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Roy MacGregor

Ode to the Igloo Add to ...

It's a bit early, at 34, to have a "bucket list," but Mark Fortier knew time was fast running out.



Not for him, but for the 49-year-old arena he had never seen but which held just about every good memory he has of hockey.



The elevator representative from Quebec's Eastern Townships wanted to see "the Igloo" with his own eyes before she is gone.



His wife, Bridgette, gave him the plane ticket; he found a game ticket for $250 on eBay.com; the nice woman at the front desk of the Marriott switched his hotel room so he'd be overlooking the Mellon Arena (as the rink is formally named); and he simply walked into the old barn - American NHL franchises being far more relaxed about such things, as opposed to the fortresses Canadian teams play in - and watched his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins practice.



It had to be this day, as theoretically yesterday could have counted as the last hockey game to be played at The Igloo - were the Ottawa Senators to win and later eliminate the Penguins by Game 4 in Ottawa. Not likely, but Fortier felt he could take no chance.



"I'm a life-long fan," he said. "I started cheering for Mario [Lemieux]when I was a kid and now I cheer for [Sidney]Crosby.



"I had to see the Igloo once before they tear it down."



It is something to watch. NHL and hockey media people are swooning as they come out of their tours of the new Consol Energy Center across the road, but ordinary fans are almost in tears as they come to say farewell to the most recognizable hockey rink in North America.



The Igloo was an engineering marvel when it opened in 1961, a stadium with a retractable roof that could be opened or closed in less than three minutes. It was not built for hockey but for, of all things, the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera company.



The publicly-funded $22-million (U.S.) venue was an engineering marvel, but an acoustical failure. The hope was to hold concerts with as many fans gathered on the outside lawns as inside, but when they opened the roof and sang, the words seem to float off into outer space.



By the late 1960s, the building was home to hockey and concerts featuring everyone from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones. (Rumour has it Bruce Springsteen will close the place down with a concert - The Igloo being as much a favourite of rock fans as hockey fans.)



The roof is no longer opened, as it requires taking down the giant scoreboard that hangs from it. The last time it was fully opened was 1995, during the first NHL lockout, for the filming of Sudden Death, a rather unmemorable action movie.



But it is still, at nearly half a century, a beautiful building to behold.



The exterior does indeed look, especially when it snows, like an igloo. The Penguins took their name from the building rather than the other way around.



Inside, the sense is of standing beneath a giant spider. Everything about it is different from today's standard NHL rink: Long, graduated ramps instead of escalators, narrow corridors, cramped concessions, limited suites, some of the sitting so convoluted and steep it has been suggested the rink employ Sherpas to direct people to their bright orange seats.



I was here for Lemieux's triumphant return on Dec. 27, 2000, from a 44-month retirement and cancer battle. Nearly 10 years later, the sound of the crowd's roar that night is still ringing in my right ear. I was not here, unfortunately, the New Year's Eve back in 1988, when he scored five goals against the New Jersey Devils, each one its own creation: one even strength, one on a power play, one short-handed, one penalty shot and one into an empty net.



But the most memorable of all nights here had nothing to do with the Magnificent One or even the Current One (Crosby). It was all about a spunky little goaltender named Ron Tugnutt.



On May 4, 2000, the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers began playing Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semi-final.



It did not conclude until well into May 5.



This being in the lazy, hazy, relaxed and reasonable days before the Internet turned sports reporting into the short-order cooks of journalism, it was fascinating to sit and watch as overtime after overtime arrived and deadline after deadline passed - until at one point, roughly around 1:30 a.m., there were no newspapers left to file to and, for once, those who write about hockey games actually got to sit back and watch how one ends.



Some time around the third overtime, people began to wonder just how long a hockey game had lasted, and the PR department quickly handed out sheets listing the 10 longest overtime games.



We sat there ticking them off as the clocked ticked on. Fred Cook's goal that lifted the New York Rangers over the Montreal Canadiens in 1932 - gone; Lorne Carr's winner for the New York Americans over the Rangers in 1938 - gone; Maurice (Rocket) Richard's marker that gave the Habs a win over the Detroit Red Wings in 1951 - gone. …



This game seemed destined to be played forever and ever and ever. Alexei Kovalev had scored on the first shot of the game against Philadelphia goaltender Brian Boucher, but now the shot clock showed more than 100 combined and the game was still tied 1-1, with Tugnutt, as they say, "standing on his head" in the Pittsburgh end.



The records kept falling. Cameras picked up shots of children asleep on a parent's lap, but no one left the building.



"This is epic, boys! Epic!" Flyers backup goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck shouted at his teammates from his spot at the end of the bench.



They ran out of drinks in the press box and someone went downstairs and returned with a case of bottled water. "Broadcasters first!" came a yell down the hall, and all those who wrote for a living stood back and let those who talk for a living go first.



The announcement was made: it was now the "third-longest game ever played." But then, at the 12 minute 1 second mark of the fifth overtime, Keith Primeau got away a shot that went in over Tugnutt's shoulder.



It was the 72nd shot he had faced that night. It was 2:35 a.m. His shift was over.



Primeau stood later in the dressing room, his entire body shaking, and said the thing he remembered most from the moment was how "quiet" the rink was.



But not these days, not with 17,132 fans - including Mark Fortier of Melbourne, Que. - in the stands, cheering their Penguins on as they defend the Stanley Cup they won last year.



And not with hundreds of thousands more who have come here over the years wanting to give one last roar of appreciation for one of the game's great personalities.



The Igloo.

 

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