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The Rink that Saved Pittsburgh (Hockey)

Thursday, 10.07.2010 / 9:00 AM / Features
By Sam Kasan
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The Rink that Saved Pittsburgh (Hockey)
The Penguins are a few hours away (depending on when you read this) from dropping the puck for the first game at CONSOL Energy Center in a battle against the Philadelphia Flyers.

It is a historic event in every regard. The unveiling of a new arena only occurs once every couple of generations. Thursday marks the culmination of 12 years of hard work and labor – from financing to planning to actual construction.

The importance of CONSOL Energy Center cannot be understated. The team’s new home is the foundation keeping the team not only in Pittsburgh, but also alive as an organization.

The Penguins franchise is stronger than it has ever been in its 40-plus year history. Let’s look at the organizations recent success over the past four years alone:
  • Won the third Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2009
  • Four straight playoff berths with two Eastern Conference final championships
  • One Atlantic Division crown
  • 186 regular-season victories (with 38 more coming in the postseason)
  • Two NHL scoring champions, one MVP, one playoff MVP, one goal-scoring champion
  • Sold out 166 consecutive games, dating back to Feb. 2007
  • Ranked fifth among 122 pro teams by ESPN the Magazine, and No. 1 in fan relations
  • Broken every rating and set new standards in U.S. local TV ratings
  • Most importantly, as good as the team has been on the ice, they’ve been even more successful and profitable as a business
Now we can add the opening of a brand-new state-of-the-art arena to the list of accomplishments. However, of all the triumphs listed above, the most important is no doubt the opening of CONSOL Energy Center.

After all, without the new arena none of the above would have been possible (in Pittsburgh anyway). With the current state and strength of the Penguins franchise, it is easy to forget how dismal and shaky the organization was just 12 years ago.

A grey cloud hovered over the franchise as the team filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Oct. 13, 1998, and the Penguins’ future was on life support.

The team’s future was in jeopardy and many scenarios were circulating. As the bankruptcy judge deliberated the case, he could have decided to: A) award team to Hall of Fame legend Mario Lemieux and his ownership group; B) award the team to another ownership group; C) disband the team and have a dispersal draft for the players; D) allow a relocation to another city – Portland, Ore. was the most talked about locale.

Even as Lemieux’s team drafted the plan to buy the team and hip check relocation, the group knew that the only way the Penguins could remain in Pittsburgh for the long haul would be a new arena.

There was no doubt that without a new building, the Penguins would not survive. The new rink was the fulcrum to long-term survivability. Even if every other chip fell into place, no arena meant no Penguins.

The first chip fell June 24, 1999 when U.S. Bankruptcy President Judge Bernard Markovitz ruled in favor of Lemieux’s reorganization plan. Lemieux took over as owner of his former team, and further solidified his legacy and the franchise’s viability with a dramatic return to the ice as a player during the 2000-01 season. With Lemieux, the underdog Penguins pulled off two playoff upsets (Washington, Buffalo) to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

The Penguins undertook a painful rebuilding process after that magical season, and the team’s future was again in doubt as the NHL underwent a season-long lockout in 2004-05.

The team’s fortunes started to brighten as the NHL implemented a salary cup destined to help struggling franchises in small markets – such as Pittsburgh. Then Pittsburgh won the 2005 NHL Entry Draft lottery, and the right to select star prospect Sidney Crosby.

But still the team’s future was in doubt as the team negotiated with the city for financing on the new rink.

The Penguins future in Pittsburgh looked bleak after the Isle of Capri – which promised to finance the new arena if awarded a casino license – lost its bid for a gambling venue. Then Kansas City began wooing the Penguins after completing its own brand-new ice rink (Sprint Center).

However, Lemieux and his team stayed true to their word on keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh. After many tough negotiations and a lot of ups and downs, the franchise struck a financing deal with the city in March of 2007 and the Penguins committed to play in Pittsburgh for (at least) the next 30 years.

It is difficult to imagine how differently things could have turned out after the bankruptcy. There could have been a world of no Stanley Cup, no banners, no new arena, no Crosby, no Malkin, no Penguins.

Penguins fans will grow to love their new home with all its state-of-the-art technological advances, visible sight lines, fan friendly concourses and luxurious aesthetics, but deep down as they take in the first game against Philadelphia, they can cheer with relief and excitement that they can still watch NHL hockey in their city.

Thanks to the contributions of many people and CONSOL Energy Center, the Penguins, as Lemieux said when announcing the new arena deal, “will stay in Pittsburgh where they belong.”



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