Sunday, October 16, 2011

Book takes inside look at Penguins' decision to stay in 'Burgh

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Imagine a long, cold, dark winter without the Penguins.

No cheering. No booing. No Stanley Cup. No Malkin or Fleury or Sid (assuming he comes back). No warm memories or sunny hopes.

In his new book, "Breakaway," Tribune-Review investigative reporter Andrew Conte describes how Pittsburgh came closer to such a reality than most people realized. Publisher Blue River Press of Indianapolis will release the book on Tuesday for sales in bookstores and online at

Frustrated by seemingly endless obstacles to building an arena considered vital to the club's survival, Penguins owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle weighed moving the team to one of several potential landing spots. Of all the locations, Kansas City had put together the most attractive offer.

The Kansas City Penguins? It could have happened.

"When it came down to it in the end, the deal in Kansas City was actually sweeter (than the proposed arena in Pittsburgh) because they could begin making money right away," Conte said.

"Even with the arena deal here, they had to wait three years until they got the arena opened. So if they go to Kansas City, the deal there is comparable to the deal with the new arena here, but you get to start making money right away."

Team owners considered a scenario in which the Penguins moved to Los Angeles, and the Kings relocated to Kansas City, according to Conte.

In the end, of course, the Penguins moved across the street, swapping their original home -- the small, outdated Civic Arena known as "The Igloo" -- for the modern, spacious Consol Energy Center.

Conte, who covered the legalization of casino gambling in Pennsylvania and the arena negotiations, two weighty topics that were inextricably connected, tells the story in "Breakaway." It is a story, as he puts it, "of the Penguins from bankruptcy to the new arena, and from last place to the Stanley Cup." Conte spent more than two years researching and writing the book and conducted dozens of interviews.

Hockey is a violent sport, apparently not entirely confined to the ice. Among the book's revelations is how talks grew so testy that it appeared fisticuffs might break out in a meeting room during a particularly heated moment. Then-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell became so angry that he "snapped," called team attorney Chuck Greenberg "a liar" and gave every appearance of going further.

Those in the room worried that Rendell might get physical. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato stood up and advanced toward the governor, as if he might need to restrain him. The deal appeared to be falling apart. As Conte quotes Greenberg: "I really thought that if I had given him any cause to be incited, a line might have been crossed that would be very difficult to undo."

Rendell said later that he was trying to send a message with his voice and intimidating presence, Conte writes. "I like to create that impression," Rendell told him. "Part of it is real, and part of it is acting."

Conte reports that the deal nearly fell apart a second time, during a secret meeting in New Jersey.

In addition to describing the political and business machinations, Conte reveals -- with help from the reporting of Karen Price, then the Trib's hockey writer -- the intricacies of superstar Evgeni Malkin's departure from Russia and his strange and alarming "disappearance" that accompanied it. Malkin's interview with Conte was the only time he discussed his departure since joining the Penguins.

Even with a large and colorful cast that includes, among others, Rendell, Lemieux and Burkle -- who played an active role in the Marian Hossa trade and promoting Dan Bylsma to head coach -- Conte said that ultimately Penguins fans are the book's "heroes."

The fans, he said, showed up at the casino license hearings in force, wearing Penguins jerseys. The fans continue to support their team through lean years and fat ones, and they persuaded the owners to keep the club here.

"The fans get a lot of credit for sticking with their team, even when it looked like it was gonna leave town," Conte said. "The fans were still there. The fan base here was really the tipping point for why the team stayed."

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