Message to all things Penguin: Make up your minds

Updated: July 31, 2006, 3:42 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Slot machines and casino licenses are in the mix.

So are potential ownership groups, perhaps with musicians on notice to play "Brass Bonanza" live at a Hartford home opener or to offer Arthur Bryant's Barbeque to all fans at the first game of an NHL return to Kansas City.

Pittsburgh's favorite sons and sporting figures are lending their support to a New York businessman's offer for the franchise.

The icon, Mario Lemieux, is trying both to protect his financial stake and to avoid being known as the guy who, albeit after years of patience and unquestioned effort to make the franchise financially viable, essentially consented to its departure.

Sidney Crosby
AP PhotoWhat city will watch Sidney Crosby after next season? Terry Frei hopes it's still Pittsburgh.

The Penguins' ongoing drama is such a soap opera, I expect Anthony Geary of "General Hospital" and Susan Lucci of "All My Children," along with at least three of the actors who portrayed her 21 on-air husbands, to join one of the potential ownership groups.

That would have added to the drama of Dan Marino telling management to always look for players who could get rid of the puck quickly, and of Mark Cuban arguing to Gary Bettman that referee Kerry Fraser's disdain for Cuban's undisciplined coiffure makes the zebra prejudiced against the Pens.

I'm on record. The Penguins belong in Pittsburgh.

It would be sad, and a step back for the league, if the NHL abandons the vibrant western Pennsylvania city at the confluence of three rivers; and a market that features a convergence of higher education, health care and, yes, blue collars on those black-and-gold replica jerseys.

A Penguins' departure would be as unfortunate, and perhaps even more so, than when the league abandoned Quebec City, Winnipeg, Hartford and Cleveland. (Why is it that everyone forgets Cleveland, which has a deep, if not necessarily glorious, hockey tradition?)

For one thing, with Sidney Crosby on the ice and Evgeni Malkin about to join him front and center, the names on the marquee (if the NHL actually allows star names on the marquee) will be compelling and the entertainment quotient high, regardless of where the franchise ends up.

Pittsburgh would become the third market in the NHL's six-team expansion of 1967 to lose its franchise, though loosely speaking, the other two -- the Twin Cities and the Bay Area -- got second chances.

When Badger Bob Johnson, who coached the Mario Lemieux-led Pens to the Stanley Cup, reprised his trademark line, "It's a great day for hockey," he meant in Pittsburgh, too.

But at some point, the indignities pile up and become ridiculous, demeaning and even tiresome.

We're getting dizzy trying to separate the disingenuousness from the sincerity.

Sure, we're told, if the Isle of Capri gets the slots license and backs a new arena project, all the potential owners would keep the team in Pittsburgh. And if a rival casino group lands the coveted license -- i.e., a license to print money without having to use counterfeit plates -- there are other politician-endorsed ways all set as alternatives to make a new arena a reality.

Uh-huh. And the check is in the mail, too. (Sometimes, it must be conceded, the check really is in the mail.)

In these times, new arenas and stadiums should be at the very least private and public partnerships, and not solely taxpayer-funded. But with the Steelers and Pirates playing in new stadiums within a stroll of Mellon Arena, it's impossible to blame the Penguins for feeling slighted about being stuck with the oldest and worst arena in the NHL.

The slots license-arena financing scheme isn't the optimal way to get it done, but at least it's imaginative and, if done right, acceptable.

But this saga can't be allowed to drag on forever.

At some point, and that point is rapidly approaching, if not already past, somebody needs to step in and forcefully say: This is getting silly.

Enough posturing, by everyone concerned.

Do it or forget it. And any group paying more than lip service to the concept of keeping the team in Pittsburgh has to go to the front of the line.

The latest drama was Lemieux, in what probably was a pragmatic business move, hinting this week that it would be premature to assume that Hartford developer Samuel Fingold -- the head of the group that has offered about $175 million who would consider moving the team to a new arena in Kansas City -- is on the verge of being given a chance to exclusively negotiate a deal.

That's a wordy way of saying Lemieux announced to the other suitors: "Do I hear $200 million?"

He could have just put the Penguins on eBay with a $190 million "reserve," perhaps also hoping that developer Larry Gottesdiener, who has ties to Hartford, comes back with another bid as well.

Seriously: This potentially is what the Seattle Sonics are going to go through in the NBA, with a 2007 deadline set for the green-lighting of a new arena or another Key Arena renovation; otherwise, the franchise almost certainly will end up in Oklahoma City. (That's after Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz, he of the mega-Venti fortune and a $3.25 cup of coffee on every corner, gave in and decided to sell.)

It's a lame-duck status, with threatening undertones, and it is preordained to fail.

Fans are smart, especially when they are asked to invest their hearts as well as their dollars. They can see through talk about hoping it works out in, for example, Pittsburgh, when the reality is the new owners hope to be able to mitigate losses before eventually getting approval to move the team.

It's always risky to simply evaluate "offers" based only on the dollar figures. It's possible that elements of the offer from the group headed by New York financier Andrew Murstein, who has chased other sports franchises, raised some red flags. But the $170 million offer at least was extremely competitive, and it also came with the deepest commitment to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh. With Marino and Cuban involved as investors, it has some western Pennsylvania credibility. The earlier bid from Ohio businessman Jim Renacci had Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, another Pittsburgh kind of guy, aboard as a partner.

If Lemieux and Co. are serious about wanting to be a part of a process that keeps the team in Pittsburgh, and even if that's as interested former owners watching ground broken on a new arena, then there should be a way to give Murstein -- if he's legitimate -- the first crack, or to get Renacci back in the picture.

Some of Murstein's public maneuvering has bordered on grandstanding, almost as if he knows that being perceived as the champion of Pittsburgh puts pressure on the current ownership to give his group a "hometown" discount. So, if the current ownership is returning the maneuvering favor, trying to leverage him into upping the group's bid and keeping the auction, in effect, going for all, that's understandable.

But there's too much at stake to make this as much of a game as a Tuesday night meeting with the Flyers.

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