One hockey fan's journey to the arenas of North America
UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Rink 1 - Home of the USHL Fall Classic
September 27, 2018 - Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh is best known in the hockey circles as the home of the NHL's Penguins. In 2015 the aforementioned NHL club, and team owner Mario Lemieux were instrumental in opening a state of the art practice facility about 20 minutes north of the city. UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex serves primarily as the practice home of the Pens, but also plays host to local hockey programs, and even a couple ACHA college teams. This season, for the second time, the USHL brought their brand of junior hockey to the Pittsburgh area, in what proved to be an exciting 4 day showcase of the top junior circuit in the U.S. The arena is a twin pad facility sitting in a commercial area near stores and hotels, and is modern, yet utilitarian in design. The complex features a full sports medicine facility, complete with doctors and therapists as well as a vast workout gym in addition to the ice facilities. The on site parking lot filled up quickly for this event, and with all 17 USHL teams in town to start their regular season, the place had a buzz about it. The exterior of the building features brick, glass, and metal all designed to give a modern look. A large Pittsburgh Penguins logo and sign sits over the main entrance to the building. Portions of the building facing the highway also feature red brick with banners honoring the team's Stanley Cup achievements. Rink 1 at the facility is the same ice pad the Penguins use for practice, and is the one with the larger seating capacity. The USHL Fall classic attracted quite a crowd of both spectators and scouts, and with a weekend admission price of $40, or a day pass price of $25 fans had the opportunity to watch 3 to 4 games each day if they wished. Although primarily a facility used for youth hockey and local skating programs, this arena was a big stage for some of the best prospects in the hockey world. The first game of the weekend that saw Rink 1 in use was the 2pm game featuring the Madison Capitals and the Des Moines Buccaneers. It is unclear if this facility will end up as home of a high level junior team, and it seems to have a busy schedule as it currently stands now. Still, the idea of having every single USHL team playing at the same facility over a 4 day period is a fantastic opportunity for East Coast hockey fans who are able to see these teams in action without making a trek half way across the country to places like Sioux Falls or Kearney, Nebraska. Despite the simple facility which seemed undersized for such a big time event we were happy to be able to enjoy hockey of this magnitude in a location far removed form the Midwestern roots of the USHL.
Fans entering UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for the USHL Fall Classic found a busy main lobby where they could purchase their tickets. USHL signage was evident to the right as a scout sign-in and media area was set up. The arena had a large screen over the information desk previewing upcoming events. To the right is a nicely stocked Penguins team store as well as a makeshift USHL merchandise store selling overpriced shirts and the like to fans on hand. Rink 1 is to the left of the main entrance, but before heading into the rink we had time to look around the lobby, which is complete with some interesting touches. At the main glass wall next to the entry door is a display of smaller scale Stanley Cup replicas paying tribute to the Pens championships. A coffee shop is set up in the main lobby near the main information desk, and the food concession is set up cafeteria style just off the end of Rink 1. The arena does not sell any soda as they stand behind the claim of being a sports medicine and health facility. The lobby has a high ceiling which extends up to the second level of the building, and the wall above the coffee shop bears the Badger Bob Johnson quote "It's a great day for hockey". Clearly the building honors the Penguins tradition, including a museum quality display case honoring Mario Lemieux, complete with skates and a team jacket from his bantam days, and a jersey from his time in the Q with Laval. Entry to Rink 1 can be made either at ice level in the corner of the rink, or via the upper level, which comes out above the grandstand. Although no specific capacity is listed for Rink 1 the venue is listed as having "1500 combined seats" and we would guess Rink 1 has 1000 and Rink 2 500 or so seats. The ceiling is relatively high, and seating is comprised of 10 rows of black plastic benches on concrete risers. A chair rail seating row was above the grandstand and filled with scouts from nearly every NHL and NCAA Division 1 program. The team benches are opposite the grandstand, with penalty boxes being on the seating side. A pair of scoreclocks are present in the arena, one on each end wall. The walls and interior are complete with Penguins gold and black colors, and large banners representing the team's 5 Stanley Cups hang on the end wall. The entire seating area is protected by netting making viewing a bit tough. There is also seating in the lobby near the restaurant which has a row of chairs at a counter overlooking the end of the rink at ice level, which was also full of scouts there to check out the talent on hand. UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex is everything you would expect a building designed to be a NHL training facility to be, and served as a good, albeit crowded, home for the top junior players in America to compete on an important stage.
The game day presentation for the USHL Fall Classic at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex was run by the league, and was efficient yet professional. There were no ancillary activities at intermission, and announcements were kept to a minimum. Starting lineups were announced but there was no National Anthem played for any of the games all weekend, something we found odd for a league whose first to letters in their name are "U.S.". The sight lines in rink 1 were better than in rink 2, although the netting is annoying and the railings seem to get in the way a little bit depending on where you may be seated. A large crowd was on hand occupying most of the seats and standing room available. The PA system was loud and crystal clear, and music was played during stoppages. The arena itself, although new, has the atmosphere of a place that is home of the Penguins. The Pens colors, signage and memorabilia throughout the building add to the feel that this is the Penguins home. An oil painting of Penguins legend Mario Lemieux is on display in the upper lobby near the stairway in addition to the other team items on display throughout the building. The on ice action was awesome all weekend, with elite level players playing for their regular teams in games that meant something in the standings. This game ended up with Des Moines taking a 5-2 win over Madison. With the games at a neutral site 1000 miles from most of the teams in the league there was not a whole lot of fan atmosphere or noise made by the fans. This event was set up to accommodate the scouts, who were plentiful in numbers. We could see a NAHL team working well in this building, or, if seating were expanded, even a USHL team as Youngstown is only an hour or so down the road and would create a natural rivalry. Pittsburgh is mainly known as a football town, but there is a rich hockey tradition in the area, and lots of hockey fans in the region as well. Although UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Rink 1 may never be used for anything other than a place for the Pens to train and practice, and a place for youth hockey players to play, it was an interesting home for the weekend of some of the best players in North America, and the prospect of being able to watch up to 4 regular season games in 1 day under the same roof is a hockey fan's delight and an experience not to miss should the event return to the Pittsburgh area in the future. .