The plane broke through the clouds and bounced down on the tarmac. Gray skies, chilly wind, general gloomy weather? Yup, I was back in Pittsburgh in December.
The last time I attended a live hockey game in Pittsburgh I was a young college senior with dreams and a full head of hair. The Pens head coach, Kevin Constantine, was making bankruptcy jokes and German Titov was prominently featured in the line-up. Pittsburgh beat the Washington Capitals, 3-0, that night in the Civic Arena aka The Igloo. Tom Barrrasso stopped 24 shots for the shutout while Jaromir Jagr, Stu Barnes and Alex Kovalev netted the goals for the Pens. I was a neophyte hockey fan enjoying my first live game outside of Florida. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the first hockey game I ever attended where I wasn’t wearing shorts.
A few days shy of sixteen years later a lot has changed. The Pens are in a new arena, both them and the Lightning have hoisted the Stanley Cup and I’m a beaten down, bald middle-aged, part-time blogger. But, hey, Jagr is still on the ice scoring goals.
How did I end up in Pittsburgh on an overcast December Monday? Well, mostly because I missed the chance to see the Lightning play in Chicago this year. I was kind of bummed out that I wouldn’t be seeing the Lightning play live so I took to the internet to see if they would be anywhere that would be feasible for me to see a game.
After a quick search I noticed that they had back-to-back games in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on a Monday and Tuesday night. A few of thoughts popped into my head:
1. I usually have Monday and Tuesday off
2. Link lives in Pittsburgh
3. Link is a die-hard Penguins fan with season tickets
4. Philadephia is but a short 5 hour drive from Pittsburgh
5. Plane tickets are almost cheaper than going to a game in Chicago.
A couple of phone calls and some internet searching later, the plan was in place. As an added bonus it looked like it was going to be a pretty good match-up. Two Eastern Conference leaders facing off against each other. Sidney Crosby facing Steven Stamkos. A kind of prime time audience (well an audience that can find NBC Sports/Versus/Outdoor Network on their TV dial).
Then Sidney Crosby had to go and catch the mumps. It kind of deflated the atmosphere a bit. Say what you will about him, he is the best player in the league and you should take any opportunity possible to see him play live. So I was kind of bummed that I would miss out, but also kind of glad because it gave the Lightning a better chance of winning.
As a matter of fact, due to mumps and other maladies the Penguins line up would feature such luminaries as Bryan Rust, Andrew Ebbett and Brian Dumoulin. Even Link, a Penguin fan for over 30 years, joked that he might need a program to figure out who was on the team. Unfortunately, noted Lightning-killer Evgeni Malkin had yet to come down with measles so he would be on the ice.
I’ve attended a handful of Lightning road games and have always worn a Lightning sweater. One of the nice things about being a Lightning fan is that they don’t generate a lot of hatred in opposing arenas. It’s not like I was planning on wearing a Steelers jersey into the Black Hole in Oakland. Still, as a grown man who has survived 38 years on this earth without a major fight under my belt I was a bit wary.
Pittsburgh is a passionate town. They love their sports (there is a statue of Franco Harris in the airport) and they love their Penguins. They love black and gold, I mean they really, really, really love those colors. So it was with a little trepidation that I donned the white 86 "Kucherov" jersey and jumped into the car for the ride in. One thing we had going for us is that we’re not small guys.
Driving into the downtown area where the new arena is located it quickly became apparent that fellow Lightning fans would be few and far between. The sidewalks were filled with black and gold. The only blue to be found was in powder-blue form from the Penguins former third jerseys. However we parked and headed into the Consol Arena without any issues.
The Consol Energy Center is one of the newer buildings in the league and it is definitely in much, much better shape than the old Igloo (the star of Jean Claude Van Damme’s epic "Sudden Death") I remember from the old days. First of all, the team store was gigantic. It’s like they built the building around the store. If you wanted a Marcel Goc jersey, you didn’t have to wait for them to print one up. It was available in white, black or gold right off the hanger. T-shirts, hats, bobbleheads (don’t forget the special Christmas edition Iceberg the Mascot bobblehead) and various knick-knacks of all kinds could be purchased before you head up to your seats.
After purchasing a Steve Downie T-shirt for a friend we went up to our seats. After taking a couple of escalators to the upper concourse we walked around before going to our seats. The most unique feature (at least to me) is that you don’t walk up to your seats, you actually walk down. It gives you the feeling that the ice is below street level even though you’re three levels up. Other than that the arena is like a lot of other ones in the league. Loud music, big video scoreboard, and good sight lines from all of the seats.
I didn’t find the fans any more passionate or vocal than typical hockey fans. I don’t know if it was the news that Crosby was out, or the fact that a major accident was delaying traffic into the city, or that the Lightning dominated play for the first 15 minutes, but it took the crowd a long time to get into the game. The fans in our area were polite but not overly vocal about what was happening on the ice.
No one around me said anything about my jersey, in fact after Ben Bishop left the game I kind of became a source of information. (Thanks to all of the Lightning fans/beat writers on Twitter!) The closest thing to a negative comment was walking into the building when someone said, "Look at this guy! Who the h*ll is ‘Kucherov’?"
As for the Penguins sweaters in the crowd, Crosby and Malkin were definitely had the best representation with Mario Lemieux (Link’s choice for the night) coming in third. It was nice seeing some other names from Pittsburgh’s past like Bob Erry, Steve Sullivan, Max Talbot and Matthew Barnaby (if it had been a Lightning Barnaby jersey I would have taken a picture with the guy). I don’t recall seeing any Jagr jerseys in the crowd, I guess they’re still a little bitter about his returning to the NHL with the Flyers.
I can say with pretty much 100% certainty that I was the only person wearing a Kucherov jersey. In fact, for most of the game I was wondering if I was the only one wearing a Lightning jersey period. However, as the game went on we did spot at least four Stamkos jerseys sprinkled among the crowd.
I’m sure you know the details of the actual action on the ice (how Marc Andre Fleury wasn’t the number star is beyond me). The Lightning played well but seemed a bit deflated after Bishop left. Fleury made several key stops that kept the Penguins in it until Rust and Dumoulin put the game away with their first career NHL goals. Former Lightning forward Steve Downie was all over the ice, picking up a goal and an assist in his sixteen minutes of play. He also had six hits and blocked three shots while only taking one questionable tripping penalty (somehow hooking 6’6" Victor Hedman on the hands is considered tripping).
Overall it was a fun place to watch a game although I would say that there was nothing that stands out at unique. If you are in Pittsburgh and can find a ticket (Monday was the 350th consecutive sell out for the franchise) I would say go to the game. However, it feels a little too generic of an experience to consider it a bucket list/ must see experience.