Smizik: Like former owner, Penguins can finally move on

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The final page of the Penguins' eight-year nightmare was turned last week and the team and its fans finally can look to the future with hope instead of grave concern. With agreement on construction of a new arena and the 30-year lease that comes with it, the team's prospects on and off the ice are excellent.

It was a long and despairing slog that began with bankruptcy in 1998 and proceeded through a serious shortage of funding, a season-long work stoppage, four consecutive last-place finishes and horrific personnel decisions, often, but not always, forced by financial reasons.

The person most responsible for this eight-year long misadventure has understandably become, beyond doubt, the most reviled man in the history of the franchise. No player, coach, general manager or other owner stands close to Howard Baldwin in the Penguins hall of infamy. His reckless overspending propelled the team to bankruptcy court, which led to the plethora of other tribulations.

Baldwin was on the phone the other day, recalling what went wrong with the Penguins and talking about what he's doing today. He hasn't exactly gone underground. His unsound and unsafe business practices with the Penguins did not make him a pariah in other fields.

Baldwin dabbled in "B" movies in his days with the Penguins. Who can forget "Sudden Death," with Jean-Claude Van Damme, which was partly filmed at Mellon Arena and included some members of the Penguins? He's gone well beyond that. He has achieved a level of success and respect in the film industry that he never approached in hockey.

It's hard to imagine another person who can put this on their resume: owner of Stanley Cup champion; Oscar nominee.

Baldwin was one of the producers of "Ray," the story of Ray Charles, that was nominated for the best picture Oscar in 2004. If Ray had won, -- "Million Dollar Baby" did -- and it had a chance, Baldwin would have been on stage delivering the acceptance speech.

His latest projects show just how far he has come. He's involved with a movie about Jackie Robinson in which Robert Redford will play Branch Rickey; He's making "Atlas Shrugged," the Ayn Rand classic, into a movie that will star Angelina Jolie; he has Keira Knightley ("Pride & Prejudice" and "Pirates of the Caribbean") starring in "1:30 Train."

Baldwin is a major Hollywood player. He's busy with his movie projects but keeps an eye on the Penguins and was pleased the team's troubles had a happy ending. As always, he was courteous and classy.

"I'm thrilled the team is staying. The fans support always has been great."

It bothers Baldwin that his tenure is remembered with such disgust. "I am proud of what I did there," he said. "We were in an economic environment that I couldn't afford. I'm not a big money guy."

Baldwin, though, did not allow that to stop him from paying high salaries and placing the Penguins at or near the top of team payrolls in the NHL. To cover payroll he wheeled and dealed -- spinning off one revenue stream after another to cover his expenditures. Not unexpectedly, such financial maneuverings caught up with him.

At one point, Baldwin had Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr both under more than $40 million contracts, when, in truth, he could barely afford one such deal.

"In hindsight, one of the dilemmas we had was the unpredictability of whether Mario would play from year to year. We knew we couldn't afford both Mario and Jagr. But how do you, with Mario maybe not playing, not sign Jagr? We were kind of trapped and we ended up signing both."

Baldwin wasn't just a poor businessman, he was too nice a guy. He hated to displease anyone, least of all his superstars. It was a time when tough decisions had to be made and Baldwin couldn't make them.

But let's not be so quick to denigrate Baldwin. He is easily the most successful owner in Penguins history. His teams made the playoffs and had a winning season every year of his tenure -- 1991-98. The team's ownership history is so convoluted that it's hard to tell, but it's possible he is the only owner with an overall winning record.

No one, not the media, not the fans, complained when Baldwin was signing all those future Hall of Famers and All-Stars. We loved it when year after year the Penguins were a leading contender to win the Stanley Cup. The 1992-93 team, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions which lost in a stunning upset to the New York Islanders in the playoffs, had a franchise-best 56-21-7 record and was poised to deliver a third title. Baldwin's team made it to the conference finals a third time in 1996 before losing to Florida.

It was a fun run, one in which an almost laughable franchise turned into one of the best in the NHL.

"I felt my position was misunderstood," Baldwin said. "It's long behind me. You get on with your life."

Baldwin has done just that. And, at long last, so have the Penguins.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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