'Why you don't run out' on a market

PITTSBURGH -- It is, after all, just a building. A collection of steel, glass, nuts and bolts. The Consol Energy Center, for all its bells and whistles, for all its very newness, is not a living, breathing organism. An arena, in and of itself, is not a force for good.

But make no mistake: This building, which will host its first regular-season NHL game Thursday night, represents much more than just nicer seats, more reliable elevators and fewer vermin than the sad, old Mellon Arena provided for the past 47 years.

The Consol Energy Center is a gleaming reminder that sometimes sticking it out is the best way. It is a reminder that no matter how attractive it might be to say "forget it" and move on, sometimes it's better to take the path of most resistance.

"You don't run out because there are issues. You try and address those issues," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN.com this week. "I believed in the city and the fans in the city. We believed in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a classic example of why you don't run out."

On Wednesday morning, former captain, majority owner and full-time savior Mario Lemieux sat in the lower bowl of the new rink watching the Pittsburgh Penguins practice for the last time before opening night against the Philadelphia Flyers. He sat by himself, then was joined briefly by GM Ray Shero. And then, he was gone.

"It's a great feeling," Shero said of moving into a new building. "Seeing Mario here this morning, I'm just really happy for him."

There is no way to discuss the long-awaited move into the Consol without discussing Lemieux. They are intrinsically linked, just as Lemieux is intrinsically linked to the history and future of this franchise.

We remember our cynical reaction sitting at a news conference back in late 2000, when Lemieux announced he was returning to the NHL after retiring to deal with cancer and a chronic back injury. The only reason he was coming back, we muttered, was to try to make sure he got the millions of dollars he was owed by the franchise (as if that would be a bad thing, but we digress).

Much later, we chided Lemieux for remaining stonily silent during the Penguins' march to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008, the team's first trip to the finals since Lemieux himself captained the Pens to titles in 1991 and 1992. If there wasn't something in it for Mario, he wasn't willing to make the effort, we opined.

Even now as the team prepares to move into its shiny new digs at the Consol Energy Center, Lemieux remains an intensely private man, steadfastly determined to remain removed from the limelight in which his team is frequently placed.

Whether this fits the notion of how we imagine a Hall of Fame player turned NHL owner to act really doesn't matter. The proof of Lemieux's commitment to this city and franchise is in the steel and glass and comfy seats of the Consol Energy Center.

His fingerprints on this building? Ha. He might as well have tightened every bolt and soldered every beam, because in the end, there is simply no way to overstate his importance to the construction of this $321 million building. And without this building, there would not have been a Pittsburgh Penguins team.

Near ice level is a nicely appointed suite, the most prestigious of 66 suites scattered around the new building. In the suite (Suite No. 66, as it is known) are a number of mementos donated by Lemieux from his home collection, including the sticks with which he scored his 500th and 600th NHL goals and replicas of his individual trophies.

"I don't think he would have done that five years ago," said Tom McMillan, the vice president of communications for the team and a former beat writer who covered Lemieux when he entered the league. "I think he's more comfortable with his legacy now."

How dicey was it in Pittsburgh? When Shero moved here from Nashville before the 2006-07 season, he told his wife there were no guarantees they wouldn't end up moving to Kansas City or Las Vegas because of the uncertainty over whether a new building would come to Pittsburgh.

"I told her, 'I think you should hold off on getting curtains,'" Shero told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I think we finally bought curtains in February after Mario made the announcement [the team was staying]. It seems like a hundred years ago."

Lemieux ended up being a reluctant owner, but once he was in that position, he did nothing halfway. Would he have sold the team to interests in Kansas City? Or Portland? Or Las Vegas? Sure he would have. He almost sold the team to BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie, and that would have meant a move to southern Ontario. But he didn't. And, eventually, with the help of Bettman and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, Lemieux got local politicians on board and the process of constructing a new building began.

"It all came together," Bettman said.

Did it ever. The Penguins selected Sidney Crosby in the draft lottery after the lockout in the summer of 2005. They've since gone to the Cup finals twice and won it all in 2009. "And they got the building they had to have," Bettman said.

Whatever criticism is leveled at Bettman – and there's a lot of it, both fair and unfair – he got this one right. Can you imagine for a minute an NHL without the Pittsburgh Penguins? Can you imagine for a minute this vibrant, passionate hockey market that will sell out its 167th straight game Thursday being stripped of its team? However disappointing the loss of the Jets was to Winnipeg or the loss of the Nordiques was to Quebec City, this would have been 10 times the travesty.

So, this building isn't just a gift to the fans of the Penguins ("gift" being a relative term given what ticket prices are) but also a reminder to fans everywhere that their loyalty is not taken for granted. For a league that struggles on some levels for relevancy in the United States, that is powerful currency.

It was so when the league didn't walk away from Buffalo when that team went into bankruptcy and when Ottawa was in a similar financial pickle.

You can argue until night becomes day about whether the NHL should be in Atlanta or Nashville or South Florida, whether those markets deserve a team, whether they can sustain a team long term. You can argue twice as long about the NHL's tack in first going to Phoenix and then battling Balsillie from taking the Coyotes out of the desert. But what Consol Energy Center tells fans in those oft-troubled markets, and every other market, is this: They matter.

"It's a covenant I believe we have with our fans," Bettman said. "We don't want our fans anywhere to think we take their commitment to their team lightly."

On Thursday night, Penguins fans will stream into their shiny new building and see the cool interactive displays with their favorite players. They will be able to recount the team's moments of glory and marvel at the sight lines and the broad concourses that look out onto the giant scoreboard, and they won't give a moment's thought to what might have been lost.

And that is exactly how it should be.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.