Steelers excited to host NHL's Winter Classic

Heinz Field has been host to some pretty big events since its opening during the summer of 2001. There have been three AFC Championship games, including the 2008 version that sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII, several Kenny Chesney summer concerts and a few epic WPIAL championship games in which the best high school football teams in the area achieved lifelong dreams.

On Jan. 1, 2011, the home of the Steelers will welcome another big draw – the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

Because the four-year-old Winter Classic is always held on New Year's Day – a spot on the calendar that falls smack dab in the middle of the National Football League's playoff chase – special accommodations had to be made by the Steelers and the NFL to allow the Penguins and the National Hockey League to host the game in Pittsburgh.

According to Steelers president Art Rooney II, the close relationship that has developed over the years between the Penguins and Steelers made it easy for the Steelers to make sure they were on the road in Week 17 so that Heinz Field could host the game which has become the marquee attraction on the NHL's schedule.

"I think the two teams have had a great relationship for a long time, but certainly the last few years I think a lot of people between the two organizations have built some good relationships and compared various notes on things," Rooney said. "Now, to be able to host one of their games in our building is very exciting for us. We can't wait."

The Steelers will play their final home game of the 2010 regular season on Thursday, Dec. 23 against the Carolina Panthers. Soon thereafter the NHL will bring its crew in to begin construction of the ice surface.

When the puck drops for the Winter Classic at 1 p.m. a week later, on a Saturday, the Steelers normally would be getting ready for their usual afternoon departure on the day before a road game, but some special travel arrangements could be in the plans in this instance.

Since the Steelers play the Browns in Cleveland on Jan. 2, the team's travel plans include a bus ride, and a departure time for that kind of a trip is much more flexible than catching a plane. In fact, Rooney is already prepared to have that potential discussion with Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin – a rapidly-developing hockey fan who has been seen in the front row of many Penguins games the past three years with his two young sons.

"I know I am going to stay back to watch the game, but like I said to somebody before, I think there will be some campaigning from our team to hold those buses a little bit so that some of our guys can come to the game," Rooney said. "A lot of our players have become Penguins fans. I'm sure that is something that we will have to talk with Coach about down the road."

One of the men who will lead those discussions, Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert, is also a huge hockey enthusiast and a long-time Penguins' season ticket holder. Like Rooney, he seems prepared to make sure the Steelers have a chance to witness at least part of the action on New Year's Day.

"Being that it is Cleveland and that we drive anyway, we will probably make some alternate plans," Colbert said. "We will have to see what the weather is that day, but we do plan on being here for at least part of this great event. It will be fun and exciting."

Colbert, who can often be heard discussing Penguins hockey will fellow co-workers at the Steelers' South Side training facility, became a huge fan of the Winter Classic when he watched the Penguins take on the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the inaugural outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2008. He says it's an honor for the Steelers to be able to welcome such a game to Heinz Field this time around.

"It will be awesome," Colbert said. "I think it is a great idea and concept. To be a part of having the game here at Heinz Field is very exciting for us."

Rooney is excited for the game because, as a life-long Pittsburgh native, he knows what attracting an event of this magnitude will mean for the overall image of the city in addition to the benefits the Penguins and Steelers will receive.

"I think this game will show Pittsburgh as a city that is a great city to host an event like this," Rooney said. "That is one of the reasons we are excited about this. I think it puts the city in a great light. I think our sports teams have always led the way in terms of the image of Pittsburgh to the outside world. This will be another opportunity for us to build the image of a city that is a great place to come and visit."

Jason Seidling, a writer for, began his career as an intern in the Steelers Media Relations Department.

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