Starkey: New arena mind-blowing

| Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010

What is beyond surreal?

I ask, because I am looking for a word to describe my initial visit to the Consol Energy Center, which hosted its first official hockey-related event Saturday morning when the Penguins opened training camp.

I had avoided all media tours of the building, so as to make my first experience untainted. I didn't even read newspaper accounts of the place. I wanted to be surprised.

I was beyond surprised.

In the spirit of the interactive exhibits that dot the arena, join me on my first tour. Flash back to 8:30 a.m. yesterday, as I approached the arena by car ...

• Fans are lined up around the block like it's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Incredible. Someone tells me people were here at 7:15.

• A Penguins' rep greets me at the loading-dock entrance and directs me to an elevator, which I take to the third floor. The doors open, and my eyeballs nearly pop out of their sockets. Look at all the room! The corridors are wide enough for 25 Casey Hamptons to cross paths without bumping bellies. This, after years after unintended body checks trying navigate my way through Mellon Arena.

• Once I adjust to the elbow room, I notice how beautifully bright it is in here. Windows everywhere. Sunlight. Magnificent views of the city. Am I hallucinating• I ask brothers Tyler and Derek Donaldson of Lawrenceville — 27 and 31, respectively — if they're as blown away as I am. "Yeah, it's kind of unreal," Tyler says. "At Mellon Arena, I felt like I was in a bomb shelter. It's like night and day." Quite literally.

• Thank God — maybe quite literally — that the majestic, red-bricked Epiphany Catholic Church was not among the buildings razed to make way for the arena. How many other sporting venues have a historic landmark like this sitting outside their front window• Talk about a hockey cathedral.

• I find myself reflexively lifting my feet, as I did for 15 years at Mellon Arena, expecting them to stick to stale pop and beer.

• Brooks Orpik's eyebrows are dripping with sweat. This becomes apparent upon my first glance at the arena's most striking feature — a four-sided HD scoreboard that is bigger than Beaver Stadium. It's so riveting, you wonder if people will watch it instead of the ice during games.

• The ambiance is akin to what you'd experience at the Grand Canyon — -people walking slowly in no particular direction, wide-eyed, uttering words of wonderment. Take the father of two in the elevator, who says, "I knew it was going to be great, but I didn't expect this ."

• Let the record show that Casey Pierro-Zabotel was the first player on the ice at the first training camp at the Consol Energy Center.

• Just thought you'd like to know.

• I run into highly irritable Trib beat writer Rob Rossi, and even he is happy today. He makes a good point, too: This rink mirrors the hockey club much more than Mellon Arena did. That place was old and dark and ready to die. This one is bright and sleek and filled with hope.

• The press box is so big that you could find seats for every recently arrested Pitt football player and still have plenty left.

• Bill and Charlotte Bandi, of Oakmont, sit quietly and enjoy the scrimmage. Bill had season-tickets back in 1969. What strikes him most• "The concourses, how wide they are."

• Bill and Charlotte met nearly 40 years ago at a construction site in an Indiana cornfield.

• Charlotte just thought you'd like to know.

• My only complaint: I don't want to see banners for division and conference titles. Stanley Cups only, please, plus the retired jerseys of Mario Lemieux and Michel Briere. And I do like the banners for individual awards, seeing as the Penguins have nearly cornered the market on scoring championships.

• Back downstairs, I head into the spaceship-shaped locker room, where the walls are modeled after Mellon Arena's old walls. I like how the Penguins have paid homage to the past in subtle and clever ways without clubbing people over the head with it.

• In this room, everyone is young. Photos of Scotty Bowman, Ed Johnston, Kevin Stevens, Craig Patrick, etc., all in their primes, hang above the players' lockers.

• Max Talbot says he was taken aback at the sight of his face — every detail of it — on the scoreboard screen. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I need a tan or something.' "

• I ask Talbot about his first competitive experience on Consol ice. Anything that will come to be viewed as unique about the building• "Hopefully, the atmosphere will be unique," he says. "Hopefully, after our first game, October 7th against the Flyers, we'll be saying, 'This is our building, this is our identity.' That's what we're all waiting for."

• The place is hopping for an intra-squad scrimmage, for goodness sakes, so one can only imagine what it'll be like Oct. 7.

Beyond surreal, I'm guessing.

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