Penguins put up for sale
Lemieux says sales process 'just starting'
Thursday, January 19, 2006

Penguins owner Mario Lemieux said yesterday that he and his partners have been approached by "a few groups" interested in purchasing the franchise and that he plans to begin negotiating with them.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Mario Lemieux revealed yesterday that he and his partners would be opening negotiations for sale of the Penguins franchise, although stating there is no deal on the table. "We're just starting the process," said Lemieux, shown here at a 2004 press conference where he raised the prospect of the team's sale if a new arena could not be developed.
"We don't have a deal," he said. "We're just starting the process."

Even if the team is sold, Mr. Lemieux said, the new owners will be bound by agreements he and his partners have struck. That includes a promise to remain in Pittsburgh if a coalition assembled by the Penguins is awarded the license to run a slots parlor Downtown.

Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. would operate the slots parlor and has pledged $290 million toward construction of an arena if it gets the license. The Penguins, in turn, have committed to stay here if the city gets an up-to-date facility to replace Mellon Arena.

"I think we've done pretty much everything we can do, as far as setting up the franchise for the future," Mr. Lemieux said. The Penguins have "a plan with Isle of Capri to make sure this franchise stays in Pittsburgh forever, which has always been my goal. I really feel that we've set it up to do that if the right things happen."

Mr. Lemieux did not identify any of the groups that have approached the Penguins about buying the team. He added that he has "nothing in mind" about a potential price for the franchise, believing that the offers he receives will set its market value.

"I'm sure there are going to be a few bids," he said. "That's how the process works."

Mr. Lemieux also plans to step down as the Penguins' CEO, a position that will be assumed by president Ken Sawyer, but remain as chairman of the board.

Mr. Lemieux said that Mr. Sawyer was the logical choice to take over as CEO because he "really has been running the franchise on a day-to-day basis, so it's not really a big change. He's been doing all the work the last few years."

The team's board of directors is expected to approve the change when it meets tomorrow.

Mr. Lemieux, inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1997, resumed his playing career in 2000, little more than three years after he retired. He currently is on the injured-reserve list because of an irregular heartbeat, although he has resumed practicing with the team and plans to return to the lineup this season.

He said, however, that he has not decided whether to retire again this spring.

Mr. Lemieux was owed more than $20 million by the Penguins' previous owners and got control of the franchise when it came out of bankruptcy in 1999. He made it clear almost immediately that he didn't plan to own the team forever, but only recently has he decided to investigate proposals to purchase it.

"We've had a lot of inquiries lately, the last three or four months, a lot of interest in the team," Mr. Lemieux said. "I think this is the right timing for us to look at those and explore all the options that we have. That's what I'm going to start doing."

Although the Penguins have had a disappointing season -- their 11-26-9 record is the second-worst in the 30-team NHL -- their on-ice future is quite promising. They have an unrivaled stable of young talent, headlined by Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin, a Russian teenager scheduled to play here in 2006-07.

"This franchise is going to be good for many years, with all the young kids we have," Mr. Lemieux said. "That's probably why there's a lot of interest [from prospective buyers]. They see that this team, in a year or two, could be a force in this league."

It could, however, be a force in Kansas City, Houston or Las Vegas, if there isn't a new arena here. The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires in 2007 and, unless plans for a new arena are in place before then, it's a given that the franchise will relocate, regardless of who owns it.

Team officials have contended for years that keeping the Penguins viable in this market required two things: a more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players, and a facility that could generate the revenue needed to underwrite a competitive team.

"We had to fix the [collective bargaining agreement], which we did," Mr. Lemieux said. "Now, we need a new arena for the team to stay here."

Mr. Lemieux praised the 18 political and civic leaders who publicly declared support for the Penguins' arena-related plans last week, and said he hopes others will do likewise.

"I think that was great when they came out in favor of our plan," he said. "That's a good sign. We need more of that from our local politicians and leaders, to get behind us and make sure this franchise is here for a long time."

First published on January 19, 2006 at 12:00 am
Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.