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Foundation in place on Pittsburgh Penguins new arena

It has taken 7,000 tons of steel and one world championship to put Mario Lemieux's long-term vision for the Pittsburgh Penguins one year away from completion.

"It's the last piece of our master plan to build a foundation for the team, and the city, that meant the team could stay here," Penguins President Ken Sawyer said Thursday. "Now we know we have a home for the Penguins that is second to none in the National Hockey League."

Winning the Stanley Cup in June put the team ahead of schedule on realizing that plan, Sawyer said at a "topping off" ceremony inside the half-finished $355 million Consol Energy Center, where the team will begin playing in fall 2010.

The ceremony marked the end of construction on the 18,087-seat arena's steel skeleton.

"This is a big milestone for us," Sawyer said. "The next big milestone, of course, is opening day about a year from now."

Construction crews installed a beam topped with an evergreen tree for luck and a broom to signify no fatal accidents during construction. They also placed the last of about 8,000 steel beams atop the Uptown arena after Penguins co-owner Lemieux signed it.

Lemieux said he's excited about the swift progress after years of sometimes tense negotiations with local and state politicians over finding a way to subsidize construction of the arena.

Penguins officials long threatened to move the franchise to another city if they didn't receive subsidies to build a replacement for Mellon Arena, the oldest venue in the National Hockey League. The result: $7.5 million a year from local gambling revenues will go toward paying off the arena for the next 30 years.

The Penguins must pay $4.1 million a year, and $7 million a year will come from a state economic development fund.

At a groundbreaking ceremony one year ago, Lemieux said he never intended to relocate the team.

"It's been nine, 10 years to get to where we are today," he said. "This is special for all of us."

Asked if he could relax now that the arena's steel skeleton is complete, Lemieux said, "I've been pretty relaxed since we won the Stanley Cup. It's been a lot of fun."

Workers will enclose the arena's roof and walls by December to protect the interior, Sawyer said.

Mellon Arena is set to be demolished once the Consol Energy Center opens.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who joined Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato at the ceremony, said he doesn't know when the old arena will be demolished.

"It's a very desirable site close to Downtown, right next to the arena," Ravenstahl said, adding that a mix of housing, retail and hotels could be built in its place. "That site will be used for future development."

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