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“Mr. High School Sports” – Editorial: It’s Not the Place, It’s the People

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

For all my tendencies toward a photographic memory, I often suffer from selective amnesia. I’m the first to admit sometimes I have a hard enough time recalling what I had for breakfast this morning.

I know in my heart I’ll never forget Monday, no matter how hard–or how little–I try. Because I’ll always remember Sept. 26, 2011 as the last day the Civic Arena could be seen in full tapestry before demolition crews do their duty.

It’s always interesting to hear the different memories that come flooding back whenever someone says “Civic Arena,” or “Mellon Arena,” or “Igloo.” It was the home of concerts, graduations, professional wrestling, indoor soccer, indoor football, and, of course, the Penguins.

Aside from being there with my father, God rest his soul, to see Lemieux and Jagr each score their 50th goals of the season on the same night, my fondest memory of the old arena is associated with scholastic hockey, something its chief tenant has proudly sponsored for many years.

Many Pittsburgh-area youngsters have dreamed of playing on the same sheet of ice as Mario, Sid, Geno, and Flower. I, on the other hand, knowing I couldn’t skate to save my own life, dreamed of sitting in the same spot in press row as the legendary Mike Lange and then-simulcast partner Paul Steigerwald when I was a kid, and calling games. It’s awfully fitting the old KDKA broadcasts of Penguins hockey served as a major inspiration for me to pursue that dream, isn’t it?

Several years ago, I got to live it. For a previous job, in a previous life, I got to handle pre-game, color commentary, and reporting duties for the PIHL’s annual Penguins Cup Championship Series live from Mellon Arena. I will always be thankful for that.

But the fun didn’t end there. This past spring I had the privilege of broadcasting the first-ever Penguins Cup Semifinals from CONSOL Energy Center, and I proudly covered the Penguins Cup Finals days later from the new arena as “Mr. High School Sports” on 937thefan.com.

As was the case when I sat high atop The Igloo, I can honestly say that’s some of the greatest fun I’ve ever had.

That’s why I slept well last night, and that’s why I won’t shed a tear when the Civic Arena ceases to exist altogether.

On November 13, 1999 I went with some relatives to Cardiac Hill to see Pitt beat Notre Dame in front of a national TV audience. It was a more sobering victory than usual, because we knew it would be the last ever in Pitt Stadium.

As we were walking back to my uncle’s SUV, he said, “It isn’t the place, it’s the people you’re with.” He was right.

It isn’t the building itself that makes the memories. It’s the people who work, play, and visit. People like the executives of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, the coaches who grant me access, the players who give me something to crow about, and the spectators, young and old, who give the building life, to say nothing of the Penguins organization. With that in mind, I know I’ll have plenty more memories to share at CONSOL Energy Center, if last spring was any indication.

As nice as it would have been to see the Civic Arena preserved, I’ve accepted the fact that its demolition is what’s best for the city’s future. The Penguins have outlined a comprehensive plan for developing that land–which is in their name, and is, therefore, their prerogative to recycle–thereby creating more jobs and further stimulating the local economy. Despite its historic significance and architectural splendor, the Civic Arena has served its purpose.

It has been a part of our lives for half a century. By no means am I exaggerating when I say that a good portion of my family wouldn’t even exist if not for the Civic Arena, so Monday was probably even more meaningful to them than it was to me.

But it’s time to let the Civic Arena rest in peace. I have enough faith in the people of Pittsburgh to know that, in time, CONSOL Energy Center, as state-of-the-art in its time as the Civic Arena was in its own, will do proudly by our civic pride and eventually occupy the same place in all our hearts.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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