Penguins, Capitals alumni game mostly a hit

Bob Cohn
| Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011

Early Friday morning, before former Penguins and Washington Capitals players faced off for a friendly exhibition, fans swarmed around a football stadium temporarily transformed into a hockey venue.

They came for the alumni game at Heinz Field, the prelude to today's main event in the great -- and unpredictable -- outdoors.

Unlike today's expected inclement weather, yesterday was fine -- comfortable and overcast for the morning alumni game, with the sun occasionally peeking through. By afternoon, temperatures crept into the 50s, as fans enjoyed attractions along "Spectator Plaza" and youth hockey games at the adjacent community rink.

Maybe the weather was too fine, ominously balmy for the last day of December.

Most traces of the Steelers -- who play in Cleveland on Sunday -- had disappeared from Heinz Field, although a large inflated hockey player was wearing what looked like an old-fashioned, leather football helmet. Inside were giant pucks, a whited-out field and plenty of signs advertising the Winter Classic and its sponsors.

Then there was the regulation-sized hockey rink.

About 10,000 fans filled the lower bowl for the alumni game on the east side of the stadium and the north end zone. Many came to see the legendary Mario Lemieux, wearing his familiar No. 66, back on the ice.

Some spectators grumbled about sight lines and that the game ended in a 5-5 tie with no overtime or shootout, but a festive atmosphere prevailed.

"Obviously this place isn't built to watch a hockey game," said Rob James, 39, of Crafton, who had trouble seeing the puck despite a front-row seat. "But it's a great experience. These are the guys I grew up with."

The loudest complaints were reserved for the time it took for many fans to get inside. Well into the first period of the two-period game, people still were streaming in, thanks to a traffic jam at Gate B, the only open gate. Several fans said not all the turnstiles were being used, a claim disputed by the Steelers, who speak on behalf of stadium operations.

"All the turnstiles were open," team spokesman Dave Lockett said. "I think some of the crowd was late arriving. We try to move everybody through."

But Bob Henne, 42, of Shaler, who missed a few minutes of the first period, said, "It was like cattle going into a meat market."

Some fans waited for other gates to open, which did not happen.

"There was only one gate open, and they only opened it at 9," said Heather Scott, 40, of Slippery Rock, who said she arrived with her husband about 8:30 a.m. -- an hour before faceoff -- and still missed several minutes.

"There were too many people coming into one gate," she said. "There was a lot of frustration."

James said he missed the first 10 minutes. "People were getting a little upset out there," he said.

It was a happier mood inside.

"It's the whole atmosphere of being here," said Larry Zupanc, 61, of Elizabeth Township. "You're watching the game, but it's really about everything going on around you. It's like a winter carnival."

Complete with springtime weather.

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