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Penguins ex-coach sues over lost pay

Saturday, December 22, 2001

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As he said he would, fired Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka yesterday sued the team in federal court, saying the team owes him more than $800,000.

Hlinka, a native of the Czech Republic, was fired Oct. 15 after the Penguins started the season 0-4.

Since the firing, Hlinka says the team has refused to make further payments to him on his three-year contract, which runs through June 30, 2003.

He wants the Penguins to pay him the money owed so far, about $83,000, and resume his normal payment schedule until the contract expires. The total by then will be about $854,000.

Hlinka also wants damages of 25 percent of all unpaid wages through the date of trial plus attorney's fees and interest.

The Penguins wouldn't comment on the suit. But the team has indicated it doesn't have to pay Hlinka because he breached his contract, presumably by failing to improve his ability to speak English.

After the team was eliminated from the playoffs in May, team owner Mario Lemieux reportedly told Hlinka to take English lessons in the off-season so he could better relate to the players.

Instead, Hlinka tried to learn from tapes. His English hadn't improved much when he returned this season.

According to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court by attorney Mike Florio of Clarksburg, W.Va., the Penguins apparently considered the failure to learn English a violation of the contract.

In a Nov. 8 letter to another of Hlinka's attorneys, Ronald Del Duca of Virginia Beach, Va., Penguins Vice President and General Counsel Ted Black said Hlinka had committed "material breaches" of the contract and said the team "has no obligation to and does not intend to pay" the salary or benefits.

The letter doesn't specify the breaches, and Florio said yesterday the team has refused to explain exactly what the violations are. But the suit makes it clear that the lack of language skills is the issue.

It says the team knew Hlinka was not fluent in English when he was hired and that the contract does not require him to take classes. Hlinka also denies Lemieux or anyone else told him to take classes.

"Contrary to various local media reports, [the Penguins] at no time instructed Hlinka to improve in any way his English language skills," the suit says. "[The team] at no time raised with Hlinka any alleged problems with his English language skills during the term of the agreement."

Florio said the Penguins have 20 days to respond to the complaint.

Hlinka, who coached the Czech Republic to the 1998 Olympic gold medal, coached the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey last season. But this year the team stumbled from the start. After last night's victory, the Penguins were at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with a 14-15-4-2 record under new coach Rick Kehoe.

When Hlinka was fired, general manager Craig Patrick indicated he would be offered a scouting position or some other job in Europe, but Florio said that didn't happen.

Hlinka, a respected coach in the Czech Republic, joined the Penguins as an associate head coach to interim coach Herb Brooks on Feb. 20, 2000. He had been a standout player before coaching and toward the end of his career played for the National Hockey League's Vancouver franchise.

In June 2000 he was named the Penguins' head coach.

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