Pitt has own locker room in Consol Energy Center

Tony Jovenitti | August 25, 2010    

Although the Consol Energy Center was built for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Panthers will have a home there, too. Although the Consol Energy Center was built for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Panthers will have a home there, too.

In addition to the Penguins locker room, the visitor’s room and two auxiliary locker rooms, Pitt and Duquesne will have their own locker rooms for when they play games at the new arena.

Pitt’s room has a small changing area and a larger meeting room with blue carpet and gold walls. This is just one of the nuances that make Consol Energy Center one of the most unique arenas in the country. Sure, it was built for hockey, but Tom McMillan, vice president of communications for the Penguins, said that hockey games will only account for about half the arena’s events.

It hasn’t even opened yet, and there are already 15 non-hockey events planned, including some of the biggest acts in music such as Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, George Strait and an inaugural pair of concerts by Paul McCartney.

McMillan said that some of those tours would have passed over Pittsburgh in the past because Mellon Arena couldn’t handle it.

The first thing you notice when entering the bowl of the arena is the gigantic center scoreboard. The screen of the JumboTron is bigger than the entire scoreboard at the Igloo.

“That’s because the roof at Mellon Arena couldn’t hold any more weight,” McMillan said. “That’s why Mellon is the only building of its kind. Nobody wanted to build another roof like that because it couldn’t hold much weight.”

When the Igloo was built in 1961, concerts just plugged into electricity and that was it, McMillan said.

“They didn’t ever envision [these big shows] happening,” he said.

Other than constructing an arena fit for big-name concerts and spectacles, McMillan said they had to make it unique for Pittsburgh’s market and for hockey. They studied other hockey teams’ arenas, many of which have recently built new venues.

“The good thing about going last in the arena building was that we got to look at all the other arenas and steal some ideas,” he said. “But we have to make sure it is right for our market, and since the anchor tenant will be a hockey team, [it] was designed for hockey.”

He said the building planners looked primarily at Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center, Colorado’s Pepsi Center and Phoenix’s Arena.

But they also had to take into account that they were building it into the side of a hill.

“It’s an 80-foot drop from Centre Ave. to Fifth,” McMillan said, citing the two streets between which the arena sits.

Once the shape and size of the building were decided, they started planning all the unique aspects of the building, one of the most important of which is the rings of gold throughout the arena.

Nearly all of the 18,087 seats are black, but there are some rows that are gold. This was one of the main ways to give it a Pittsburgh touch.

“That way if you see a shot of the empty arena, you know instantly what city you’re in,” McMillan said.

Another unique aspect is that both the upper and lower concourses are open the entire way around. So if the play is still going, you don’t have to wait to return to your seats to watch the game. There are even long drink tables along the concourses where fans can stand and watch the action.

But even when fans are in line to buy refreshments, they don’t have to miss a second of the action, because there are 800 televisions throughout the building.

There will be standing-room-only seats along the open concourses, but not all the way around, McMillan said.

“That would defeat the purpose of an open concourse,” he said.

One thing that planners had to carefully decide was how many suites to build, and they had to think for the Pittsburgh market.

“Sure, we are on top right now,” McMillan said, referencing the Penguins’ recent success, “but we had to think economically for the long term. We could have sold more suites and made the arena bigger, but we think we found a good balance.”

He said that the New Jersey Devils double-stacked their suites when building the Prudential Center, because they can sell that many with the New York City market.

The Penguins settled on 66 suites — Mario Lemieux’s number — and they all sold out last summer.

“It’s big, but not too big,” he said.

The same goes for the Penguins locker room, which has a large oval shape, a silver dome roof that is reminiscent of the Igloo’s.

The players’ lounge next door has video games and a refreshments bar. The hydra room has a hot tub, a cold tub and a submersible treadmill for guys who want to run but can’t take the full impact of running on the ground. The weight room has a 25-yard strip of AstroTurf for players who want to sprint before the games. In Mellon, they had to do it out in the hallway and run past all the beer kegs and dodge workers.

“The NHL has a salary cap that says how much we can pay the players, but they don’t say how much we can spend on them,” McMillan said. “We try to treat our players as best as possible.”

“Word will get around about how well we treat our players and it might help in the free agency market when players are deciding between two teams offering similar salaries,” he said. “[Former Penguins defenseman] Gary Roberts came on the alumni tour a few weeks ago and said that if this was here two years ago he wouldn’t have retired.”

Part of the arena, the gate along Centre Avenue, will be open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Inside will be the Penguins team store, which is much larger than Mellon Arena’s Pen Station, the box office and the Trib Total Media All-Time Team, featuring 15 of the greatest Penguins with interactive video touch-screens.

Though it’s clearly an NHL arena, all of the new amenities caught the attention of the NCAA.

Pitt will be hosting the SEC/Big East Invitational when it plays Tennessee there in December, and McMillan said they are planning to host the City Game between Pitt and Duquesne there every year.

“Hopefully this will allow Pitt to have some bigger events here,” he said. “Maybe a team like Kentucky won’t want to come play at the smaller Petersen Events Center, but they may want to play here.”

The last Pitt regular season game against a non-conference perennial powerhouse was played at Madison Square Garden in New York when Pitt defeated Duke in overtime in 2007.

According to McMillan, the new arena might be a perfect fit for the Penguins, but co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle wanted it to be a home for Pittsburgh’s other sports teams as well. Thanks to them, Pitt fans might be able to watch Duke in Pittsburgh soon, rather than traveling to New York.

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