Pens, Steelers forge productive partnership
Not long ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's trips to Pittsburgh were designed to tout the city as a hockey town and the Penguins as an important franchise that needed a new arena to survive.
Tuesday afternoon, after a news conference at Heinz Field to laud the New Year's Day Winter Classic, Bettman paused to reflect on a particularly pleasurable sight - Penguins icon Mario Lemieux and Art Rooney II, the man in charge of football's flagship family ownership group, sitting next to one another on a stage.
"We've always believed in Pittsburgh," Bettman said.
He suggested local sports fans have reasons to believe in the franchises that won the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup in 2009, calling the Penguins and Steelers tag-team "special."
Rooney, the Steelers' president, praised a strong partnership with the Penguins for helping bring the NHL's white-hot event to the stadium that houses a six-time Super Bowl champion.
In fact, he expressed no qualms about skipping the Steelers' regular-season finale at Cleveland on Jan. 2, 2011, for the tradeoff of watching the Penguins and Washington Capitals play an outdoor hockey game the previous day.
"I know there is going to be some campaigning from some of the guys on the team to hold back those buses a little bit so they can come to the game," he said. "A lot of our guys have become Penguins fans."
Most Penguins players adopt the Steelers as their favorite team after joining the franchise. Matt Cooke has become a fixture at Heinz Field if his schedule permits, and Pascal Dupuis laughed while playfully correcting a mistake about the Pittsburgh Classic.
"They keep saying we're playing in a football stadium," he said. "We're playing in a football state, and that will make an unbelievable atmosphere for this game."
Event emcee and Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick offered condolences for Kaye Cowher, wife of former Steelers coach Bill, and John Barbero, the longtime PA announcer for Penguins home games. Two blows for two teams that share family-first approaches and championships formulas.
Lemieux, who declined comment, kept his head bowed a few beats longer than his stagemates upon hearing Emrick's remarks. He also shared a few private laughs with Rooney.
Upon his hiring as team president in May 2007, David Morehouse set about forming a bond between the Penguins and Steelers - teams for which he rooted while growing up in Beechview. That summer, he led a Penguins contingent to Steelers training camp and they were greeted by director of football operations Kevin Colbert, a Penguins' season ticket holder.
Colbert watched the news conference from behind a media riser, beaming over the prospect of Styx's "Renegade" being played to pump up the Penguins as it is for the Steelers.
Rooney said he believes the Classic will show a "different side of Pittsburgh" during what Morehouse pledged will be a weeklong "winter carnival" leading to the game. Aside from the official Classic logo and event-specific emblems for the competing teams, only a few new details were revealed by Morehouse:
» A "Day for Hockey" could include AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton joining youth, high-school and college hockey teams playing at either Consol Energy Center or a secondary outdoor rink.
» All of the NHL Awards trophies, on loan from the Hall of Fame, will be displayed for a day.
» An in-development attraction for children at the convention center.
Of course, the Classic game will be the main attraction.
"It's going to be great," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "We've had the chance, a lot of us, to play in one already. To get one at home is pretty special, especially here. Most of us have been to games here, watching football, so this is going to be a pretty neat experience."
2011 Winter Classic Press Conference
2011 Winter Classic press conference at Heinz field Tuesday, July 27, 2010.
Lemieux, Crosby test Consol ice
The Penguins' new arena was christened Tuesday with a brief skate by owner Mario Lemieux and star center Sidney Crosby.
The franchise icons were the first two people to test the ice surface at Consol Energy Center.
They exited different doors on the Penguins' bench so their skates would touch the ice simultaneously.
'That was pretty special,' Crosby said.
Lemieux and Crosby skated for five minutes before they were joined by a group of children.
• Rob Rossi