On the northwest tip of Fayette County rests a hamlet of slightly more than 1,000 residents. It may seem like any other small town in our area, but no other small town can claim the title of Hockeyville USA.
More than 1,400 boroughs, towns and cities with hockey arenas entered the contest to earn the title of “Kraft Hockeyville USA.” The winning town would receive $150,000 to renovate its arena and get to host an NHL preseason game. Just a couple of years ago Johnstown won the award, and fans in Cambria County got to see Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin take on Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals at the famed War Memorial Arena. This year, Belle Vernon beat out Bloomington, Minn., a town of nearly 90,000 residents, to win the contest. I have no sympathy for Bloomington; go shop in your precious Mall of America. You’re not the first to lose to Western Pennsylvania; we’re pretty good at winning stuff.
Belle Vernon is currently on a hot streak. Just after the big contest win, residents turned on their TVs to see former Belle Vernon Leopard Dorian Johnson get picked in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals. As a high school player, the highly prized offensive lineman had been recruited by every Division 1 college (as a lot of talented 6’5,” 315-pound linemen are). He wanted to stay close to his hometown and chose the University of Pittsburgh. Johnson went on to play all four years at Pitt, starting in 40 consecutive games and winning first-team All-American honors. The last Panther offensive lineman to do that was nine-time NFL Pro Bowler Reuben Brown back in 1994. Johnson will join former Pitt standout Larry Fitzgerald in Phoenix. Just to make everyone feel old, Johnson, who graduated high school in 2013, was 9 when Arizona drafted Fitzgerald.
But enough about football. The Rostraver Ice Garden is the Madison Square Garden of Belle Vernon. The 52-year-old hockey arena will get $150,000 in renovations, and it may have won the contest because it has a great sob story. In 2010, the Garden made national news when heavy snow caused the arena’s roof to cave onto the ice. Nobody was seriously injured, but the bottom line took a hit when it had to be rebuilt. But the garden has continued to bloom and now hosts the men’s and women’s hockey games for the California University of Pennsylvania Vulcans as well as several high schools. Kevin Smith used the Ice Garden as the home of the “Monroeville Zombies” hockey team in his film Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Yes, even Seth Rogen has skated on the fabled ice in Belle Vernon. Although locals probably spend a lot of time trying to explain that movie title to out-of-town relatives.
In 2007, the Ice Garden was home to two minor-league sports franchises, but they stayed for only a year. The Mon Valley Thunder, a great name with a cool logo of a Viking about to smash the ice with a hammer of the gods, folded just months before the entire Mid-Atlantic Hockey League went defunct. It was also the home of the Pittsburgh RiverRats of the American Indoor Football Association. The RiverRats even set a prestigious AIFA record by putting 86 points on the scoreboard in one game. But after just one season, the Rats packed up and left for the big-city glamour of Erie, Pa.
Like Madison Square Garden, the Ice Garden also played a role in promoting pro wrestling. I know pro wrestling is not a real sport, but in Pittsburgh it is. Extreme Championship Wrestling broadcast many matches from the Ice Garden thanks to its bigly crowds of enthusiastic fans. The ECW was a ’90s wrestling outfit that would have crossed the line if they actually had one. Bloodied combatants fought in barbed-wire, flaming-table and Singapore-cane matches. The wrestlers swilled beer, crashed through tables, and spewed profanity before, during and after matches. The Rostraver Ice Garden is where Rob Van Dam, Sabu, Taz, the Dudley Boys and the legendary Balls Mahoney perfected their craft. Although the ECW is no more (thanks Vince McMahon), the Ice Garden still hosts matches occasionally.
In the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Penguins used to practice in the arena. Back then only crybabies wore helmets, and if you got your teeth knocked out, they stayed out. But now, thanks to the people who bring you cheese-like products like Velveeta, the Penguins will be making their return to Rostraver on Sept. 24. The St. Louis Blues will travel to Fayette County to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in an exhibition game. If you’re driving south on Route 51 that day, hop off the road and check it out. After all, there aren’t many 52-year-old hockey arenas in Fayette County that hockey greats like Sid Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Seth Rogen have all skated on.