Bob Smizik: Mario, Penguins staying together
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The avalanche of good fortune that has rained down on the Penguins in the past 20 months continues with no end in sight.
It all began in July 2005 when the NHL and its players union settled on a collective bargaining agreement that included a salary cap. Gone were the days when the Penguins would have to sell off their high-priced stars.
It only got better -- much better -- the next day with a monstrous stroke of good luck that came with winning the draft lottery. By obtaining the first pick in the draft, the Penguins got Sidney Crosby, who soon would become the best player the NHL and who will be for years to come.
This winter, the good times continued as the Crosby-led team jelled into a winner well before expected and the club is in excellent position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Better still, late on Monday came word that an agreement had been reached on building a $290 million arena that will keep the franchise in town for 30 more years.
Finally, as the news conference announcing the arena deal wound to a close late yesterday afternoon, there came word that proved yet again the gods were smiling down on this once-beleaguered franchise.
As if the team was not moving solidly in the right direction, it was revealed that a deep-pocketed ownership group, which includes a hockey legend pretty well known in these parts, was ready to guide the team for the foreseeable future.
It was widely believed that Mario Lemieux wanted to sell the Penguins, cash in on the equity he used to purchase the team and retire to a life of golf, good times and watching his four children grow up. By some estimates, Lemieux's stake in the team was valued at close to $50 million. Surely, he would take it and run. He had never given any indication he would do otherwise.
Turns out, the aggravation of owning a hockey team isn't quite what it used to be with Crosby and his young and talented teammates on the ice and a new arena is in the offing.
Lemieux will stay on, as will all his partners, which include Ron Burkle, who is believed to own the largest share of the team and whose net worth is about $2.5 billion.
Burkle could have bought out Lemieux pretty much with what he keeps in his petty cash drawer, and probably would have done so if asked. The question never was posed.
"We went through a lot the last few years," Lemieux said by way of explaining his decision to keep his stake in the team. "We see the team is turning around and we want to be part of it. Ron wants to be part of it. The ownership group wants to be part of it. I like to be a part of it. The future is very bright here in Pittsburgh.
"Now that we have solidified the new arena, I think we'll be in a position to be competitive with the rest of the NHL and able to afford to keep our stars and be able to spend up to the cap or near the cap."
With Burkle committed to the group, spending up to the top of the salary cap would not figure to be a problem.
Burkle, who rarely makes a public appearance, was at the news conference but chose not to sit at the podium with Lemieux, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Gov. Ed Rendell, County Executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Surprisingly and despite being ill at ease, he stuck around for a few questions after the news conference broke up.
Asked if he'd be willing to up his stake in the team, Burkle said, "We'll see about that."
There's a certain cachet about owning a sports team, especially a successful one, that makes extremely wealthy men do unusual things. This isn't to suggest Burkle is one of those owner/egomaniacs because, clearly, he's not. But who wouldn't like to own a team with Mario Lemieux as a partner and with Sidney Crosby as its linchpin?
Bettman wasn't surprised about Lemieux's decision to remain an owner.
He said, "I think in the deal business there is a term that people sometimes use called 'deal fatigue.' I think based on the expectations that Mario had when he took the team out of bankruptcy [in 1999], I think the whole process was wearing on him.
"But now ... he and Ron Burkle want to enjoy the fact this is a franchise that has a very exciting future, both with the team on the ice and the prospect of this great arena."
Truth be told, the Lemieux-Burkle ownership group has been far from perfect in the first seven years of its run. Lemieux, perhaps out of loyalty to the man who assembled two Stanley Cup champions, allowed former general manager Craig Patrick to stay way too long.
But with a new management team in place, led by Ray Shero, the team is sprinting forward. Lemieux and Burkle will remain in the background, rocks, for different reasons, to support the franchise.
The good times should continue and, in due time, could bring that third Stanley Cup.
First Published March 14, 2007 12:00 am