Monday, January 08, 2007

“We are not trying to steal the Penguins”

Well, OK we’ll take the folks of Kansas City at their word, we guess. But they are sure making it rather tempting for Mario Lemieux to pull the moving vans up along the interstate and load up Sid, Evgeni and the gang for the trip to KC.

Mario Lemieux spent a few days last week, allowing the Anschutz Entertainment Group to wine him, dine him and whisper sweet something’s into his ear. Mario toured the new rink, met the movers and shakers of the Midwest City and took the pulse of the area as far as hockey goes. Most importantly though he probably did some arithmetic to see if a move to Kansas City would at least get him back into that financial freedom plan he had in place with Jim Balsillie before the Ontario billionaire pulled the plug on that deal.

The Kansas City group who have a brand new, state of the art arena on the road to completion offered up a pretty nice carrot for Lemieux, rent free accommodations and equal managing partners in the new Sprint Centre. They also are the owners of the Los Angeles Kings, which is an interesting twist to the story and summons up the era of the early days of the NHL when the Norris family ruled the American roost quite nicely. More than a few observers have pointed out this potential conflict of interest that seems to have gone by un-noticed by the leagues head office.

It's not something that concerns Mario it seems as Lemieux was all ears for the proposal, promising a decision one way or the other within the next thirty days. Putting Pittsburgh on the clock to show more than a little good faith beyond the much ballyhooed Plan B, a plan that was trumpeted when the casino deal fell apart last month and is considered Pittsburgh’s absolutely final chance to save the franchise.

The Kansas City group is pretty adamant to lure an NHL or NBA team to the city, and in the NHL there’s no shortage of potential clients should the Pens decide to stay in Pittsburgh. The derby will begin anew in thirty days when Mario makes his final decision.

The Globe and Mail had a fairly comprehensive article from Associated Press on the situation late last week

K.C. arena operator woos Penguins with offer of free rent
Associated Press
Globe and Mail
January 4, 2007

Kansas City, Mo. — The Pittsburgh Penguins could play rent-free and be equal managing partners in the new Sprint Center if they move to Kansas City, under an offer unveiled Thursday by the arena's operating group.

Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, said the Penguins would not have to buy into the management agreement. The $276-million (U.S.) Sprint Center is scheduled to open in October.

The Penguins' owners, unhappy with the 45-year-old Mellon Arena, the NHL's oldest venue, have been exploring a move since a new arena deal fell through last month.

"We are not trying to steal the Penguins," Leiweke said. "We have been very respectful of their process. We understand that this is Pittsburgh's to lose, and we respect that."

Anschutz officials, including former Pittsburgh star Luc Robitaille, met Wednesday and Thursday with Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, his partner, Ron Burkle, and other team representatives.

"They have told us they will make a decision within 30 days," Leiweke said. "We will know within 30 days whether they are going to work out their issues in Pittsburgh and get an arena built, or whether they will ask the NHL for permission to move the team to Kansas City."

Pittsburgh has been trying to keep the Penguins in town with a Plan B agreement involving Detroit-based gambling company owner Dan Barden. Lemieux and Burkle were scheduled to meet later Thursday with Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

If a revised Plan B is enough to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, Leiweke said, Anschutz won't try to outdo it.

"We gave them our best shot today," he said. "There's not much left to negotiate. I never underestimate a community's wherewithal to save its team, and I fully expect Pittsburgh to save its team, and I respect that."

The Penguins' owners did not attend Thursday's news conference, and the team had no immediate comment on the visit.

If the Penguins stay put, Leiweke said, there's no guarantee any other team would get as generous an offer from AEG.

"There's something special about this franchise," he said. "This is the best young team, not only in the National Hockey League, but the best young team in sports."

The Penguins' 19-year-old Sidney Crosby is the NHL's leading scorer.

"For people who know basketball, he's our LeBron James," said Robitaille, who is overseeing development of the Sprint Center. "There's no doubt that everybody's banking on him around the league. He's the guy you want to bank on. He's the next Gretzky."

Finding a permanent tenant, either in the NHL or NBA, has been a priority for Kansas City. Officials are counting on the Sprint Center and an adjoining entertainment district to anchor downtown revitalization efforts.

But so far, the arena has commitments only for the 2008 Big 12 men's basketball tournament, which was once a fixture in Kansas City, and the annual BCE Classic, a four-game tournament sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board denied a slots contract bid by Isle of Capri Casinos that would have guaranteed the construction of a $290-million arena. Lemieux and the other owners took the team off the market after that decision.

William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, the venture capitalist who has an agreement with Sprint Center management to own any NHL team that relocates to Kansas City, co-owns a minor-league hockey team with Lemieux.

Kansas City has not had an NHL franchise since the Scouts — now the New Jersey Devils — left town in 1976 after two seasons in Kemper Arena.

The NBA's Kings, who relocated from Cincinnati in 1972 and spent three seasons splitting their home games between Kansas City and Omaha, moved to Sacramento in 1985.

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