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Let Cooler Heads Prevail

Lemieux needs to put emotions on ice

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For athletes, a burst of emotion can be the perfect fuel for a competitive fire.

But outside the arena -- particularly in the boardroom -- emotions are less useful.

On ice, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux was certainly driven by a perfect mixture of pride and controlled rage. He may have purchased the Penguins at least partially because of emotion too. (Well, that and the desire to make a buck.) Whatever his motives, in buying the team and saving the franchise he rose in our estimation from Mario the Great to Mario the Saint.

Now, with talks on building the Penguins a new hockey arena bogged down, Lemieux could go from hero to heel. Just like that.

There seem to be two prevailing views on a Pens move. First, that fans are overreacting and should leave the sturm und drang to the Pittsburgh Opera. Second, that life as we know it will cease if the franchise leaves. That sharp divide is what happens when hyperbole meets emotion.

Lemieux is acting as if the previous inaction by city and state leaders were a personal affront, as if he didn't know that the city had flirted with bankruptcy itself in recent years. State and local officials should have taken action sooner; at the very least, the issue should have been discussed seriously enough to prevent the animosity from festering. But now that officials are anxious to come to terms, Mario is bristling like a petulant child -- making it clear he's ready to take his puck and leave. (Gov. Ed Rendell, for example, says the Pens want public officials to bail them out of a $10 million side deal with the Isle of Capri gambling concern.)

Emotion may have served Lemieux well during his years as one of hockey's all-time greats. But right now it's hurting him, and the city.

There is no denying that sports are part of what defines a community. I don't mean to minimize the plight of those who work at the arena and nearby businesses that might suffer, but losing the Pens would be more than just numbers on a ledger. It would be a significant blow to our collective self-image.

But it's not just best for the fans or the city for the Penguins to stay put. On both financial and poetic levels, it's better for the team as well.

In 1997, motivated by pique and greed, Hartford Whalers owner Peter Karaminos moved the beloved team to Raleigh, N.C. Karaminos was convinced he would pull in money faster than he could count it. It hasn't worked out that way. Certain they would sell 10,000 season tickets the first year, the newly renamed Hurricanes sold only 3,083.

They attempted to generate excitement by unveiling a mascot: "Stormy," the ice hog. An ice hog.

Stormy's unveiling was quite the event: Stashed in the Zamboni trunk compartment, Stormy was to burst out to the thunderous applause of the dozens of fans in attendance. It didn't work -- the mascot was inside, unconscious, overcome by engine fumes. The mishap was a metaphor for the move from Hartford. Stormy has made a full recovery, but when the Hurricanes won the Cup last season, after nearly a decade in the New South, almost nobody noticed.

This season, writers and talking heads are gnashing their teeth about empty arenas -- when they bother to write about hockey at all. Of the top 10 teams in attendance (ranked by percentage of seats filled), only Tampa is in a "new" market. The other nine being filled out by traditional markets like Montreal, Detroit and Ottawa. Nashville's franchise is No. 1 in the Power Rankings, but it draws 85 percent-capacity crowds. That's a full 10 percentage points below Pittsburgh. Carolina, by the way, is barely pulling in 83 percent.

I suppose one of the markets interested in a relocated franchise -- like Tulsa or Kansas City -- might become the next Tampa. But my guess is they're more likely to become the next Raleigh.

Why give up a sure thing in Pittsburgh? Pens fans support their team with a fervor that borders on fanaticism. There's plenty of money to be made here, and in the long run, the right business move is to stay put.

As they say in Canada, a flightless waterfowl in the hand is worth two in the Midwest.

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