Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said tomorrow will be a turning point in the franchise's future.
Looking a bit pale and sometimes pausing briefly to collect his thoughts, Penguins owner and Hall of Fame player Mario Lemieux yesterday vented over the hockey team's situation and future.
Lemieux didn't raise his voice, but made it clear that he has about had it after seven years of trying to get a new arena since he helped bring the franchise out of bankruptcy, after getting close to selling the team only to have Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie pull out at the last minute, after months of pushing the team's arena-funding deal with gaming company Isle of Capri, and after having state and local officials push an alternate Plan B for arena funding.
Perhaps the most telling moment during a news conference at Mellon Arena came when Lemieux recounted the events that led to this week, with no buyer for the Penguins in place and he and his ownership partners left to wait on pins and needles for tomorrow, when the gaming control board is scheduled to award the state's slots licenses.
"As far as Plan B, we've been trying for seven years to talk to the politicians about the new arena," Lemieux said. "Nobody was willing to listen to us, so we signed a deal with IOC. And even before we signed a deal with IOC, we went to the politicians and said, 'Do you have anything to put on the table, because once we sign, we can't talk to anybody?' They knew that, and they told us to go ahead, which we did. And they came back with Plan B, knowing full well that we couldn't talk to them because of our agreement with IOC.
"At this point, I'm not sure about Plan B. Plan B, in my opinion, is going to use taxpayers' money. I've never heard of a government turning down 290 million [dollars] in private money to build a public facility. It's unheard of. That's what's been happening over the last few months. At this point, frankly, I'm really not sure what's going to come of it."
Isle of Capri has pledged $290 million toward construction of a new arena if it gets the city's slots license. State and local officials proposed Plan B in the event Forest City Enterprises or PITG Gaming gets the license, with the Penguins, the winning slots operator and the state contributing.
Lemieux said the Penguins' future is on hold until the slots licenses are awarded, and he made his pitch for Isle of Capri.
"Hopefully, IOC will be awarded the license, which we feel is the best plan out there for the region and for the Penguins in really assuring that this franchise will be here for a long, long time," he said.
"Wednesday will be a turning point in the franchise's future."
It was almost someone else's job to sweat out the slots license decision.
Balsillie, chairman and CEO of Research in Motion, the company based in Waterloo, Ontario, that makes the popular wireless BlackBerry devices, had a purchase agreement with the Penguins and was close to closing on the sale when he backed out Friday over last-minute stipulations mandated by the NHL. Among them were a promise to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh under any circumstance and an agreement to allow the NHL to take over management of the team under certain circumstances.
Lemieux, who has not talked to Balsillie since he pulled out, said other suitors have contacted the Penguins in the past few days, but the team isn't acting. He also declined to say whether his group might remain as owners if Isle of Capri prevails.
"We're not talking to anybody until the license has been awarded," he said. "The ownership will get together and re-evaluate where the franchise is at that point."
He wouldn't rule out Balsillie's return to the scene if Balsillie and the NHL can arrive at a compromise -- "I'm not sure," Lemieux said -- but he noted that the club intends to retain Balsillie's deposit, which is believed to be $10 million.
Asked whether Balsillie might have backed off as a tactic, Lemieux said, "If it was a negotiation, I think it was a huge mistake. But now we're moving forward without Jim Balsillie."
Before Lemieux's news conference, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was asked if he thought Balsillie's plan was to relocate the Penguins.
"I'm speculating, but I think that is the main reason that he no longer will purchase the Penguins," Ravenstahl said. "And for the residents of this area, and Penguins fans, I think that's good news, perhaps, at the end of the day. This could potentially be good news for the Penguins in keeping them here in Pittsburgh."
Ravenstahl said other than being notified of Balsillie's termination notice, he has not talked with Penguins officials lately about the sale.
The mayor has publicly backed the Isle of Capri plan, but also has said Plan B is a viable alternative.
"There has been a commitment from the other two gaming operators to put a significant amount forward [toward a new arena]," Ravenstahl said. "I'm confident that no matter who it is, they will live up to the agreements that are still in place."
That doesn't solve the matter of the Penguins' ownership.
"Right now, we own the franchise," Lemieux said. "We decide the fate of the franchise. After Wednesday, we will sit down and evaluate all of our options."
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721. Rich Lord of the Post-Gazette contributed to this report.