Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Old Barn

As we embarked on another season of hilarious volleyball action, we actually got into a bit of a serious conversation on the bench. With Yankee Stadium closing officially this past weekend, we talked a little about the older stadiums and arenas still standing amongst sports. There was talk of Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, and Madison Square Garden as being some of the more famous "old barns". And it led me to start thinking of places like the old Boston Gardens, Maple Leaf Gardens, Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, and the Detroit Olympia. There aren't very many places left in the NHL world that have the aura and mystique of these grand old facilities. And with each passing year, more and more get wiped off the face of the planet.

Currently, the oldest arena in the NHL is Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, and its days are numbered. The arena can hold 17,231 people for hockey, and certainly rocks when the Penguins are winning. Affectionately known to Penguin fans as "The Igloo" due to its domed shape, the Mellon Arena was originally built to house the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and not sports. The Opera needed a new venue due to being rained out at the open-air Pitt Stadium too often, thus the Pittsburgh Civic Arena was built for a cost of $22 million in 1961. The dome is rarely opened today, and this option allowed the Opera to play under the night sky.

Complaints about the acoustics prompted the Opera to move out in 1968, and the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins moved into the Civic Arena, ousting the long-time successful Pittsburgh Hornets of the AHL. It has played host to the 1990 All-Star Game, and the NHL Finals three times: 1991, 1992, and 2008. In 1999, the Penguins signed a ten-year, $18 million agreement with Mellon Financial to rename the arena as the Mellon Arena.

All in all, this is one of the most unique arenas in the history of the NHL, and the last game to be played in the Mellon Arena will take place in 2010.

The third-oldest arena is one that really deserves better, despite hosting an abysmal team and having a total lack of television exposure. The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was opened in 1972 amidst some tenant controversy.

The WHA's New York Raiders were to be the WHA's flagship franchise based in the Big Apple. However, Nassau County didn't consider the WHA to be a professional league, and prevented the Raiders from moving into the newly-constructed arena. Nassau County and William Shea worked with the NHL to secure a franchise, and the NHL hastily awarded an expansion team to Roy Boe situated on Long Island, forcing the WHA's Raiders to play at Madison Square Garden in the shadow of the NHL's New York Rangers.

Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum sits on 63 acres of Mitchel Field, a former Army and Air Force base. The arena seats 16,234 patrons for ice hockey, and actually has the smallest seating capacity of all the NHL arenas. The arena was called "Fort Neverlose" by Islander fans during the Islanders' run of four Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1984. Recently, it has been given the moniker of "Nassau Mausoleum" due to the deteriorating state of the building and the long losing streak of the Islanders.

Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was built for $31 million in 1972, and there have been recent "redevelopment" plans proposed. One included having a sixty-story office building erected to look like a lighthouse, something similar to the Islanders' alternate logo. However, this idea was downsized by Islanders' owner Charles Wang and a consortium of businesses.

Why is it that great ideas to make an arena unique, like the one the Islanders had, are killed off by people who can't see that the venue is just as important as the team on the ice?

People go to Fenway Park to sit in the bleachers amongst the history of the stadium. Yes, they go there to watch the Red Sox play, but I guarantee you there are a lot of people who go there just to say they saw the Green Monster in person.

It's the same thing in Wrigley Field in Chicago. People go there to see the ivy on the outfield walls, and to sit in the seats that their parents and grandparents sat in while watching the Cubbies. The curse, the agony, the history of the Cubs makes them lovable, but the venue plays a huge role in why the Cubs are one of the much-loved teams in Major League Baseball.

With the current NHL arena designs looking similar in nature, it seems that the aura and mystique of the old arenas are being lost. The old pipe organ of Chicago Stadium no longer plays the familiar hockey tunes we used to hear. The intricate designs of the old arenas, along with the old movie theater-style signs, made for unique arenas that carried a certain aura with them. And I feel we're losing the mantra that comes with some of the hallowed arenas of the past.

Places like the Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, and Boston Gardens used to make players cringe when they walked into the arena, knowing that they were playing a star-studded team. The fans sat much closer than they do today, so the "sixth man" played a huge role in the game. Players had to walk up and down a flight of steps to get to the ice surface in the old Chicago Stadium, something that a lot of players hated during an overtime playoff game. Walking up and down the stairs on skates was dangerous, to say the least, and players hated it.

"You had to go from the dressing room up about 17 or so stairs to the arena and the ice surface," Darcy Rota, a member of the Blackhawks from 1973-79, said to Evan Weiner at NHL.com. "It was very unique. I don't know any other rink that had that arrangement. The atmosphere in that facility... you would walk up and the noise would get louder and louder and it was very spine-tingling. It was a special place to play."

That's what I'm talking about. The entire atmosphere of the arena would get inside the players, building confidence and generating excitement. The fans would respond to the cheering by cheering louder, adding to the hysteria exponentially. The sights and sounds of the arena made the place an incredible place to play for the home team, and an intimidating, scary place for opponents.

But it's no longer that way. And I miss it. Can't we go back to the way it was?

This is something that Pittsburgh needs to consider in their designs. The nuances and aura that will be lost by moving out of the Mellon Arena need to be worked back into the new arena. Otherwise, the Penguins will be playing in a cold, cement building. Not an arena... just a structure made of cement and metal. And that's too bad.

Don't follow the cookie-cutter arena design, Pittsburgh. Build flashy. Make it fun. Do it differently. If you build it, they will come. Oh, they will definitely come. And isn't that what this new NHL is all about?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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