Penguins explore options with meeting in KC

Updated: January 4, 2007, 10:57 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Mario Lemieux and other members of the Penguins' ownership group met with Kansas City officials on Wednesday, increasing speculation that the team might leave Pittsburgh.

Michael Roth, a spokesman for Los Angeles-based Anschutz Entertainment Group, which will operate the new Sprint Center, issued a statement Wednesday confirming that meetings were scheduled with the ownership group of the Pittsburgh Penguins and his organization.

Company officials declined to comment further, but a news conference was planned for Thursday in Kansas City.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, civic leaders were assembling an offer to finance a new arena and keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh for a Thursday meeting with team officials.

"We're in the position to put together a very competitive deal for a new arena and a franchise to be in that arena, and I believe at the end of the day the NHL and the ownership of the Penguins will see that this is a competitive deal," said Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

The future of the franchise in Pittsburgh has been in question since last month when the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission rejected a slot application by Isle of Capri Casinos, which had promised to build a $290 million arena for the Penguins if its bid was approved.

Lemieux said the team, which had been up for sale, was taken off the market following the failed Isle of Capri bid. He and partner Ron Burkle said they would begin considering relocation offers from cities outside of Pennsylvania.

"We are meeting with officials in Kansas City today as part of our effort to explore all of our options regarding a new arena," Lemieux said in a statement on the team's Web site. "We have heard many great things about their new building, which is scheduled to open in time for the start of the 2007-08 NHL season."

Pittsburgh plays in the 45-year-old Mellon Arena, the NHL's oldest venue, and would have to stay there for several more years even if a new arena deal in Pittsburgh could be reached. The franchise's current lease expires in June.

The $276 million Sprint Center is under construction and set to open in the fall. The facility, which will seat about 18,000, is searching for an anchor tenant but has already sold out its 72 luxury suites. The arena is a public-private partnership between the city and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which also manages the NHL's Kings and Staples Center.

A deal to bring the team to Kansas City would almost certainly involve venture capitalist William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, who has a contract to own any NHL team based at the Sprint Center. Del Biaggio is a limited partner of the San Jose Sharks and part owner with Lemieux of the U.S. Hockey League's Omaha Lancers. He nearly bought the Penguins in 2005.

Messages left with Del Biaggio's office in Menlo Park, Calif., were not immediately returned.

Kansas City is believed to be the first city to extend an invitation for a visit to Lemieux and the Penguins' ownership team. Other cities that have expressed interest in the Penguins are Houston; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Portland, Ore.; and possibly Oklahoma City.

Lemieux and Burkle were scheduled to meet late Thursday with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

The sides will likely discuss an improved Plan B agreement, which involves Detroit-based gambling company owner Dan Barden.

It was Barden's Majestic Star Casino that beat out Isle of Capri for Pittsburgh's only slot machine parlor license. The Barden group has pledged $7.5 million a year for 30 years to help fund a new arena. The state would also pay $7 million and the franchise would be responsible for 20 percent of the cost.

Kansas City failed in its only attempt to support an NHL franchise.

The Scouts started strong in 1974, drawing about 15,000 fans to their first game. But the team was plagued by mismanagement and was grossly under-financed. Average attendance fell to about 7,300 within a year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ALSO SEE