Less than a year from now, my traditional winter home will more than likely be lying under three feet of its own rubble. The once proud metal dome will probably be taken away for recycling, reduced to cans or building materials or even some phat rims by this time next year. My favorite bright orange seat either auctioned off to someone richer than I for a few thousand dollars or beneath the concrete, rebar, and remnant plastic beer cups.
Tonight marks the beginning of the end of an era.
There will be people who will speak of the good ol’ Igloo in dismissive, even angry, tones of voice. There are people who for years have been calling for the building to be put out of its misery and offered as a sacrifice to the Hockey Gods that we may move on and prosper in greener buildings and, if we are lucky, greener pastures.
As right as these people may have been, I shudder to see my old home torn down. Then again, I’m much more sentimental than most. I’m sure at least a few of the Pens fans reading this will already be asking “Why do you care? Things are going to be so much better across the street! This place is a dump!”
Yes, it is a dump. But, dammit, it’s my dump. Hell, it’s our dump.
Since I was but a toddler, when my mother had the foresight to bring me to my first Pens game during Lemieux’s rookie season, this dump has been my home.
My mother, excited that her son would at last be interested in a sport (I showed no favor for baseball, football, or basketball), continued to bring me to the Igloo after that first night. I loved the game, she loved the game before I was even born. It was the first real thing that we could do together on common ground. It was the first thing we were both actually interested in, meaning that it wasn’t Muppet-related, animated, or written in an ABAB rhyme scheme in 24 pt. Times New Roman.
For those first few years, we would go when we could. Tickets weren’t exactly hard to come by back then and you could easily pick up a pair for a few measly bucks at the box office as you walked up to the building. At first, we went on giveaway nights where advertising included the phrase: “The first thousand kids through the door receive” a Pens gym bag, or a stocking cap, or a teeny, tiny youth jersey made of t-shirt material. Most of these collectables I still have. My mother has kept them. She would never throw anything Pens related away.
Our attendance grew into a habit.
We were seating mercenaries, taking whatever we could get that was cheap. As a result, I can say that I’ve sat in almost every section of the Arena. I’ve seen every view (even the partially obscured ones) of the ice that you can see in that building.
Within a few years, we had purchased a 10-game roaming ticket plan. 10 games, guaranteed, but they moved your seat every time.
Soon after, we purchased a partial season, curtailed our gypsy ways, and settled down in good old E-16.
Over the next few years, we watched the team grow. We made friends in that section with whom we are still close today. We watched their kids grow up, graduate high-school (at least 6 years behind me), move on to college, get lives. These people were invited to my wedding. These people are family.
Eventually, we left our original row when the prices started to go up. We moved to the top of E-14 and only spoke to our friends in between periods. Of course, we made more friends in our new seats. When you’re sitting next to the same person for sometimes 4 nights a week, you wind up talking and, most of the time, becoming friends.
Regardless of where we sat, it was always me and my mom. We loved the Pens. We held our breath together when Mario would be on a breakaway. We screamed and railed together when Jay Caufield would drop the gloves. We cried together when we beat Boston in the 1991 Wales Conference Final. We cheered together when they raised the first Cup banners a year later. We cried together again soon after when we all held light-bulb candles and stood silent to mourn the great “Badger” Bob Johnston.
Our experiences at the Arena were defining moments for my strong relationship with my mother. We lived half of our lives there in the fall, the winter, and if we were lucky, into late spring.
If trick-or-treating fell on a game night, I would have to finish my rounds quickly so we could get to the arena to catch the drop of the puck (still in costume). If there were a game on New Year’s Eve, we wouldn’t be at the party until around 11 o’clock (games ran much longer back then).
We were season ticket holders for 12 years by the time I came to graduating high school. I was going to be in art school and had a lot of night classes. My mother and I had a long conversation regarding the possession of our season tickets. I told her that I didn’t know if I could make a lot of the games. She agreed that it might be foolish to hang on to them when we couldn’t go together. My mom banded together with one of the ladies we used to sit near. Her husband had died and she continued to come to the games and, eventually, offered my mom her extra ticket permanently.
After school was all said and done and the lockout had come and gone, my future wife and I decided to get our current partial season tickets in E-17. We’re section neighbors with my mom and her friend and we go to dinner with them before every home game we have tickets for.
I doubt any of the traditions of the game will change when the Igloo finally breathes its last.
The team will play on, the crowd will pour in, I will still retain my partial season, my mom and her friend along with myself and my wife will continue to have dinner. But, the atmosphere will be different. Maybe better, maybe even more comfortable (because those Mellon seats are damn narrow), but still different.
The floors will be too new; not yet stained by the salt of four-decades of winter, the spills of a billion beers, or the floods of victorious or sorrowful tears. It will be plain and will smell like new plastic and upholstery. It will be virginal and untouched. It will have no character of its own.
I suppose, however, the character is where this generation of Pens fans comes in. We may be losing a large member of the Pens family when the Arena empties for the last time and is dropped to the ground shortly thereafter, but it is our job to care for the newborn across the street. It’s going to be our task to make sure that the Console Energy Center gains enough character in the many years to come. It will be our job to bring our children into the fold so that they, too, can bond with us over hockey. When I am graced with children, I can only hope that I grow as close to them in this new facility as I did to my mother all those years ago.
I will miss my old winter home when it’s gone. More than likely, I will cry on demolition day as if a piece of my heart has been destroyed.
I do, however, look forward to the new place across the street, all the new memories we’re going to make, and all the future banners we will raise within those walls.
Hoist those banners high tonight, boys. Let them fly inside the belly of the Mellon for one more year. This year, we need to rock that place so hard that they won’t need explosives to bring it to the ground.
Welcome back to Hockey Season, Pittsburgh.