It’s impossible to walk down Penn Avenue or through the South Side and not think about how rapidly the city of Pittsburgh is changing. Where there once was a humming, smoking, cork-cutting factory, there are now trendy lofts with foyers of exposed steel. Where once there were union bars and Polish bars and parish bars with Straub Light on tap, there are now hotspots with $15 cover charges and strobe lights.
As our city moves on, with or without us, there’s still one place that hasn’t changed much since the Kennedy administration. It was built for the Civic Light Opera in 1961, partly by funds from Edgar J. Kaufman, owner of the Pittsburgh-born Kaufman’s department stores – which have, of course, like everything else in the city, been repainted, rebranded and ‘red up.
The new opera house was built on a hill with 2,950 tons of stainless steel made right here in the Steel City, back when we made such things, and although the arena’s silver, half-moon dome housed many rousing chorus’ over the next five decades, they weren’t often operatic. The genteel crowds at Pittsburgh’s Civic Audotorium prefefered arias like “Let’s Go Pens” and “We Want the Cup.”
Despite having modest accomodations – like uncomfortable seats with the kind of unreasonable, tangerine, plastic upholstrey favored by Western Pennslvanian grandmothers – our humble opera house even entertained aristocrats, like Lord Stanley. Three times, actually.
Bow to your king, Capitals fans.
Of course, the Civic Arena never really was an opera house. In fact, it never really was the “Civic Arena” at all, nor was it the “Mellon Arena” after it too was rebranded. Ever since the 60s, when the Pittsburgh Hornets first skated out onto the ice in leather mittens and Christmas sweaters, the opera house on the hill was known as the Igloo, home of Hockey Night in Pittsburgh.
But that didn’t mean the Igloo didn’t have its fair share of music. Organist Vince Lascheid entertained Penguins fans for 33 years from a cranny high atop the area – way up near the roof. When a big bruiser like Ulf Samuelsson would be sent to the penalty box to mull his indigestions, Lascheid would play the theme from Dragnet. If the pun-loving instigator disagreed with the call, he would serenade the referees with “Three Blind Mice” to the delight of 17,000 puckheads.
Laschied, like Myron and Kaufman’s and the original cork factory and the real South Side, is gone. He left us in March at the age of 85. It sure seems like we’re saying a lot of goodbyes here in America’s most livable city. Seems like we’re replacing the skeletal monuments of every riverside machine factory with a Cheesecake Factory.
Even the Igloo is set to melt away after this season. It’s time. After all, the arena is the oldest in the league. But fans will certainly miss its shabby charm. When the Penguins move into their new $321 million home across the street, and the so-bad-their-good stadium nachos are replaced with teriyaki skewers and French microbrews, and the stale funk of the Igloo is replaced by the new car smell of the Console Energy Center, we will miss our old friend.
Sure, the paint on the walls is literally chipping, but if the Igloo’s walls could talk, they would have the smoky rasp of Mike Lange, and they’d tell us old stories – like the one about Bugsy Watson, a Penguins defenseman from the early ‘70s who once played a practical joke on former head coach Red Kelly by hijacking the team’s hotel shuttle bus – standing Kelly at the airport and taking the team on a joyride around Los Angeles.
Or maybe a few late-night stories about hard checking, harder drinking winger Kevin Stevens that aren’t fit to print. The Igloo has many stories to tell, and every Penguins fan has their own. I have mine.
It was February 1992, and the Penguins, defending Stanley Cup champions, were hosting the hated New York Rangers. It was snowing buckets and the black and gold pilgrims were trekking up Centre Avenue and Washington Place. If you were alive in 1992, I don’t have to tell you that three-quarters of the men had mullets – which were tumbling out of their snow caps and down the back of their Starter jackets and Jamomir Jagr jerseys.
Most male hockey fans in 1992 looked like they were guitar teachers, even if they held an office job. But that’s the thing about hockey fans – especially Penguins hockey – it’s always been the furthest thing from a boy’s club.
The omnistone hill leading up to the gates of the Igloo was filled with street saxophonists improvising tunes through winter gloves and kids with air horns and grandmas with homemade signs that taunted the Rangers with “1940” (the last year that the Rangers had won the Stanley Cup, at the time). Female “puck bunnies,” sporting improbably frizzy bangs brandished their own homemade signs – ones that beseeched the similarly coifed Mr. Jagr to marry them.
As the crowd marched up the hill, they chanted a chorus of “Go Home Ran-gers” through the falling snow.
Inside the arena, Penguins fans of all stripes – from truck drivers to CEOs to school teachers – spent the next two hours living and dying with every cross-crease pass, every hip check and scrum. There were no long TV timeouts or corporate sponsorships to muck up the proceedings. Just three periods for each and every fan to live vicariously through every check – imagining the bad guys in the blue and red to be their boss, or their 4th grade math teacher, or the guy who cut them off on the Parkway West.
During the third period, a puck careened over the glass and slipped right through my grasp, causing a free-for-all for the bouncing souvenir in the row behind me. A mustachioed gentleman spilled a plastic cup of I.C. Light all over me in an effort to grab the stray puck. He eventually came out of the pileup with the puck, and held it up for the Jumbotron cameras.
A minute later, he tapped me on my drenched shoulder, and said, “Hey, buddy, I’m sorry about that. Let me make it up to you.”
I turned around expecting him to give me the puck. Instead, in his extended hand was a plastic cup with the frothy remains of his I.C. Light. I looked at my father, who shook his head, then looked back at the mustachioed gentleman, who was wearing a sweatshirt that said Sophie Masloff for President.
“Put some hair on your chest,” he said.
I was eight years old.
And if you don’t believe that story, then you clearly have never been to the Igloo before the Sidney Crosby revolution, when the real characters that used to inhabit the place were slowly priced out.
Even in Pittsburgh, things change. But the heart of this city will always remain.
Thanks to the new arena and owner Mario Lemieux’s loyalty, Hockey Nights in Pittsburgh will live on. When Penguins fans in Crosby jerseys or loosened ties emerge from the Liberty Tunnels and the skyline explodes in their windshields, the silver dome of the Igloo may not peak out from the valley behind the skyscrapers. But right next door, there will still be organs and cotton candy vendors and overwhelming heartbreak and silver-haired grandmothers pounding the Plexiglas, imploring goons to drop the gloves and get it on.
While the Steelers define Pittsburgh’s culture, the Penguins and their fans are an entire separate subculture – a unique slice of the city that will live on long after the Igloo is turned into a parking lot. Or a Cheesecake Factory.
Enjoy the last season in the Igloo, before Elvis leaves the building for good.