The Pittsburgh Penguins made a lot of history when they were playing on the other side of Centre Avenue.
They won three Stanley Cups while based there. Muddled through a couple of bankruptcies, too. Fact is, innumerable professional triumphs and personal tragedies were linked to the place alternately known as the Civic Arena and Mellon Arena.
Several generations of Penguins partisans had their hearts lifted — and sometimes, their spirits crushed — in that building between 1967, when the franchise was born, and 2010, when operations shifted to Consol Energy Center.
And while the Arena was a place where countless memories — some sweet, some sour — were made, they are just about all that’s left from those days. The building had outlived its usefulness, and met a predictable end — Demolition, followed by reincarnation as a parking lot/construction site.
It had been a one-of-a-kind building: Round, with the first-ever retractable roof on a sports venue.
But the days when venues were unique — no one would confuse the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., with Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, or Philadelphia’s Spectrum with the Checkerdome in St. Louis — have slipped into the mists of hockey lore, replaced by multi-purpose facilities that are long on creature comforts and short on character.
Some of the places that used to house NHL teams, including Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, have been repurposed, but most have been removed and replaced. The Met Center, for example, occupied some of the space now filled by the Mall of America.
Identifying which buildings from the past are the most memorable is, of course, totally subjective. The list that follows is limited to venues in which the writer actually witnessed games, which is why historic facilities such as, say, the Corral in Calgary and Detroit’s Olympia did not receive consideration.
5. Winnipeg Arena
On a typical mid-winter night, the temperature in Winnipeg generally hovered about 20 degrees below absolute zero, and that was without factoring in the wind-chill.
Consequently, simply providing a place to escape from the cold might have been enough to get Winnipeg Arena a spot on this list.
But while the first incarnation of the Jets (the post-World Hockey Association version, anyway) was relatively forgettable, its home base wasn’t.
The arena’s most striking feature had absolutely nothing to do with hockey: It was a painting of Queen Elizabeth II that was hanging in the rafters at one end of the ice and covered about as much acreage as the average Manitoba wheat farm.
But what really set the building apart from most was the crowd. The fans were extremely knowledgeable — it was obvious most had been steeped in the sport from childhood — and, more strikingly, genuinely appreciative of good hockey plays.
They preferred that the virtuoso performances they witnessed come from, say Dale Hawerchuk or Thomas Steen, but they would recognize, appreciate and applaud even the most sutble show of greatness by a visiting player. (Including Mario Lemieux, on those extremely rare occasions when he made the trip to Winnipeg.)
4. Le Colisee (Quebec)
For an Anglophone, Quebec always seemed like the most exotic stop on the circuit.
The city has a decidedly European feel, perhaps because it is ancient (by North American standards) and includes a protective wall that has stood for centuries. And it was distinctive because French was the language of choice for the overwhelming majority of the population.
That certainly was the case at Le Colisee, where visitors who did not parler francais might have been a bit baffled by public-address announcements that a player had been guilty of “baton eleve” or had been credited with a “but” on a deflection.
While the fans were passionate and well-versed in the game, the building itself was fairly pedestrian, which might be why its most striking feature was not directly related to hockey.
When the Nordiques were in operation, cigarette smoking appeared to be one of the premier participatory sports in La Belle Province, and the smoke in the concourses of Le Colisee during most intermissions was thicker than an early-autumn fog.
And that was true in any langue.
3. Boston Garden
The Garden was in service long before the NHL made 200-foot-by-85-foot rinks mandatory, and the playing surface there made a telephone booth seem spacious for opponents who had to cope with the talent and toughness of the home team in its Big, Bad Bruins days.
Like many older venues, the Garden had its share of obstructed-view seats; end up in one, and you could expect to see a whole lot more of a steel pillar than Bobby Orr or Cam Neely.
The concourses were narrow and jammed, and simply getting to the press box could be a bit of a workout. People headed there had to stoop to get through a short passageway that led to the press box. The effort was worth it, because the press box offered a superb view of the ice, which included a neutral zone with dimensions similar to those of a Manhattan parking space.
Given that the Garden was located not too far from the water, it wasn’t unusual to spot a few rodents in the bowels of the building. Some looked to be roughly the same size as the Garden’s most famous Rat, Ken Linseman.
The arena was not air-conditioned, and the home team was claimed by some to pump heat into the visiting locker room when the Bruins were playing deep into spring. (The stifling conditions there added to the scene when, after an overtime loss in Game 2 of the 1991 Wales Conference final, Kevin Stevens stood in the center of the locker room wearing a sweat-soaked dress shirt and vowing to wave after wave of reporters that the Penguins would rally from a 2-0 deficit and win the series. Which they did.)
2. Chicago Stadium
Legend has it that the national anthem was performed before every Blackhawks game at the Stadium, but that’s never been confirmed because no one ever heard a note of it.
The cheers would begin before Wayne Messmer delivered the first note, and continue long after the last. That the arena’s ceiling was exceptionally low — a few feet lower, and some Chicago Bulls might have bounced shots off of it — only enhanced the waves of applause.
The same was true of the Stadium’s massive pipe organ, which could make one’s kidneys quiver when tunes like “Here Come the Hawks” were being pounded out.
However, not all recollections of the building are related to sound. The Stadium was the last NHL arena to have an analog game clock, which was quite eye-catching, and players had to climb steps to get from the locker room to ice level.
And the area around the building was so dangerous at the time that security personnel routinely advised media members who were waiting on cabs to stand inside the press entrance (Game 3 1/2) rather than venturing out to the curb.
“Madhouse on Madison,” indeed.
1. The Forum (Montreal)
It was, quite simply, the game’s consummate cathedral. If occasional visitors who cared about hockey could walk into that building without having the hair on their necks stand up, it would be a good time to summon the medical examiner.
The seats were wooden, the legends omnipresent. Some, like Jean Beliveau, could be found in the crowd. Others, like Howie Morenz, were the ghosts of Canadiens greatness gone by, credited with haunting opponents and helping to manufacture on-ice miracles for Montreal.
It was said in those days that hockey was a religion in Montreal and its environs, but that wasn’t really true. The people there took hockey a lot more seriously than that.
Canadiens games at the Forum weren’t just sporting events; they were social gatherings. Men attended in suits, not replica game sweaters, and women wore their finest attire.
Trying to navigate the hallways when a game ended was like trying to get around midtown Manhattan during rush hour, but the effort needed to get to the Montreal locker room was always worth it, if only for a glimpse at the famed excerpt from “In Flanders Fields” posted above one row of stalls. Always good for a spine tingle or two.
Montreal, as a city, is much more bilingual than Quebec, but evenings at the Forum still had a decidedly French cast, which only enhanced the experience. The fabled hot dogs served in the press room there would have been delectable under any circumstances, but seemed just a bit better because they were chien chaud.
The ghosts, who may or may not still reside in the entertainment complex that now fills the shell of what had been the Forum, surely wouldn’t have had it any other way.