Smizik: Penguins take turn for better

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It has been a spectacular month for the Penguins, at least off the ice.

First, the team, owned by a group headed by Mario Lemieux, became involved in the process of being purchased for about $175 million by a deep-pocketed owner who is only home-town shy of being perfect. He's a Canadian, who maintains he will stay out of the way of the people running the team and, by all indications, believes the best place for the Penguins is Pittsburgh.

Next, came word that a prestigious civic group has endorsed the Penguins' partner, Isle of Capri, as the operator that most deserves Pittsburgh's slots license. Since Isle of Capri has agreed to put $295 million toward a new arena if it is awarded the license, this is decidedly the best way for the franchise to go forward and virtually guarantees it will not relocate.

On the ice, it hasn't been bad, either. Going into the game last night against the New York Islanders, the Penguins were a respectable 2-3 and in fourth place in the five-team Atlantic Division. That might not sound like much, but for a team that has finished in last place for the past four seasons, it is. The Penguins still have some shortcomings, but their future looks bright.

What's not to like about this situation?

For starters, the pro-Isle of Capri statement coming from the Pittsburgh Gaming Task Force, a group of civic leaders appointed by former Mayor Tom Murphy, carries no official clout. The group can only convey its opinion to the State Gaming Board, which is expected to name the licensee in December, at the earliest.

The Gaming Board has its own group of experts looking into the myriad details that will determine which operator most deserves the license. By most accounts, the Gaming Board has been performing its due diligence. It could come up with the same findings as the task force, it could come up with different ones.

In other words, the task force's report is a nice boost for Isle of Capri and the Penguins, but, in the end, could mean nothing.

We point this out because it's important that people realize this is not over. Insiders still suggest the bid by Forest City remains the favorite to receive the license. Critics of Forest City say this is so because of its well-known political connections. There's some truth to that. But the fact Forest City is partnered with Harrah's, the Cadillac of gambling operators, also is a reason to favor it. There's cause to believe that in the long run an operator like Harrah's can do more for the region in terms of making money.

Which means, no one should take their eye off Plan B, the alternative to funding a new arena. If Isle of Capri is not awarded the license, and there is no Plan B, prospective owner Jim Balsillie will have every right to shop the team around.

MFOM (Media Friends of Mario) have conducted a campaign against Plan B, stressing it was in opposition to Isle of Capri. It is not. It is an alternative. And it must remain a viable one at least until Isle of Capri is awarded the license and comes up with $295 million.

Plan B is the only thing standing between the Penguins possibly leaving town if Isle of Capri doesn't get the license.

That's another area where MFOM are producing ridiculous propaganda. One of them even had the Penguins all but gone to Hamilton, Ont., the day after Balsillie was announced as the prospective owner.

The Penguins have as much chance of going to Hamilton as the New York Yankees.

The last thing the NHL wants is a franchise located in another small Canadian market. It's true Hamilton has a 19,000-seat arena, but it's almost as outmoded as Mellon Arena and in no way is able to produce the kind of revenues that NHL teams need to succeed.

Even if Hamilton was a worthwhile destination -- and it's not -- it's proximity to Toronto and Buffalo rules it out. The Sabres, who draw many Canadian fans to their games, would vehemently oppose another franchise that is not just close to their drawing area but actually within it.

Kansas City, Portland and Houston all have been mentioned as possible destinations for the Penguins. All are bigger cities than Pittsburgh, but none is a better or a more proven hockey town. Why would the NHL want to remove a franchise from one of its best markets, a franchise that has won two Stanley Cups, a franchise that might not have been one of the original six but was one of the first 12?

It's not going to happen so long as there is a Plan B.

If Isle of Capri wins the slots license, all problems are solved. If it doesn't, a solid Plan B can serve the same purpose: Keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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