Hockey fans break out in cold sweat at prospect of losing Penguins

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In earlier years, when he released wrist shots instead of statements, Mario Lemieux inspired a region of impersonators.

Kids wore his sweater -- "66," on the back. They mimicked his moves, Koho stick in hand. Just for the chance to play his sport, younger players arrived at ice rinks before 5 a.m. "You had an explosion of hockey within the region," said Dave Hanson, general manager of Robert Morris's Island Sports Center.

Yesterday, with Pittsburgh's hockey future teetering instead of booming, the Penguins' majority owner again showed his grip on the region.

Mr. Lemieux said he'd explore moving the team to another city. As word of that possibility spread in the city, uncertainty about hockey's future -- not just at a professional level -- spread, too.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board denied a casino license to the one bidder, Isle of Capri, that pledged $290 million for a new arena. That decision, and Mr. Lemieux's next-day reaction, forced Pittsburgh hockey fans to assess a sobering possibility -- years of hockey-less nights in Pittsburgh.

All of this arrives during a season of excitement, similar to what Mr. Lemieux brought to the Penguins in the early 1990s, when the franchise won two Stanley Cups. Sidney Crosby, 19, leads the NHL in scoring. His sidekick Evgeni Malkin, 20, has emerged as the league's premier rookie. The Penguins can contend this year for a playoff berth, and perhaps in later years, for another cup.

"And what a shame if that Stanley Cup parade didn't come through Downtown Pittsburgh," Mr. Hanson said.

The Penguins arrived in Pittsburgh in 1967; but it wasn't until 17 inglorious seasons later, when Mr. Lemieux landed here as a first-round draft choice, that most citizens took notice. Those in the local hockey community believe Mr. Crosby can replicate what Mr. Lemieux did a generation earlier. Provided he's not playing in Kansas City or Houston.

"I think there's definitely a correlation between pro hockey and youth hockey," said Jeff Potter, who coaches an all-star team of seventh and eighth graders, the Pittsburgh Hornets. Talents like Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Crosby, the coach said, "make a kid want to play."

Pittsburgh began developing elite youth hockey talent only when a top professional talent arrived, too. Currently, Plum's R.J. Umberger and Upper St. Clair's Ryan Malone play in the NHL, one for the Philadelphia Flyers, the other for the Penguins. Dylan Reese, a 2003 draft pick by the Rangers, plays at Harvard. Grant Lewis, a 2004 second-round Atlanta Thrashers draft pick, plays at Dartmouth.

Both Mr. Reese and Mr. Lewis attended Upper St. Clair. And before that, they played hockey together as children, strapping on roller skates -- later, rollerblades -- and clearing room in Mr. Reese's garage. They pretended, Mr. Reese said, to be Mario.

"I'm an '84 birth year," Mr. Reese said, "so I was 6 or 7 or 8 when the Penguins were winning Stanley Cups. And that's a huge reason I played hockey."

Just now is hockey beginning to recover from the lockout that erased the 2004-05 season. For the Pittsburgh franchise, the draft lottery held before the 2005-06 season -- determining which team would receive the No. 1 pick, and by extension, Mr. Crosby -- helped with the healing.

"Anything labeled 'CROSBY,' it just flies out the door," said Tim Texter, manager of Perani's, a Mt. Lebanon hockey store.

Most local hockey fans, Mr. Texter among them, don't blame Mr. Lemieux for yesterday's maneuvering. They understand his frustration.


Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227.


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