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Finding Heaven in Steel Town

by Archives March 3, 2009

Growing up in Montreal, being a fan of any other NHL club is sacrilege. It’s foolish folly. During playoffs, it’s a death wish. If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, you should just go ahead and walk around town with a paper bag on your head.
But growing up just two blocks away from Mario Lemieux’s old house in Ville-Emard presents an interesting dilemma.
A big piece of my heart will always belong to the Montreal Canadiens of old – the Jean Beliveau’s, the Maurice Richard’s (I wear a 9 pendant around my neck in tribute to him), the Ken Dryden’s. The glory days. But I simply can’t hide it anymore – I grew up a Penguins fan, through and through.
Mellon Arena, or the “Igloo” as it is affectionately dubbed, is home of the Pittsburgh Penguins; and the oldest rink in the league. It opened in 1961 as the Civic Arena, originally for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. When the Penguins came to be in 1967, they took over the Igloo. The rest is history.
But Old lady Mellon is being torn down next year in favour of the new Consol Energy Center, a much-needed upgrade for Captain Crosby and his funky bunch. While Mellon will always be the House That Mario Built, his legacy is stepping aside to make way for the new era, and the Temple That 87 Built.
An old soul at heart, I knew I couldn’t go without ever seeing Mellon Arena. The Penguins are a franchise I’m determined to work for one day (sooner rather than later), and this was a huge part of their history.
So just like that, tickets to the game vs Montreal on Feb. 19 in hand, I grabbed my best travel buddy and a big hockey fan (my dad) and we were on a plane to Steeltown.
I had always heard Pittsburgh was absolutely insane with pride over their Steelers, which is no surprise. In the same way an old-time Montrealer will speak fondly of our 24 Stanley Cups, a Pittsburgh native will get teary eyed when discussing prodigal son, Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
You don’t even have to leave the airport to know you’ve landed in an NFL twilight zone. The Delta airline desk is covered in Steelers photos, signs, and even a yellow and black lei. After exiting the gate and descending just one escalator, a larger-than-life replica of Franco Harris making “the catch” is on proud display.
As I would later learn, ask any local Pittsburgher about The Immaculate Reception and they’ll get extremely emotional. The Immaculate Reception was conceived in a playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 23, 1972. While many locals would vehemently argue that there is much more to the story – in short, Steelers’ running back Franco Harris made an incredible catch, ran like hell, got the touchdown and won the Steelers’ the game – they didn’t even win the Superbowl that year. They just won the game.
After pausing for a picture with Franco “Jesus” Harris, it was time to explore Steeler City on the shuttle to our hotel.
Despite having two of the brightest young stars in the league and a roster comprised of young, exciting players, the Penguins are taking a backseat to the Steelers (maybe rightfully so) and, as hard as it is to imagine, NCAA basketball. Everywhere around town, Steelers memorabilia is hung and displayed with pride. Every person I passed in a mall had some form of Steelers paraphernalia on them – gloves, hats, toques, jackets. Pitt University sweatshirts were a dime a dozen. Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward are on bus shelters, license plates, car windows, houses, everything. Sidney Crosby can be found on a small bus shack poster in West End, proclaiming what a great day it is for hockey. Across the centre of his Penguins crest is a messily written “Steelers rules!”
It’s strange to think the Penguins are talked about so much more in Montreal than they are in Pittsburgh. While Montreal is indisputably Hockey Mecca, it feels as though the Penguins should be a pretty big deal in their hometown, with the talent they possess on their roster.
Upon opening Friday’s issue of USA Today, however, I got my answer as to why. There on the fourth page of the sports section was a small picture of a Penguin player outmuscling a Hab. That’s all there was. Just a picture, and a stat saying the Penguins had won the game 5-4. Hockey will always take a backseat in America, while it’s the driving force in Canada.
Pittsburgh is big city living, small town style. Everyone is remarkably friendly, chatty, and if they don’t know you by name already – they want to. The steel mill days have been done and over for more than 35 years, yet every single local I talked to – from kids aged seven or eight to adults in their 80’s – had some very strong connection to one of the many steel mills that Pittsburgh is known for. It’s a classic, blue-collar, friendly town, and it’s easy to see how a guy like Sidney Crosby from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia can find a home in the comforts of Pittsburgh.
While quiet and humbling, perhaps striking is the sheer amount of hills that are in the city. It’s deceiving that something literally half a mile away could take you over 40 minutes to drive to, for the sheer fact that you can’t go in a straight line to your destination. Instead, you have to swerve and curve along multiple winding roads until you twist your way to your destination, often flustered and slightly frightened. This Montrealer was stuck to her seat, and that says a lot.

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