During last week's groundbreaking ceremony for the Pittsburgh Penguins' new arena, Pens' owner, Mario Lemieux, was once again on center stage. This time, the grueling 18 month battle between Lemieux and Pennsylvania politicians topped the list of every media members' question sheet.
For those of you not familiar with the arena proceedings, here's the quick and dirty: The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena expires after the 2009-10 season, therefore leaving them without a place to play after the conclusion of that season.
Mellon Arena is the oldest arena that houses a current NHL team, thus establishing the fact that a new arena is much needed. That's where Mario comes in. His job was to lock up $290 million to build a new arena in Pittsburgh.
Asking for $290 million from politicians usually isn't a drive-thru window type of deal, and this was no exception.
The negotiations lasted roughly 18 months during 2006 and 2007, before a deal was finalized in March of 2007, enabling the Penguins to stay in Pittsburgh.
During the 18 month span, Lemieux made trips to Kansas City and Las Vegas, threatening to move the team to either city if Pennsylvania politicians could not come up with a way to pay for a new arena in Pittsburgh.
Fans in Kansas City created blogs, message boards, and fan pages depicting Sidney Crosby taking the ice at the newly constructed Sprint Center in K.C.
Finally, in March, a deal was reached that will garner the Penguins $7.5 million per year for 30 years from a development fund that is fueled by Pennsylvania's 55 percent gambling tax. A matching amount is expected to come from Pittsburgh's lone slot casino (which is another story entirely).
At the groundbreaking ceremony last week, Lemieux told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that "we (the owners) had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way. Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go and have a nice dinner, and come back."
"Pressure was felt, and that was the important thing. A lot of things happened throughout the negotiations. Ups and downs. That was just a way for us to put more pressure, and we knew it would work at the end of the day," Lemieux added.
"If it was a negotiating tactic, it was a good one," said Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell.
Whether or not Lemieux was serious about moving the team can now be relegated to the unsolved mysteries of hockey history. Mario did what he had to do, what he knew would work, and it payed off in the end.
Allegheny County Executive, Dan Onorato, was one of the front-runners on the state's side of the PA vs. the Penguins negotiations. He had this to say about Mario's tactics: "In my years, I have never been lobbied more with e-mails, letters, phone calls, personal stops on the street -- and let's just say that you (the fans) were very aggressive about your points about keeping the Penguins here."
I for one couldn't count on both hands how many on-line, as well as paper petitions that I signed during the negotiating months. The fans really stepped up to the plate in doing their part, however big or small it may have been, to keep the team in our city.
However, for every happy fan there always seems to be a pissed off fan. Believe it or not, some Pittsburgh-ers actually resent Mario for the tactics that he used in trying to lockup a new home for the Pens.
Thisarticle from the Trib-Review suggest that some fans are upset with "Lemieux's ruse."
These jokes are whining that Mario "duped" the fans into thinking that he would move the team if he didn't get what he wanted. C'mon people... he duped us? What he did was save our team... again.
Regardless of the way he did it, next year when you are watching the Penguins on your local FSN Pittsburgh station instead of hitting the refresh button on "kcpenguins.com" to see the score of the game, maybe you will reconsider your notions of being duped.
One example of this comes from Kristin, a South Side resident. Kristin says that "He (Lemieux) knew how to strike at the heart of the fans and the city. I think he really duped the people of Pittsburgh, and he'll definitely get away with it because of who he is."
You're damn right, Kristin. He did know how to strike at the heart of the fans and the city. And what became of it? Petitions, letters, e-mails, phone calls, and protests, all rooted in the "heart of the fans and the city", to show the politicians that this deal was as important to us as it was to Mario.
Perhaps Kristin failed to consider that Mario knew he couldn't do it alone. He knew that if the politicians were hearing directly from the fans, and more importantly the tax-payers, that they did not want the Penguins to leave town, it would carry a much more forceful punch than the same words coming from the mouths of wealthy businessmen.
Caryn of Millvale added that "he (Lemieux) bluffed, and no one called him on it."
Isn't it much easier to bluff when you are short-stacked? Mario wasn't holding all the chips, the politicians were. He knew he had to do something drastic, because he had nothing to lose.
You see, if his tactics would not have worked, the inevitable was the only thing that could have happened. It would not have been a shock to anyone when Pittsburgh wasn't granted the money for the new arena, because that's what was supposed to happen. Mario changed what was supposed to happen... he prevented the inevitable, further solidifying his god-like status in this city.
What these absent-minded Pittsburgh-ers are failing to realize is that, we won. Mario won. The Penguins won. You were not duped because nothing has changed. It's not like Mario went out and said "well, if I can get more money for an arena in Pittsburgh than in Kansas City, I'm staying here" and then left for K.C. anyway.
Duped or not, Mario knew what he was doing, and it worked. He swallowed his pride and pulled out all the stops in trying to prove just how serious getting the arena deal done was.
Regardless of where the money is coming from, regardless of which casino gets the slot license, regardless of how many people feel duped, one thing is for sure: the Penguins aren't going anywhere, and we all have one man to thank for that.
The man that got on a plane, took in the sites, shook the right people's hands while posing for a few pictures, then sat down for a delicious three-course meal in a fancy restaurant in Kansas City and Las Vegas, politely smiled and said his thank you's, knowing that he was headed right back to Pittsburgh where he, and his team belong.
Full article at Experiencing the Evolution.