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Columnist Mark Madden: Lemieux tops list of Penguins' saviors

Saturday, June 26, 1999

By Mark Madden

They say that when you almost die, your life flashes before your eyes. When your favorite sports team almost dies, only part of your life flashes before your eyes. But it sure seems like a pretty important part.


That's what I experienced Thursday as I waited for Judge Bernard Markowitz to hand down his final ruling on the Penguins' bankruptcy. I saw Pierre Larouche stickhandle through center. I saw Greg Polis, my favorite player as a kid, score twice to get the MVP award at the 1973 All-Star Game. I saw a lot of losses. I saw Mario Lemieux debut in 1984. I saw him hoist the Stanley Cup twice. I saw him beat Hodgkin's disease. I saw him quit on top.

I relived the view from Section D-27, where I once had my season ticket at the Civic Arena. I thought about how things looked from the press box.

And I worried that memories might be all I would have by day's end.

When the Penguins are on the ice, I can objectively cover them. You check your emotions at the press box door. I'm perfectly willing to say when the Penguins stink -- geez, I used to scream it to the heavens in the early '80s, and I was just a fan then.

But when the very existence of something you've followed since you were 8 years old is at stake, well, the heck with objectivity.

Losing the Penguins would have hurt. A lot.

I didn't go to Thursday's hearing. I probably should have, but I couldn't. If the Penguins were going to kick the bucket, I didn't want to see the body.

So I sat at the luxurious WEAE studios and waited for the news. The longer things dragged, the more I feared the worst. I worried that Judge Markowitz might feel backed into a corner by SMG's refusal to capitulate to Team Lemieux's needs, that folding the team might be his only real option.

I based my fear not on any kind of inside knowledge or logic, but on my lifelong streak of pessimism, pessimism that makes my sports talk show the path of rage it is.

But then the call came. Mario Lemieux, who once symbolized the Penguins franchise, was now quite literally the Penguins franchise. Le Magnifique was suddenly the coolest chairman of the board since Francis Albert Sinatra.

Relief, joy, euphoria, all that and more.

There were a lot of heroes in the Penguins bankruptcy. The creditors and companies that worked out new deals to make Lemieux's plan work. Lemieux's investors and attorneys. Penguins management and lawyers, who overturned SMG's lease while working within the belly of the beast. Judge Markowitz, who is clearly a fan of the Penguins and Lemieux. I always want justice to be served, but in this case I was spelling it "just us."

Roger Marino was a hero, too. Sure, Marino shopped the team to other cities. But his initiation of bankruptcy proceedings enabled the Penguins' mess to get straightened out. Marino was also the first to reach a significant agreement with Lemieux. His deal to pay $5 million to Mario not only kiboshed any legal battle between them, it gave Lemieux a solid personal cash reserve. That enabled Lemieux to convert all the money the Penguins owed him into equity in the team, thus sweetening his bankruptcy plan before Judge Markowitz's court and the court of public opinion.

Marino's deal with Lemieux got the ball rolling for other deals. If Marino and Mario could put aside their considerable acrimony to find agreeable common ground, how could anyone else stonewall Lemieux? Of course, SMG did anyway.

Then there's the biggest hero, Lemieux himself.

I've been accused of having a sort of reverence for Mario. At this point, I'm guilty as charged. If you're not down with that, I got two words for you: Penguins fold.

Frankly, I'm amazed the Lemieux bandwagon isn't creaking under the weight of the entire city of Pittsburgh at this point. I was incredulous when a few callers to my talk show Thursday bemoaned Lemieux's takeover. To paraphrase Judge Markowitz's words to SMG, was your ambition to see the Penguins disband?

Lemieux was watching out for the money he was owed, sure. Big deal. I have yet to meet anyone totally altruistic. If I do, I'll ask him for a loan.

The bottom line is this: Lemieux was owed approximately $30 million, and it was money he already earned. All he got was $5 million and the day-to-day headache of overseeing a small-market sports franchise. That's a lot closer to selfless than selfish. Lemieux worked hard to make sure the Penguins stayed in Pittsburgh.

Thursday was the proverbial great day for hockey in Pittsburgh. Lemieux gets the Penguins. Jagr gets the MVP.

Then, in October, you got No. 66 in the owner's box and No. 68 on the ice.

What could be better? Especially considering it was nearly a whole lot worse.

Mark Madden's talk show can be heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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