a lot of support from our fans, which was the key for us. The fans showed that they wanted to keep this team here in Pittsburgh forever and that’s one of the reasons we’re standing here today, because of our fans and great support we’ve had throughout the years.”
Everyone involved in the project wants to make sure the new arena offers the best amenities of any NHL venue.
“The sightlines – you’re not going to have a bad seat in the building. The amenities, the restaurants, the clubs we’re going to have for our season ticketholders. It’s going to be special. We’re still fiddling with the whole concept, but I think our fans will enjoy every time they step in the building. They are going to have lots to do and be taken care of,” Lemieux said. “The dressing room area is going to be the best in the league. It’s going to be about 10,000 square feet, where the average is about 5,000 or 6,000 around the league. We’re going to have all the best stuff for our players to enjoy and make sure they are ready to play when the puck drops.
“It was a long process the last couple of years. We went to Minnesota to see the beautiful building they have there. We went to Phoenix and Columbus also. We just tried to pick the best parts of each building. That’s one advantage that you have when you build last in the NHL, you see all the great buildings and you see the mistakes that were made along the way and you’re able to out a pretty good building together. Hopefully, fans will enjoy it.”
A new arena will also mean more revenue for the team, which will give the Penguins the chance to keep their young and talented players in Pittsburgh.