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Pens-Steelers connection is classic Pittsburgh |

Pens-Steelers connection is classic Pittsburgh

| Sunday, December 26, 2010 12:00 a.m

ClassicSpeak with Art Rooney II

An exclusive interview with Steelers president Art Rooney II, whose franchise has opened the gates at Heinz Field to the Winter Classic:

Q: Was there hesitation to alter your team’s schedule to accommodate the Winter Classic?

A: We just weren’t sure we could do it. In the end we just felt like it was going to be something special for the city and obviously for the Penguins to be in it as the home team. It’s something they wanted to do, and for us to have it at Heinz Field is maybe a once-in-a-long-time situation. We just thought we had to go for it because of that. It was, “Let’s do it now, let’s not wait.” This could be the most exciting event we’ve had in this city for a long, long time.

Q: The Steelers usually take a bus to Cleveland the night before playing there, which they will do the day of the Classic. Will you be on that bus?

A: I can’t speak for my dad (Dan Rooney), but I can say I’m staying back for the Classic. I’ll probably have to drive to Cleveland by myself later that night. I’m not going to miss the hockey game, that’s for sure. Hopefully some Penguins fans will follow me up to Cleveland for our game.

Q: What do you expect the Classic atmosphere to be like?

A: I do think you’ll see people with Terrible Towels in the stands. There will be something unmistakable about that. Get the word out for people to bring the Terrible Towels. Yeah, I think people outside the city will see something on TV that is unique in terms of the relationship between two franchises.

Q: Is it true your dad tried to sell Sidney Crosby on playing quarterback?

A: A few years ago my dad convinced Sidney to accept the Ireland Fund award. They got into that conversation. … I don’t think (being a QB) was tempting to Sid, but I think he and my dad enjoyed talking about it. It’s funny because I was sitting with (Steelers QB) Ben Roethlisberger on the bus after the Baltimore game, and he was laughing at this text from Mario (Lemieux). He turned to me and said, “Well, Mario said now I look like a hockey player.” We all started laughing. Our QB looks like a hockey player, and the Penguins’ best player could be a QB. It’s perfect.

Classic connection

There is a classic hometown connection between the Steelers and Penguins, the region’s last two champions and its tag team that brought the Winter Classic to Heinz Field.

“My mother is from the North Side,” Penguins CEO/president David Morehouse said. “It’s something I talk about with Mr. Rooney, Dan. See, he still considers me being from the North Side because my mother was from Chateau Street.

“So I can relate to what Art was saying about bringing this game ‘home.’ ”

Steelers president Art Rooney II had described the North Side, so closely tied to his famous family, as “a great place for the weeklong party.” His Steelers and the Penguins plan to throw exactly that leading up to the Classic on New Year’s Day.

If the next week feels like a block party thrown, it’s likely because Morehouse, a self-described “crazy Steelers fan” from Beechview, sought to connect with the NFL’s flagship franchise upon returning to Pittsburgh in 2006 as a Penguins consultant.

“I recognized how good of a job they’ve done — treating their fans great, winning championships, their branding,” Morehouse said. “They’re a living, breathing model of what we aspire to do at the Penguins. We’ve always wanted to emulate the Steelers because we’ve always respected them.”

Art Rooney II described the relationship as “always good” and that working with the Penguins on the Classic helped him realize “they do a lot of things right.” He credited Morehouse with expanding communication between the franchises.

The executives aren’t the only ones that talk to one another.

Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert is a longtime Penguins season-ticket holder. A few years back he invited general manager Ray Shero to training camp, and now they exchange philosophies on player evaluation, scouting and drafting.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s information in his BlackBerry. One of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s texting buddies is Mario Lemieux.

Left wing Matt Cooke loves attending Steelers games. He is hoping to score playoff tickets if one is played at Heinz Field, just like he did for the AFC title game two years ago.

Maybe he can barter with Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton, a regular at Penguins playoff games the last few springs.

“There is a lot of energy between the players on both teams, and that’s what I like,” Rooney said. “When Pittsburgh people see that, it brings an atmosphere to the city that you just don’t see that often.”

Rarely seen is the cooperation between two pro sports teams to bring an event like the Classic to a city.

Without the Steelers’ willingness to ask the NFL for a scheduling favor, the Winter Classic would have bypassed Pittsburgh, Morehouse said. Working with the Penguins, Rooney said, has sparked discussion about pursuing other attractions.

Wondered Morehouse: “I used to think we could never host a Super Bowl, but now they are playing one in New York — a cold-weathered place. Maybe the Classic can help us get that.”

“I’d like to think if we put our resources together again there is a lot more we can bring to our city,” Rooney said. “The Steelers and Penguins make a pretty tough team to beat.”

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