When hockey fans think of the Mellon Arena – which will be replaced by the Consol Energy Center beginning with the 2010-11 season - the Pittsburgh Penguins immediately come to mind. In its 42 seasons as home to the Penguins, the former Civic Arena played host to four Stanley Cup Finals, the NHL All-Star Game, and saw Penguins greats such as Syl Apps, Pierre Larouche, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Tom Barrasso, Kevin Stevens, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin grace its ice.
But hockey had a following at the arena before the Penguins were even hatched.
The Pittsburgh Hornets were a mainstay in the American Hockey League from 1936 to 1956, playing their games at the Duquesne Gardens in the Oakland section of the city. The club won a pair of Calder Cup championships during this time (1951 and 1955) and served as the primary affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings first (1936-45) and later the Toronto Maple Leafs (1946-56).
However, a city wide redevelopment project spelled the end for the Duquesne Gardens in 1956, and the Hornets found themselves without a home for the next five seasons.
The Hornets returned to the city in 1961 with the opening of the Civic Arena, playing the first professional hockey game at the new building on October 14, 1961. During the next six seasons, the Hornets twice captured the West Division title, and finished off their second run with a third Calder Cup victory, sweeping the Rochester Americans in the 1967 finals.
National Hockey League expansion saw the Penguins replace the Hornets as the hockey tenant at the arena starting in 1967, but a handful of AHL games featuring the Penguins’ minor league affiliates were staged at the building over the years – including two Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins games.
The AHL Penguins dropped a 3-2 decision to the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks on February 3, 2001. A crowd of 9,111 (the largest home crowd in AHL Penguins history) saw future Pittsburgh defenseman Andrew Ference (pictured) netted a pair of first period goals for the ‘home’ squad. The Ducks’ Jay Legault tied the game early in the second period, and Jarrett Smith provided the deciding goal 33 seconds into the third, with an assist coming off the stick of Sean Avery.
The following year, the Penguins and Cleveland Barons played to a thrilling 4-4 tie in front of 8,605 fans. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton jumped out to a 3-1 lead after less than 22 minutes of play, on goals by Tom Kostopoulos, Jan Fadrny and Tomas Surovy – the last two coming just 15 seconds apart in the opening stages of the second period.
Cleveland tied the game after two frames on goals by Joel Prpic and Jeff Jillson. The Barons took their first lead of the evening with just over five minutes remaining in the game when Jonathan Cheechoo beat netminder Sebastien Caron for his 20th goal of the season.
But Surovy was the Penguins savior, scoring with the goaltender pulled and just 11 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime.
Fittingly, the AHL Penguins paid tribute to their distant league relatives, wearing special Pittsburgh Hornets throwback uniforms during their two trips across the state.
Check out a photo gallery of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins games played at the Mellon Arena by clicking here.