Bye Bye Birdie; or, Glad I Didn't Buy That Malkin Jersey
After 619 years of endless debate and lobbying and whining the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board awarded the license for Pittsburgh's new slots casino. The license wasn't given to Isle of Capri, who had promised to build a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens signed an exclusive deal with IOC, and since the didn't get the license, my beloved Penguins are playing their last 40 games in Pittsburgh.
Because they're gone. Gone, gone, gone. I'm sure that Mario Lemieux has had enough. He never wanted to be the owner of a hockey team. He wanted to retire, play golf, collect wines, and spend time with his family. But he made the mistake of being the all-time greatest talent in a sport that is, to use Wayne Gretzky's phrase, a "garage league". Howard Baldwin ran the team into bankruptcy, meaning Lemieux got stiffed on tens of millions the team owed him. Instead of taking pennies on the dollar, Lemieux took the team. He saved the franchise once as a player, and then saved it again as an owner.
He's been fencing with local politicians for years trying to get an arena built. The Civic (sorry, Mellon) Arena is, with all due respect, a dump. Went to a game a few weeks ago and, good Lord, it's a pit of despair. I don't recall if Lemieux missed the boat when PNC Park and Heinz Field were built or if it was Baldwin, but since then Lemieux has found that local politicians are completely unenthused about building a new rink. That's their prerogative. And it's Lemieux prerogative to let the team move.
So the casino plan comes around, Isle of Capri says they'll build a new arena, and Lemieux still can't get the local pols to commit to anything. So the Pens sign an exclusive agreement with IOC. Not long after Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie comes along and offers to buy the team for $175 million by writing a check. No financing--cash on the barrelhead. Lemieux could be free and clear with the stroke of a pen.
And then the NHL sticks it's nose in and tells Balsillie they'll prevent him from moving the team if there's some theortical sort of arena financing in place. And Balsillie, being an intelligent businessman (they're few and far between in the NHL) knows this is bogus and withdraws his offer three days before the license is decided. And of course today Lemieux learned that the Gaming Control Board cares not a whit if the Penguins leave town.
So they will. I think Lemieux will sell the team to the first buyer who gives him a reasonable deal. And the only buyer who WILL give him a reasonable deal is one who will move the team. Why would someone want to buy the team NOW and keep them in Pittsburgh, with no arena deal in place? There's been talk from the mayor and county executive (we have one of those) about a "Plan B" to finance a new arena, but since there are no particulars about where the money is going to come from the "B" probably stands for "bullshit".
Plus the NHL's meddling really screwed Lemieux. The league will have to hold any new owner to the same terms they stuck Balsillie with, else they'll be sued back to the Stone Age. Which isn't very far back with the NHL. I agree with what Scott Burnside wrote at ESPN, that they'll keep the restrictions in place right to the point where they announce that the team is moving. Because Pittsburgh is no longer a viable location.
So Lemieux got doubly screwed. Screwed when IOC didn't get the license, screwed by the NHL by interfering in the sale of his club. Of course, he also got screwed when Balsillie pulled his offer three days ago. He also got screwed when the NHL decided to allow studio wrestling on ice during most of Lemieux's career. The first good offer he gets, I think he'll wash his hands of NHL ownership and Pittsburgh politics. It's nothing personal. Strictly business.
It's a crying shame. Oh, how I would've enjoyed watching Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury over the next 15 or so years. Instead I'll be watching them on TV (if the NHL is even on TV next year) as they win Stanley Cups in Houston or Kansas City.