The Mellon Arena/Civic Arena/Igloo has hosted its final regular season hockey game. The Penguin management did a tremendous job recognizing the many players, coaches, general managers, and other personnel that have meant so much to the team since it started to rent the building in 1967. I attended my first game on December 18, 1971. My girlfriend at the time and now my wife, Sharon, and I went to see a game against the Boston Bruins, a team loaded with talented players including Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. In fact, that Bruin team went on to win the Stanley Cup that season. The Penguins lost that night 4-3. Two new Penguin fans were born. We went back again a week later on Christmas Day to see the Montreal Canadians. The Penguins were dominated in that game by the likes of Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, and Guy Lafleur. But Les Binkley was tremendous in goal and the Penguins won 4-2 — their only victory through a 17-game span in December and January of that season.
My favorite game in the early years took place on November 22, 1972. The Penguins were playing the hated St. Louis Blues. Trailing 4-3 going into the third period, we were chanting “Bar-clay” to razz the most hated Blues player, Barclay Plager, while the Penguins were scoring seven goals — including what is still an NHL record — five goals in two minutes, seven seconds. Bryan Hextall and Jean Pronovost scored to give the Penguins the lead, and one minute, 40 seconds later, Al McDonough, Ken Schinkel, and Ron Shock scored in a span of 27 seconds. We sat in C-22 at the time – what now is the back end of the Igloo seats (ticket price – $6.50). The fans were literally dancing in the aisles and hugging each other while watching this tremedous feat. Listening to the goal calls on the radio post-game on the way home, Joe Forney’s description of the fourth goal in that stretch of five was a simple, “There’s another one by Schinkel!”
Those early years did not include much playoff success. The 1975 playoffs started on a positive note. The preliminary round was the best of three and the Penguins beat the Blues two straight. Next up — the NY Islanders. The Penguins had a 3-0 series lead. The Islanders changed goalies from Billy Smith to Chico Resch and made history as they became only the second NHL team to come back from a 3-0 deficit. Game seven of that series was at the Civic Arena. The game was scoreless late in the third period. Jean Pronovost was injured and the air started to leave the building. Eddie Westfall scored, and the Islanders won the game 1-0, and the series 4-3. That was the first of the three most disappointing playoff goals that I witnessed at the Mellon Arena. The second was that of Keith Primeau in the five overtime loss to the Flyers in 2000 – the longest game ever played in the Arena. The most disappointing goal was scored by David Volek of the NY Islanders in overtime of Game Seven in 1993 that prevented the Penguins from winning their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
The early 90′s produced the first two Cups and some playoff goals that were greatly celebrated. My favorite two came in the same game — Game One versus the Black Hawks in the 1992 finals. The Pens were trailing when Jaromir Jagr took the puck along the boards and skated through the entire Black Hawk team to put the Penguins back in the game. Mario Lemieux’s goal in the final seconds created maybe the loudest cheer in the history of the building. There are too many Lemieux goals that are tied for second best for me — I don’t want to get started naming them – I wouldn’t know where to stop.
My favorite single play in the Mellon Arena was Darius Kasparitis’s bone-crunching check on a hated Flyer, Eric Lindros, that knocked him out of the game. I could watch the replay of that hit 1,000 times and still want to see it again. Back then, I asked the hockey gods that Lindros would never win a Cup and he didn’t. I have asked the same for Ovechkin.
The 1990 All-Star weekend, we stayed at the Hyatt and ran into hockey celebrities at every turn. We rode on the elevator with Wayne Gretsky and his wife, Janet. My wife was wearing a photo pin of our older son in his hockey uniform, when a woman asked her, “Does your son play hockey?” Then she said, “Mine does, too.” When my wife asked who her son played for, she said, “The Penguins. I’m Kevin Stevens’ mother.” Time in the lobby of the Hyatt with an intoxicated Gordie Howe and Walter Gretzky was priceless. The weekend was capped off by a four-goal MVP performance by 66.
The night that the Penguins honored and said good-bye to Badger Bob was also a very special night for me. He meant so much to the Penguin fans, in such a short period of time, which tells the tale of his greatness as a coach and a person. That is certainly an emotional night I will never forget.
The Penguins are about to start their last playoff run at the Mellon Arena. Hopefully the best memory of the Mellon Arena is yet to come. That’s the last regular season view from E-11. Next season the view will be from 207.
Note — A family favorite Mellon Arena experience was when my older son, Jared, stopped Mario Lemieux on a breakaway in a youth skills game when he played goalie for the Armstrong Squirts.
Note — I want to thank Mario Lemieux for all that he has done for the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh. Without him these memories would have ended long ago.