Ah, the rites of spring. In California, the swallows return to Capistrano. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins return to ask for more money, and a new arena. For this is the time of year that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux holds his annual charity golf tournament, when we watch the skies for jet-setting celebrities who will preen before KDKA's cameras. And we wait to see whether Lemieux's feathers are ruffled over his team's long-term prospects in Pittsburgh.
Lemieux might as well have flown south for the winter; until his June 10 press conference he hadn't spoken with reporters since last year. ("I wanted to keep the focus on the young guys and the team," he explained.) His team is tied to Mellon Arena until 2007, and several more pressing issues -- like Pittsburgh's financial collapse and the "war on terror" -- have consumed our attention in recent months.
But when Lemieux talked to reporters about plans to build a new arena for his team, it was almost as if no time had passed at all since his last golf tournament. (Lemieux in 2003: "I'm very disappointed in the efforts of the city and the county. ... Nothing's being done from their side." Lemieux in 2004: "Disappointed I think is the right word....[We] really haven't made any progress, especially this last year.") And by now, the pro-sports-complex rhetoric sounds tired. A new rink, Lemieux said, "is important to the region....I think this region needs a new facility -- don't you agree?...I think it would be good for the city and the region. Attract more acts to come in, better quality of life for the community, and being able to keep our young people in Pittsburgh."
Reference to fleeing young people, check. Frequent use of the word "region," check. Self-answering rhetorical question, check. Nod toward the importance of "quality of life," check. There was even the same, shall we say, ambivalence toward public opinion.
"[A]t the end of the day the public has to decide if they want a hockey team here in town, and the politicians have to get behind it," Lemieux said. You will notice that this statement seems to preclude the possibility of the public deciding they don't want a hockey team here in town. In fact, it doesn't really seem likely that the public will have a chance to decide the question at all. Lemieux has been notably cool to alternative plans, like a privately funded proposal to build a new arena partly underground. "I have a bunker too, but it's a wine cellar," Lemieux told reporters. "It's a little safer."
He's just regular people, Mario.
It's all enough to make you a little nostalgic for the late 1990s, when the biggest problem we faced was how many luxury boxes to build, rather than how many cops we could put on the beat. Remember when we used to get upset about naming rights to stadiums? Now a proposed financial recovery plan for the city itself recommends that the city lease ad space on public toilets, parking tickets, parking meter poles, and even adopt an "official soft drink." (My suggestion: Iron City beer.)
Even Mario couldn't entirely banish the gray clouds on the horizon. The National Hockey League's collective bargaining agreement with its players ends this summer, after all. When asked if it would "be fair for politicians to say they want to wait and see what the new [contract] looks like" before ponying up for an agreement, Lemieux said, "The more we wait, the more the cost is going to go up. Why not make a deal now" whose conditions depend on the outcome of the negotiations? "You wait another year or two, the cost might be $30, 40, 50 million more than it is right now."
What Lemieux didn't mention, but what his fans understand, is that Lemieux himself hasn't been making many deals lately. While Lemieux has intimated that the team might acquire a marquee free agent sometime soon, his team has been scraping by with a cheap roster of little-known talent. Lemieux is asking pols to roll the dice before a contract accord is reached, but at the same time he's hedging his own bets. And he's not the only one: While Lemieux suggested he'd had "between one and five" inquiries about selling the team, prospective owners will likely wait to see how the negotiations turn out as well before they get in too deep.
Of course, the biggest gamble of all is that the state will legalize slot machines, and that the Penguins will receive some of the tax windfall. Lemieux has said a slots bill is "the last chance that we have to make an arena deal." What Pens fans might be less quick to appreciate, however, is that Lemieux's thriftiness could also make his team that easier to move. He has a roster that isn't burdened by big salaries or sulky stars -- like, oh, Jaromir Jagr.
It's only natural Lemieux would want a commitment from politicians as soon as possible. Unlike the Steelers and the Pirates in the 1990s, he doesn't have a politician like Mayor Tom Murphy championing his cause -- which might be just as well, given Murphy's current popularity. There will be a hotly contested mayoral contest next year, and only a madman would support the Pens' cause in a city currently facing sizable tax hikes and service cuts. County Executive Dan Onorato, who announced plans to lay off as many as 200 workers the same day Lemieux aired his grievances, is also unlikely to fight for the Penguins' cause. No surprise, then, that Lemieux is looking to the state for aid.
But even if a slots bill doesn't happen this year, maybe Lemieux ought to wait before flying the coop. The winds may change more quickly than he expects: An economic uptick and higher-than-expected revenue from last year's tax increases have Harrisburg practically giddy at the prospect of budget surpluses. And when the economic climate permits, politicians can usually be counted on to take leave of their senses...as surely as the swallows will one day take leave of Capistrano.