Home Sweet Dome
For a half-century, Pittsburgh’s iconic Mellon Arena, an engineering marvel and shining symbol of the city’s post-war renaissance, has hosted championship teams, all-stars, icons and legends. Now, the landmark is ready for a swan song of its own. Join us for a last look back at life under the dome we called home.
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Let the Games Begin
The term “multi-use” is sometimes overstated, but not when it came to sporting events. No fewer than a dozen professional sports franchises called the arena home: roller derby in the 1960s, roller hockey in the ’90s, four different minor-league basketball franchises and not one—but two—professional lacrosse teams.
But when it came to unique pro sports, nothing topped World Team Tennis (WTT), the brainchild of Pittsburgh native Chuck Reichblum.
“It really caught on. Many times, our headlines were above the Pirates in the morning paper.”
Legends such as Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert graced the hardcourt at the arena, often playing with the roof open underneath the stars. The Triangles’ top two players were Vitas Gerulaitis and Evonne Goolagong, who helped consistently draw crowds by the thousands.
But unlike the normal tea-and-crumpet tennis scene, the paying audience at WTT matches was rowdy. Shouting during serves, jeering opponents and booing poor plays were not frowned upon. In fact, that behavior was encouraged.
“We wanted it to be a sport where fans would pull for their team and root against the opponent,” Reichblum says. “People would yell and scream, even when players were serving.”
The Triangles won the league championship in 1975, but the novelty of team tennis quickly wore off. By year three, crowds had diminished, and the franchise was hemorrhaging money.
In the midst of the final season, team owner and legendary local businessman Frank Fuhrer provided some foreshadowing in a 1976 Sports Illustrated story. “If the league folds,” Fuhrer told S.I. writer Myron Cope, “I’ll take my whipping like a man. I’ll have my pretty green Triangle blazer and my championship ring to show for the million that I lost.”
Fuhrer was a soothsayer. After the ’76 season, Pittsburghers could no longer heckle tennis players at the arena because the Triangles folded for good.
Basketball has always seemed to play rhythm guitar to football’s lead around western Pennsylvania, but during the arena’s half-century in operation, hundreds of thousands of hoop fans went to see basketball of all sorts.
The University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University played many intense games there during their Steel Bowl/City Game rivalry, once with an NCAA berth on the line in the 1981 Eastern 8 Tournament Championship, which Pitt won.
The Harlem Globetrotters dribbled circles around the Washington Nationals there more than 40 times. And from 1963 to 1984, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) basketball championships were held at the Civic Arena, too.
One Sport Reigns Supreme
Throughout the course of five decades, arena-goers witnessed a myriad of different sports, including boxing and wrestling. But there was only one game played underneath the arena’s gleaming dome every single year: hockey.
The AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets were the building’s first regular puck-slapping tenants. They had modest success playing to smaller crowds until, unfortunately, their last season in existence. In the spring of 1966, the National Hockey League awarded Pittsburgh an expansion franchise, making the ’67 season the Hornets’ last. They went out with a bang. In the final game of the league championship series, sparsely toothed team captain Billy Harris scored in overtime, then skated around the arena proudly displaying The Calder Cup for everyone to see.
During the 1970s and ’80s, empty orange seats were a common scene at Pittsburgh Penguins games, especially during the 1983-84 season, when the Pens won just 16 of 80 games. But their futility was rewarded with the first overall pick in the 1984 NHL draft and future Hall-of-Famer Mario Lemieux.
It’s simply impossible to mention all of the “Mario Moments” witnessed inside The Igloo in just one article. From jaw-dropping feats like five goals five different ways in 1988 to one-upping Wayne Gretzky in the 1990 NHL All-Star Game, no individual performer lit up the arena’s crowds like Super Mario.
In addition to resurrecting the franchise as a player in 1984, he eventually bought the team and fended off numerous outside investors, keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux played his final season in 2005, coincidentally “passing the torch” to Sidney Crosby in his rookie year. One November night that season, a sellout crowd gleefully witnessed the two playing together before watching Crosby make history. The game against Montreal ended in a tie, which brought on the recently enacted “shootout.”
In his first game against a Canadian team, Crosby made a Lemieux-like move and roofed a backhand goal, winning the game and sending the crowd into delirium.
“We’ve been very blessed in this city … to have the best player in the game every year,” says former Penguins head coach Eddie Johnston. “We had Mario, then Jags and now Sid. Some franchises go through a lifetime and never get one player like that.”
Moving the Stanley Cup champions into a sparkling new facility to match their spectacular play makes perfect sense; in fact, it is long overdue. The Consol Energy Center will markedly improve the fan experience, but it faces stiff competition to match its predecessor’s character. And characters.
“Many people still remember a guy named Tiger Paul,” says local hockey historian Jim Kubus. “He used to run through the stands at hockey games, sweating through his shirt and tie. At basketball games, he would run up and down the court, upstaging the cheerleaders. I doubt people like that will be running around at the new arena.”
Over the years, you never knew what you would run into at The Igloo. You could be an extra in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh one day, then go see Harry the Whale the next.
“Harry the Whale was this heavy-set guy who always sat in the balcony at Penguins games,” says FSN’s Paul Steigerwald. “At a certain point in every game, organist Vince Lascheid would play 'The Gong Show’ theme, and he would get up and do this wild dance. The whole place would go nuts.”
In 10 years, if you ask a thousand people in this region what they remember most about the arena, you’ll get a thousand different responses. That’s the true legacy of the building. Whether it’s the dome, the Pens or that Grateful Dead show in ’73, people will speak fondly of the arena for years to come.
“There was no other building in the United States like the Civic Arena, and I think that’s what it will be remembered as—a unique facility where a lot of great memories were made.”
Craig McConnell is a coordinating producer for FSN Pittsburgh. He recently produced “Spotlight: The Igloo,” a half-hour documentary about the history of the Civic Arena.