Mario has own magic with Penguins
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Can you imagine the joy in Los Angeles last week when news broke that Magic Johnson was going to be the face of the Dodgers after his ownership group took control of the storied baseball franchise for a mere $2.15 billion?
Of course, you can imagine it.
You experienced the same joy.
Los Angeles has Magic, but Pittsburgh has Mario.
Really, no surnames are needed.
Los Angeles should be so lucky to have Johnson's Dodgers become Lemieux's Penguins.
The Penguins are among the most stable, most profitable franchises in sports. It's as if they are printing money. Just one indication: The game today against the Philadelphia Flyers at Consol Energy Center will be their 249th consecutive home sellout.
But it wasn't always that way. Like the Dodgers, who were devastated by the ugly divorce between former owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, the Penguins were a mess once. Former owners Roger Marino, Morris Belzberg and Howard Baldwin pushed the franchise into bankruptcy in the late 1990s. It had no real future in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux is given much credit -- as he should be -- for saving the Penguins by bringing them out of bankruptcy in 1999. At the time, there was a strong feeling he would find a way to make the franchise successful. Like Magic in Los Angeles, he was magic in Pittsburgh in everything he did. He simply did not fail.
But Lemieux also had plenty of help and a lot of luck. That's why, against all odds, he's still co-owner and face of the Penguins all of these years later. In the beginning, sure, he wanted to stabilize the franchise and keep it in town. But he really wanted to recoup the nearly $30 million the team's former owners owed him in deferred money from his Hall of Fame career with the team.
Lemieux's first bit of ownership brilliance was to bring in California billionaire Ron Burkle as a partner. Burkle threw in $20 million in '99. "Without Burkle, there would be no Penguins," Tom Reich, Lemieux's former agent, once said.
But Burkle, although happy to help a friend, was no fool. He wasn't going to just provide endless millions for Lemieux. The Penguins were a bad investment at the time. The NHL was an economic disaster. It had no salary cap, and only a few big-market teams were making money. The Penguins couldn't afford to keep their star players and sent away, among others, Alexei Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr, in the early years of the Lemieux ownership. They were the Pirates, in essence. The team finished last in the Atlantic Division for three consecutive years from 2002-04. Many nights, it couldn't give away tickets to Mellon Arena.
The NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season helped to save the Penguins. Suddenly, the ice was level for all of the league's clubs. There was a salary cap. Like in the NFL, every team had a chance to compete.
Did I mention Lemieux was lucky?
The Penguins got a big break when a pingpong ball bounced their way, giving them the right to take Sidney Crosby with the No. 1 pick of the 2005 amateur draft. Not only was there economic sanity in the NHL, the team had young stars around whom to build a team -- Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. Fans began to come back to the arena.
Lemieux figured it was time to get out of hockey. He had done his part to rebuild the franchise. In October 2006, he reached agreement to sell to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie. But Balsillie, after not seeing a guaranteed new arena in the Penguins' future, backed out of the deal two months later when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he couldn't move the franchise to another city.
Lemieux and Burkle remained in charge of the Penguins. In December 2005, they had worked out a deal for a new arena that was tied to casino operator Isle of Capri Inc. getting the slots license in Pittsburgh. When the license was awarded to Detroit's Don Barden in December 2006, Lemieux and Burkle were incensed. They visited Las Vegas to explore a possible franchise move and received a sweetheart offer from Kansas City. It wasn't until after then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell came up in March 2007 with an alternative financing plan for what is now Consol Energy Center that the Penguins' future was secured here. Burkle was the driving force behind those negotiations.
Suddenly, the Penguins no longer were for sale. Burkle made sure they had the necessary capital to be successful, often allowing the team to go over budget. It was set off the ice with the dynamic team of president David Morehouse and general manager Ray Shero calling the shots. It was set on the ice with Crosby, Malkin and Fleury leading the club to the Stanley Cup in 2009 after getting it to the final in '08. The team is a heavy favorite to win the Cup again this spring.
Lemieux's popularity in town is greater than ever. Sports fans here were sick when he and Burkle attempted to buy the Pirates in 2010 only to be turned down by owner Bob Nutting. The fans must settle for the Penguins and the Steelers having strong ownership. Two out of three ain't bad, as they say.
You might have heard something last month about a Lemieux statue being unveiled outside Consol Energy Center. A Johnson statue was dedicated in 2004 outside of Staples Center in Los Angeles.
I can't help but think, though, that Johnson has a long way to go to match Lemieux's success as a team owner.
First Published April 1, 2012 12:00 am