Mario Lemieux wasn’t one of the featured speakers during Tuesday’s 2011 NHL Winter Classic press conference. The Penguins’ owner chose to let others do the talking – local politicians Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato; NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman; Penguins President David Morehouse; Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney; and Washington Capitals President Dick Patrick.
But, as Lemieux sat on the podium at Heinz Field, looking cool in a light-colored suit and dark sunglasses as the sun beat down on a sweltering day in his adopted hometown, the importance of what was happening in Pittsburgh today was surely never far from his mind.
The Winter Classic press conference took place just over three years after the Penguins – then on the verge of relocating – announced a deal to build a new arena that would keep the team in the city long-term. Since then, Sidney Crosby has blossomed into a full-fledged superstar, Pittsburgh has won its third Stanley Cup, and that new, state-of-the-art arena has been completed and will host its first events in just a few weeks.
“It’s a far cry from when [Bettman] first came into the city and our battle was whether the Penguins would even stay,” said Allegheny County Chief Executive Onorato. “We can’t thank [Mario] enough for, in the Penguins’ darkest hour, standing there and making sure we all stayed focused on doing whatever it took to keep the team here.”
Adding to the significance of the day, and just how unlikely all of this seemed just a few years back, Lemieux and Crosby departed from Heinz Field to christen the ice surface at CONSOL Energy Center, stepping out from separate doors on the Penguins bench so that their blades hit the fresh sheet at the same time.
“I think it was pretty special for all of us,” Lemieux said. “It was a long time coming. We worked hard to get this accomplished. I’m glad we were able to do this today.”
The opening of the new arena already raised the city’s profile for the coming season, but the Winter Classic will provide an international showcase for the region, showing anyone who still visualizes Pittsburgh as a steel town just how far it’s come.
“We’ve been going through a transformation here in our city, a very positive one,” said Mayor Ravenstahl. “And, in large part, our national image is changing because of the positive exposure that we realize through our sports teams.”
As has become a Winter Classic tradition, the overall event will reach far beyond the single game on New Year’s Day.
“It’s going to be a week-long celebration of Pittsburgh and hockey in Pittsburgh, celebrating youth hockey, high school hockey, college hockey as well as the Winter Classic,” Morehouse said.
Other speakers mentioned a free Spectator Plaza, which will be available to the public in the days surrounding the event, and the playing of outdoor hockey on local ice rinks.
As for the game, it will be the Penguins’ second appearance in a Winter Classic, Washington’s first. Crosby, who won it for Pittsburgh the first time around with a shootout goal at Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium on New Year’s Day 2008, remembers that game as a unique experience.
“It was kind of crazy, a wild goal,” Crosby said. “I don’t remember a lot about it; I just remember not being able to see the puck much. It was snowing, it was cold, it was everything the Winter Classic was built up to be, and a pretty amazing opportunity to win it like that.”
There’s also the rivalry, of course, hand-picked by the NHL and NBC as another opportunity to showcase these two teams with their long and adversarial history, their star-studded lineups and their gifted young captains, Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.
For the players, though, it will be a balancing act of taking in the experience while not losing sight of the precious regular-season points on the line.
“I don’t think the rivalry can get any bigger or be more intense, but this will be a good test for sure,” Crosby said. “It’s a good storyline, and we’re fortunate to play in it and get these opportunities. As a player, you try to enjoy all of it, take it all in and, most importantly, win it.”