NHL can't allow Penguins to leave Pittsburgh

Updated: January 25, 2006, 7:44 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The revelation this week that a new Pittsburgh arena again is on track, pending the team landing the city's coveted slot-machine casino license, is great news for all of the NHL.

In fact, the Penguins' survival in Pittsburgh is worth betting on.

Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby
AP PhotoMario Lemieux, left, and Sidney Crosby should be able to stay in Pittsburgh, writes Terry Frei.

After all of Mario Lemieux's travails as a major creditor and then the playing owner and CEO, including his dire pronouncements about the future of the franchise as recently as last week, it's heartening to see a concrete proposal back on the table.

Yes, we'll probably hear a few naysayers argue that the proposed $1-billion development project on the Mellon Arena site, which would include a new arena as part of a retail, office and residential showcase complex, is a "dirty" deal.

Why? Because the Penguins would be embracing a hotel and casino operator, the Isle of Capri, as a partner in the deal and the operator of the slot-machine operation. That'll be off base because the slot-machine casino wouldn't be taking wagers on the NHL … or any other sport.

In fact, in Canada, where fans legally and regularly wager on NHL multi-game parlay tickets for the benefit of governmental coffers, the theoretical, ethical conflict is far more pronounced.

Don't read too much into that. That's not a criticism. The "theoretical" crowd has its head in the clouds, because there's nothing wrong with government-run lotteries taking parlay-ticket wagers on sports.

On this issue, Canada is smart. Canadian fans can check out the odds in official lottery ads in the morning paper, then stop at convenience stores and other lottery outlets, pencil in their choices in lottery cards, and make bets.

The U.S. isn't as progressive -- or realistic.

Oregon instituted a Sports Action lottery game tied to NFL games in the late 1980s. The NFL, which owes much of its popularity to gambling but won't admit it, pretended to be aghast. Continuing its long-standing tradition of pandering to NFL interests, Congress caved in to NFL pressure and legislated lottery-based sports wagering out of business, as well as general sports gambling. (Nevada and Oregon, which still runs Sports Action, were "grandfathered.") There were some that thought the NFL was concerned that lottery players, hoping to hit their $5, three-game Oregon Lottery parlay ticket, would attempt to bribe three wide receivers. The stand was ridiculous then, and it's even more ridiculous now, because of the proliferation of legal or quasi-legal means of placing far bigger-money wagers on sports.

The sports lottery games, where legal, produce significant income for North American coffers and a lot of low-denomination fun for the contestants. They should be legal everywhere. Yet, it would be difficult to envision the revenue being enough in specific markets to support arena and stadium construction.

In other words, if it requires tying the Penguins' survival in Pittsburgh to slot machines, I say pull the handle (or push the button) and hope three pucks end up aligned on the pay line.

The best course of action would be a completely privately funded arena, a course of action shown to be both possible and financially sensible in some cities during the recent wave of arena construction.

Failing that, making a slot-machine license part of the package is the next best thing. The expected cost of nearly $300 million for the arena wouldn't come from taxpayers directly, but indirectly in the form of casino profits.

That's better than hitting up the public for the cost of a new arena -- whether they want to contribute or not.

In this era, with so many tough decisions made about the apportionment of public money, and with education and other praiseworthy causes going without sufficient funding, outside-the-envelope means of funding new sports facilities are mandatory.

And when it comes to keeping Pittsburgh in the NHL? Whatever it takes.

Yes, the NHL could survive without Pittsburgh -- and vice versa. After all, since the 1967 expansion, the league got by after franchises abandoned Oakland, Kansas City, Cleveland, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec City.

Yet, the moves left voids, and not only because the NHL suddenly was without Hartford's "Brass Bonanza" and the Quebec Colisee's unparalleled feast -- hot dogs on toasted buns. The angst was especially widespread, heartfelt and palpable when owner Norm Green fled Minnesota for Dallas with the North Stars, and when the Jets and Nordiques gave in to the economic realities of the '90s and moved to the other side of the border.

The magnitude of Pittsburgh's loss would be just as great.

The NHL can't let loose of a city known for its blue-collar ethic, which is more about a mindset than occupations. Pittsburgh is a mecca for higher education and medical facilities, among many other things, so some of the talk about everyone carrying black lunch-boxes and wearing work boots to the job (not that there's anything wrong with that) can get out of hand.

Still, the quintessentially Pittsburgh tavern is Primanti Brothers, where the sandwiches served to doctors, lawyers, sportswriters and factory workers alike come with fries in them. (When I took them out, the waitress looked at me as if I either had just asked for a glass for my beer or requested seven-grain, rather than good ol' white bread.)

Pittsburgh's NHL track record doesn't always involve a sold-out Igloo, but unquestioned and deep-rooted passion for and understanding of the sport. They have been with the Penguins from Les Binkley, Syl Apps and Pierre Larouche, through Mario Lemieux, Badger Bob Johnson and Sidney Crosby; from lean times to Stanley Cups to bankruptcy and uncertainty; and through the evolution of the Igloo from decent enough building to an antiquated dump.

This involves the character of the city meshing with the hockey mentality.

So if the Penguins moved to Portland or Houston or Las Vegas or anywhere else, there would be plenty of great hockey fans in those other cities that lost NHL franchises who would snort: "Welcome to the club."

But the NHL can't let it happen.

With a hockey history that includes the old Western Hockey League Buckaroos and now major junior's Winter Hawks, Portland would be a great NHL city. That especially would be the case if Trail Blazers and Seahawks owner Paul Allen ever can be nudged out of his stubborn refusal to add a hockey franchise to his portfolio.

So might Houston, though with that traffic, I don't know how anyone ever would get to the games on time.

Cleveland, Kansas City and Winnipeg, with state-of-the-art arenas either open or under construction, might deserve second chances.

But none of them should make it into the NHL at Pittsburgh's expense.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

ALSO SEE