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I recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Pittsburgh Penguins VP of Communications Tom McMillan, who is the man pictured above left showing anthem singer extraordinaire Jeff Jimerson around the exterior of the Consol Energy Center.

Tom joined the Penguins in 1996 after working as a writer, columnist, editor and broadcaster, covering the team exclusively for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during their Stanley Cup runs in 1991 and 1992. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge on the team, its players, and its new facility, and I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about all of that and much more.

We managed to cover a lot of ground and Tom answered every one of my questions, so if you're a Pens fan on any level, this should be right up your alley:

Mondesi's House [MH]: Thanks to you and the Penguin organization, we've all had a glimpse of what's happening inside the Consol Energy Center. How excited are you for the move specifically as it relates to how you do your job?

Tom McMillan [TM]: It’s an exciting time for all of us. I may have a bit of a different view than some of the younger people because I basically grew up in the “Civic” Arena. My first event there actually pre-dated the Penguins – I went to an AHL Pittsburgh Hornets game on “Cub Scout Night” in 1965. So having a small part in helping to create and develop a new arena, not just for the Penguins but for new generations of Pittsburghers, is very rewarding. As for our jobs – we can’t wait. It’s a huge understatement to say the media world has changed dramatically since the old arena was designed in 1959. It was designed for a different world, a different era. Putting on a major 21st century event such as the Stanley Cup Finals in the old building is a challenge. We laugh that we can’t do it without using a lot of shoe horns and duct tape. Consol Energy Center will create so many more opportunities, and the biggest beneficiaries will be the fans and the people of Pittsburgh.

MH: Fans are understandably upset to see the Pens relocate from the Igloo, but there are some features they will absolutely love about the new hockey palace across the street. What innovation in the Consol Energy Center do you think will be the biggest upgrade over Mellon Arena from a fan's perspective?

TM: As far as the old arena – the memories of the games and the players and the special moments will still last forever. But I think people are going to be blown away by Consol Energy Center. We’ve had the opportunity to give some early tours of the construction and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Maybe the first thing people will notice is the scoreboard – the video board is going to be huge, the HD quality will be ridiculously good, the sound system is cutting-edge. That alone will make it a completely different fan experience. Not only are the concourses much more spacious than the old arena, but we’ll be one of the few new buildings with both a lower and upper concourse. The “open concourse” concept, which we borrowed from the great arena in Minnesota, will enable fans to see the action even when they’re not in their seats, and it gives the arena a totally different look. And the views through the glass walls of the city’s skyline will be spectacular. For the people at home, the games also will look different on TV – the camera positions will be much lower than Mellon Arena, and will provide a far better view of the action. I feel confident in saying that Penguins fans and Pittsburghers will be proud of Consol Energy Center.
MH: I've given ample praise to the Penguins for their unique methods of connecting with fans. Can you give us any insight into where this philosophy emanates from, and who thinks up with some of these ideas?

TM: I’ll start with a little story. We had a pretty dramatic ceremony on the ice before the final regular season game at Mellon Arena – 51 former players and coaches brought out for one final time, then posing for a symbolic photo with the current team, all with the fans going crazy. It was an exhilarating moment. When the alums came off the ice they were all emotional, showing it in different ways; some even had tears in their eyes. I covered Paul Coffey when I was writing for the Post-Gazette and he played here, so I know him pretty well. As he came off the ice, he walked up to me and said, “You know what makes this franchise special? I mean, the team is great, and you guys on the staff are great – but it’s the fans. Look at these people. The fans here are unbelievable. They are what make this franchise.”

That’s a Hall of Famer talking, and that pretty well sums it up. We’ve battled through bankruptcy, we’ve battled through the lockout, we’ve finished in last place – but the fans were always there. They are the biggest reason the new arena is going up across the street. We won’t ever forget that.

The emphasis on being fan-friendly comes from the very top – from Mario and Ron Burkle, who insist on it. David Morehouse, our team president, who grew up in Beechview and used to sneak into the arena as a kid in the 1970s, is absolutely committed to serving the fans and that spreads through the rest of the staff. Two years ago we decided to put up an outdoor screen for the first two playoff games against Ottawa to see if anyone would show up. Now, there are so many people out there that we sometimes have to close the street in front of the arena. We still shake our heads in amazement. Someone came up with the idea of having players personally deliver season tickets and now that’s also become a tradition. The fact that our players want to do it, and are so good at interacting with the fans makes it that much easier. David basically continually challenges our staff to come up with new and creative ideas, and a lot of them emanate from our marketing department with James Santilli and Ross Miller. Who knows what we’ll do next? But we’ll come up with something. Our fans are trending younger – lots of students, lots of people in their 20s – and that keeps us energized.

MH: If I may be bold enough to suggest one feature from the past that Pens fans still talk about to this day: is there any way the team can find a sponsor for the chili goal at the Consol Energy Center?

TM: Ha. Those were the days. Remember when the “chili goal” was the seventh goal? Scoring was a lot higher back then. Seriously, though, those kinds of promotions are generated by our corporate sales department and local businesses. There was a time when things like the “chili goal” were popular around the NHL but you don’t see them much any more. Maybe it’s just a trend that passed. But you never know what they’ll come up with. Everyone is always brainstorming. I’ll make sure I tell our sales department that you recommend it.

MH: I've heard that you had a hand in bringing the movie "She's Out of My League" to Pittsburgh, which is not the first movie shot at the arena. How did that come about, and what's the atmosphere like when Hollywood invades the Igloo?

TM: I went to Point Park for journalism (back in the Stone Age) and one of my friends there was Jimmy Miller, who’s gone on to huge success in Hollywood as a manager and movie producer. But Jimmy bleeds back and gold and he’s still a Penguins season ticket holder and he loves the city, even though he now lives 3,000 miles away. He called me a few years ago saying he had a script that called for a hockey scene, and some of the movie people wanted to shoot it in Carolina or Phoenix. He wanted to do it in Pittsburgh. Like me, Jimmy pretty much grew up in the Civic Arena, and he was an usher there when we were in college. He wanted to be able to shoot a movie scene there one more time before the building went away. So he called and said, “Can you help me make this happen?

I went to David Morehouse and we decided to make the commitment that they could shoot a scene here on a game night. We had to pull a lot of strings, temporarily move some season ticket holders (who were very gracious) for one night, and it happened. The positive end result was that the movie ended up being based in Pittsburgh and the city scenes looked phenomenal. The hockey game was just one scene but there was a lot of exposure for Penguins merchandise and Pittsburgh itself. It turned out very well.

It was amazing to me to see the amount of work and detail that goes into making even one small scene in a movie. I gained a whole new insight and a whole new respect for that business. And it took me aback a little bit to see all these movie people treating Jimmy like he was absolute royalty. It was kind of funny. He’s a powerful guy in Hollywood, which is why they all react that way, but to me he’s still the wise-cracking kid from Castle Shannon who used to hang out in the Point Park rec room playing air hockey. By the way, he spelled my name wrong in the credits.

MH: There have been numerous rumblings about several high-profile hockey events that might be coming to Pittsburgh in the near future. Is there any news you can share with us on that front?

TM: No (haha – nice try, Don). But I can tell you we’re committed to bringing major events to Pittsburgh and Consol Energy Center in the near future. The NHL has known for several years that we want to host the Winter Classic here in Pittsburgh, and we’ve put in a bid for the NHL All-Star game. The opening rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament will be held here in 2012, and we’re supporting Robert Morris University in their bid for the NCAA Frozen Four. We also hope to host the NHL Entry Draft at some point. We believe Pittsburgh and Consol Energy Center will be a destination point for big events.

MH: A burning question on the mind of many fans: what happens to the outdoor video screen when the Pens move into their new home?

TM: We get that question a lot – which is a good thing. There will be an outdoor screen somewhere. We’ve got to get the building up and opened before we can really take a look and decide on the best spot. Turns out we had a space in front of Mellon Arena that wasn’t very well utilized for 47 years but that turned into a perfect spot for an outdoor screen. We’ll take a look at the available space and the traffic flow before making a decision, but we’ve got time.

MH: You've witnessed an incredible amount of Penguin history from a unique vantage point in the Igloo. Is there any one moment that sticks out as your very favorite memory from Mellon Arena?

I hope my favorite moment is yet to come – winning the Stanley Cup in the final game ever at Mellon Arena. Up until now though, with all the great moments I’ve been able to witness, I’d say Mario’s comeback game on Dec. 27, 2000 stands above the rest. We’ll see other great performances, great wins, great achievements. But something like that will never happen again.

Many thanks to Tom for granting me the interview and best of luck to the Pens in making Tom's dream come true.

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Andrew Johnston said...

As always, great work, Don. Very insightful piece. Until right now, I had no idea that parts of the movie "She's Out Of My League" were filmed in the 'Burgh and the Igloo.

I can't wait to get to the 'Burgh Friday for a friend's bachelor party and some serious Pens action.

Suggestions on the best bar in the South Side to watch a Pens game?

AJ said...

Chill-LEEEE! chill-LEEE! chill-LEEE!

Make it happen, Tommy!

BurressWithButterflywings said...

I have many times played out the last game at Mellon Arena scenario that Tom mentioned many, many times in my head.

I can't even began to fathom the emotions that would accompany it if that were to become a reality.

Steve said...

Andrew - Can't go wrong with Mario's on the South Side for any Pens game...or Stanley Cup celebration for that matter.

Scott said...

Good questions and good insight. Was this an email interview? It's helpful to know whether it was conducted by phone, in person or by email.