By Joe Starkey
The critical takeaway from the Penguins announcing they have hired the financial firm Morgan Stanley — the franchise's first association with something named Stanley in quite some time — is this: The team isn't going anywhere.
My bet is Mario Lemieux isn't, either.
The Penguins are locked into a 29-year lease at Consol Energy Center. They are one of the NHL's marquee franchises. That's what makes news of them “exploring (their) options” so unusual. It's normally floundering franchises that hit the market. And in those cases, talk of relocation naturally follows.
It won't here. Nobody is going to buy this team, break its lease and move it. The thought of such is ludicrous.
Lemieux, meanwhile, might very well be looking to convert some of his equity into cash. This is the time. Sell high. He and Ron Burkle bought the team out of bankruptcy for $107 million in 1999. Forbes Magazine now pegs its worth at $565 million.
So even if Lemieux converts a small percentage of his stake, he stands to clear a tidy sum. Good for him. We can all agree he's earned it, right?
And if you believe Lemieux when he says, “I plan on staying involved with the team in some capacity, and Ron and I plan to retain an ownership stake,” then you believe he will retain influence, as well. The simple reason: He's Mario Lemieux, and like Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, he probably wouldn't need a majority controlling interest to keep some clout — if he wants it.
It's not like Roger Marino's going to come rolling in here looking to kick the big guy out. Why wouldn't a new owner want Lemieux's regular input?
Maybe this is about more than money, though. Maybe Lemieux doesn't want to be burdened with decision-making duties anymore. One could hardly blame him.
But the idea that he will simply take the money and skip town because he has a newly built mansion near Montreal? I don't think so. All indications are he will retain his residence in the Pittsburgh area (and the one in Florida, giving him a natural hat trick of extravagant residences).
No matter what, Lemieux is permanently woven into the fabric of this town and its hockey team. His name is about to go up on a state-of-the-art practice facility in Cranberry, the $70 million-plus UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. His foundation is doing wonderful things every day. He isn't going to be an owner forever — he never was — although his emotional attachment to the team should be obvious by observing him during games.
If I'm wrong about this, and Lemieux takes off with his bundle of cash, good for him. He's done enough. The same is true of Burkle, whose money saved the franchise.
The two haven't done everything right, but by and large they have delivered the kind of ownership any fan should want — the kind that gives its team a chance to win every year by spending to the cap (sometimes even too close, as a certain general manager could attest to).
The Penguins have issues. But they also have a core of stars signed to long-term deals, a waiting list for season tickets, a long-term television contract and the best ratings in the league.
“Our goal all along,” Lemieux said, “was to solidify the franchise both on and off the ice.”
Mission accomplished, Monsieur Lemieux. Now do as you please.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at email@example.com.
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