Originally created 06/27/99

Lemieux ushers Penguins into new era



PITTSBURGH -- They've joked for years in pro sports that players made so much money, they would eventually own their teams.

Guess what? At age 33, with no high school education but with plenty of hockey sense and business smarts, Mario Lemieux now owns the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lock, stock and Zambonis.

It's finally happened. After years of escalating player salaries and ever-growing contentiousness among players and owners, a player has crossed over and become an owner. If Lemieux's prediction is true, others such as Michael Jordan and John Elway and Wayne Gretzky might soon step over, too.

History has been written. For the first time in major U.S. pro sports annals, a recently retired player has taken the money he made in sports -- and the money he was owed -- and bought his team.

What an intriguing story it is, too: French-speaking Canadian moves to a foreign country at age 18, learns the language, wins six NHL scoring championships and two Stanley Cups, beats cancer, makes the Hall of Fame and buys his team at age 33. Whew!

"Eventually, I'm sure you're going to see a lot more players become involved," said Lemieux, celebrating his Thursday takeover of the Penguins by playing this weekend in Jordan's celebrity golf tournament. "The way players' salaries are going, players are making a lot more money, I'm sure you're going to see more of them buying into franchises."'

Right now, what Lemieux most wants to see are ticket buyers, as the new Penguins seek to increase their season ticket base from 8,300 to 12,000.

Lemieux had to be encouraged Friday when, buoyed by the news that one of the most popular athletes in the city's history was officially their owner, the Penguins sold more than 200 season tickets. Lemieux expects a bigger spike in sales once he personally becomes involved in marketing.

"We're going to bring the ticket prices down, too, quite a bit," Lemieux said. "We think it's important to get the fans back."

Not that many have gone away. Despite the uncertainty over the team's fate and their October bankruptcy filing, the Penguins played to about 86 percent of the Civic Arena's 17,103 capacity last season. Lemieux's first priority is to get those other 14 percent back.

After that, the next goal might be harder to reach: Win a third Stanley Cup.

"We're close. We think we're about 4-5 players away," Lemieux said.

The Penguins already have the game's best player, Jaromir Jagr, who unseated two-time winner Dominik Hasek to become the NHL's most valuable player. Coincidentally, Jagr was honored on the same day Lemieux was awarded the franchise in bankruptcy court.

"When I heard the news I was so happy, happy for Mario and happy for the city," Jagr said.

The final piece of Lemieux's plan was fitted into place Friday night, when the Public Auditorium Authority and the Penguins finalized a Civic Arena lease with SMG, which had threatened to sue to remain as the arena landlord.

The deal cuts the Penguins' rent from $6 million a year to $1.8 million and also calls for SMG to invest $5 million in Lemieux's group.

The agreement was strong-armed into place Friday under pressure from Mayor Tom Murphy, who is among the most pro-active mayors in America when it comes to pro sports. In 1996, he brokered the Pirates' sale to Kevin McClatchy and, earlier this year, led the successful fight to build new stadiums for the Pirates and Steelers.

"There are no more professional sports franchises that we have to worry about keeping here," Murphy said.

The Penguins also will be allowed to sell naming rights to the Civic Arena and keep the estimated $5 million proceeds. The city also will forgive Lemieux's group of the $12 million owed for recent arena improvements.

The next battle looms over building a new home for the Penguins. Lemieux's takeover plan calls, perhaps ambitiously, for a new arena by 2003.

A likely site already exists -- where Three Rivers Stadium now stands, between the new Pirates and Steelers stadiums -- but the money has yet to be raised. However, Gov. Tom Ridge promised that if Lemieux succeeded, the state would likely provide partial funding.

A new arena in Pittsburgh could be an easier sell to the public than the two stadiums, if only because an arena is used year-round for hundreds of events -- concerts, conventions, circuses -- other than pro sports.

Lemieux, who promises to be much more than a figurehead owner, also wants to sell the new Penguins to free agents. The prospect of playing for an owner young enough to be their linemate, one who not only can relate to them but is revered by most, would seem to be attractive.

The last remaining date on Lemieux's takeover calendar: July 16, when the purchase is to be closed.

"Mario saved hockey in Pittsburgh 15 years ago and now he's doing it again," Jagr said.