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Steelers excited to host Winter Classic

In a way, Art Rooney II sees this as part of the deal.

There had been criticism over the plan to use some public money to finance the construction of Heinz Field, and a good bit of it had to do with the advisability of committing such resources to a facility that would host only 10 football games a year.

But the Steelers see themselves as members of the Pittsburgh community, and so they explained how their vision of Heinz Field was as a community facility, and they have worked hard to hold up their end of the deal ever since.

Every year since it opened, Heinz Field has hosted the WPIAL Football Championships in all four classifications, which has allowed thousands of high school football players to experience the thrill of competing for a championship in a National Football League facility. There also have been a bunch of concerts, including appearances from some of the superstars of the industry.

On Jan. 1, however, Heinz Field will make history as the site of the NHL's Winter Classic.

It only made sense to bring the Winter Classic to a town like Pittsburgh that loves its hockey, and the special relationship between the Steelers and the Penguins helped enable Heinz Field to become the fourth venue to host the event. There was Ralph Wilson Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and now there will be Heinz Field.

"When we built Heinz Field, it was described as a community partnership, and I think that's the way it has worked," said Rooney. "We've tried to be good partners. We work hard to bring additional events into Heinz Field, so that it's not a building that's only going to have a few football games a year."

The work to bring in the Winter Classic began a year ago.

"We had some conversations with the NHL and the Penguins going back, really, more than a year about trying to do the Winter Classic," said Rooney. "To be honest, our hope was to convince them to do it in February, as opposed to Jan. 1. At the time we weren't sure we could pull it off in terms of the field and everything else."

The NHL definitely was interested in Heinz Field, but the date was non-negotiable. It would be Jan. 1 or it wouldn't be at Heinz Field.

"We still had our doubts," said Rooney, "but we said let's walk through this. We got our staffs together, and talked about how it would work. They convinced us that based on their having done it in several other buildings that they had it down to a science in terms of what they needed to do and how quickly they could get things done and the man-hours needed to pull it off. After we went through that conversation several times, we came to the conclusion that it was something we thought we could do."

Even though the NHL was confident in its ability to prepare the facility for a hockey game, the challenge posed by Heinz Field was unique to any of the other three. Not because of anything about Heinz Field, but because Jan. 1 represents a time when NFL teams are completing their regular season schedules and eyeing the playoffs, and the Steelers have been in the playoffs seven times in the 10-year life of their facility. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are baseball-only, and the Buffalo Bills haven't qualified for the playoffs since 1999.

"It came down to making sure that we felt good about the possibility of the one-week turnaround between the Winter Classic and the potential for hosting playoff games," said Rooney. "We had enough experience with putting in new sod recently that on that end we felt it was doable.

"Once we convinced ourselves that we could physically do it in Heinz Field if we had enough time, then we had to go to the NFL and we asked for the Thursday game and we asked to be away on the last weekend. Once they were willing to accommodate us with regards to the schedule, that's when it became a go."

The Thursday game turned into the one against Carolina on Dec. 23, and as soon as the players and coaches cleared the field after the Steelers' 27-3 win over the Panthers, the work began. By the time the Steelers were beginning their preparations for the regular season finale against the Browns in Cleveland, the ice for Penguins vs. Capitals already was in place.

And so was the buzz.

"It really is a unique event," said Rooney about the Winter Classic. "It's something that's not going to come around very often, and so it's another reason why we really wanted to try to roll up our sleeves and make sure we could do it. I think it's going to be good for the hotels and the restaurants, and on a weekend that's not a big visitor weekend for Pittsburgh. It's the kind of thing we'd like the city to be able to do more of.

"Anywhere you go in the city people are talking about it and people are excited about it. It has created an excitement level that I don't think we've seen around here for many events over the years. Pittsburghers are proud of our city so this gives us a chance to show it to the world. I remember watching the first one in Buffalo that year. It's going to be very exciting to see it here on our home field."

If the Steelers defeat the Browns in Cleveland, they will win the AFC North Division title, secure a bye in the first-round of the NFL Playoffs, which are scheduled to begin with the Wild Card Round on the weekend of Jan. 8-9, and earn the right to host an AFC Divisional Playoff game on the weekend of Jan. 15-16.

"I think it's going to be a great showcase for Heinz Field," said Rooney about the combination of the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and then a possible NFL Playoff game shortly afterward. "It demonstrates that we can do different kinds of events other than just football and at the same time remain a first-class facility for NFL football. We're excited about it."

And while Rooney and many in the Steelers organization will be present on Jan. 1 to root for the Penguins, they know there will be a Penguins contingent following their progress in the AFC playoffs.

"I think it is a unique relationship," said Rooney about the feeling that exists between the Steelers and the Penguins. "It's two franchises that I just think have a lot of respect and a lot of admiration for each other."

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