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10 things to do before Mellon Arena closes its doors

| Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

Mellon Arena, the oldest building and only stainless steel dome in the National Hockey League, will have a new addition tonight that makes The Igloo the envy of its peers.

Its most tenured tenant, the Penguins, will hold a pregame ceremony before their regular-season opener against the New York Rangers to raise a banner commemorating their Stanley Cup championship. It's a fitting gesture for the final hockey season of the venue once known as the Civic Arena.

"I've always looked up and wanted to put the Stanley Cup banner up there," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "To be able to put the banner up in the last possible year we could have seen it go up here, it's pretty great."

With fans gazing toward the retractable roof — which, to answer the most frequently asked question about Mellon Arena, hasn't completely opened since the filming of "Sudden Death" in 1995 — it's worth noting the quirks and perks of what was intended to be a world-class opera house for the Civic Light Opera when it opened in September 1961.

The Tribune-Review compiled a to-do list of things to see before Consol Energy Center replaces Mellon Arena next year:

10. Learn some history.

Adorning the walls are plaques celebrating the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame, sports stars ranging from the Steelers' Bobby Layne to Rocky Bleier, the Pirates' Paul Waner to Harvey Haddix, former Penguins GM and Pittsburgh Hornet goaltender Baz Bastien, NBA trailblazers Chuck Cooper and Connie Hawkins, Negro League dynamos Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, and Olympian John Woodruff.

9. Take care of business — in a flash.

Obscured by its placement next to a Pennsylvania Lottery machine near Section B16, a plaque commemorates the concerts of Elvis Presley on June 25-26, 1973, and New Year's Eve 1976. It reads: "A legendary performer who earned the love and respect of millions. His presence will always be missed." The Fans of Elvis Presley dedicated the plaque Jan. 8, 1982.

8. Find your alma mater's jersey.

Continuing down the concourse, a hallway of glass-encased hockey jerseys showcases members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, which produced a few NHL players in recent years. One of them, Hopewell's Nate Guenin, spent training camp with the Penguins.

"I remember coming here with my dad when I was younger, coming here for Stanley Cup playoff games," Guenin said. "Just walking around, you see a different setup than other arenas, the way the ramps are set up. It's still got that same old smell from back in the day. I'll be sad to see it go."

7. Take one last walk up the ramps.

The concept of walking up curved ramps is not necessarily unique to Mellon Arena, but architects rarely incorporate them into new sporting arenas like Consol Energy Center, slated to open next year.

"The new one," said Jay Roberts, general manager of Mellon Arena, "will have elevators and escalators."

6. Check out the CLO stage.

Notice the bunker lounge under the West Igloo Club lounge, especially when entering from Gate Three.

"One of the things that I think is one of the neatest areas in the building is the West Igloo lounge. It still has the trussing supports visible that were used from the Civic Light Opera," Roberts said. "When you're in that lounge, that's where the CLO stage was — and it was the stage from the original performances."

5. Sit in Section F

As a visiting NHL player and assistant, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma always wondered what it would be like to watch a game from the vantage point that Section F gives fans high atop Mellon Arena.

"If I was a fan, I'd want to sit in one of the balconies," Bylsma said. "There's not a lot of buildings that have over-hanging balconies. It's unique."

Penguins president David Morehouse also is fascinated with Section F.

"You can actually touch the dome," Morehouse said. "You're looking down at the ice, and you hear the sound of the crowd echo."

Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, a longtime Penguins season-ticket holder, said he purchases extra tickets there.

"That's probably the best, lowest-priced seat in the league," Colbert said. "It's really right on top of the action. The vantage point is awesome."

4. The retractable roof is ... closed?

The dome was designed for the roof to retract in two minutes, but Mellon Arena hasn't opened all the way for an event since a World Wrestling Entertainment show in 1993 — which was followed by fireworks — and hasn't had more than two leaves open at a time since 1999.

Part of the problem is the workload involved in opening it, because the roof supports all of the 3/8-inch-thick ring cables from which everything hangs from the ceiling, including the Jumbotron. Taking down the ring cables would require using a 150-foot crane. They then would be curled and tagged because they have to be returned to the exact same spot, as their lengths flow with the dome's curve.

"To realize that it's a dome and the Penguins actually played in a place that they call The Igloo, it's pretty unique," right winger Bill Guerin said. "I would've loved to have seen it with the roof open. That would be cool."

3. Speaking of the scoreboard...

Because the roof can't support a bigger scoreboard, the Penguins placed decals on the roof for advertising, one creative way to compensate for the 8-by-10 screen's limited video capacity. The scoreboard at Consol Energy Center won't be much bigger, but the video screen is expected to be two to three times greater on every side.

2. It's a banner season.

What stands out about the Penguins is they are the only organization to recognize their Most Valuable Player and NHL scoring award winners with banners hanging alongside their divisional, conference and Cup champions.

That's because the Penguins have 13 of the past 21 scoring champions, including 2009 champion Evgeni Malkin, and MVPs in Mario Lemieux (1988, 1993 and 1996), Jaromir Jagr (1999) and Crosby (2007).

"That's our distinction," Penguins Vice President of Communications Tom McMillan said. "We have had an unbelievable amount of great players who have come through here. This is the only arena that has banners for that."

The banners were rearranged to accommodate the Cup championship.

"It's one of those nights you remember for a long time," said Guerin, who won the Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. "It's a special night. Hopefully, it's a night where we can start our season off on the right foot."

1. Take one long look at The Igloo.

Mike Lange, the Penguins' radio voice, laments that an indelible image will be lost when games move to Consol Energy Center.

"I'm a little disappointed we didn't build another Igloo because it's so distinguishable," Lange said. "It's an eye-opener for players walking up from the city. Kids are in awe if it snows and they've never seen the arena."

Bylsma agrees that Mellon Arena stands alone in its design.

"We have a beautiful new building and I can't wait to get into it, but when the dome is not here, it'll be an odd feeling driving to this part of the city and not seeing it," Bylsma said.

"There will definitely be something that's missed because of the dome. It's certainly a unique building, and a lot of the unique buildings are going by the wayside, so it's sad to see that."

Look out, Loretta

Jay Roberts, Mellon Arena general manager, hopes to attract a few more big shows, including a World Wrestling Entertainment event and several concerts, "to send the old lady on her way at the very end." Here's a look at events at Mellon Arena in its final year:

• Today: Penguins raise Stanley Cup championship banner in regular-season opener against the New York Rangers, the start of their final season at the arena.

• Nov. 29: Star Wars in Concert, a multimedia event with a live orchestra and choir performing music from all six scores by John Williams.

• Dec. 2: The City Game, between Pitt and Duquesne, marks the final college basketball game at the arena. "We're hoping to get a lot of the former greats down to honor them," Roberts said.

• Dec. 11: Doo Wop Holiday Reunion Show VIII, with The Drifters featuring Charlie Thomas, Gene Chandler, The Duprees, Emil Stucchio and The Classics, Kenny Vance and The Planotones, Lenny Welch, The Marcels and Kathy Young.

• Dec. 16: Trans-Siberian Orchestra will play two shows, at 3 and 8 p.m., featuring its Christmas-themed rock opera.

• Dec. 26: The Harlem Globetrotters make their final visit to the arena. The world-famous basketball showmen first played in Pittsburgh in 1961, the year the arena opened, and have played the day after Christmas every year since 2002.

• April 8, 2010: Penguins host the New York Islanders in final regular-season home game.

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