Penguins have bright future

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- The tutelage of 18-year-old Sidney Crosby by Mario Lemieux is about money and politics and family.

It is part tradition -- the old hand acclimatizing the young gun to life in Dodge -- and part high finance.

Lemieux, the only team president/superstar in pro sports, is bleeding money and so is the ownership group he has worked with since the Penguins dropped dead on his front porch in 1999.

When the Penguins hit paydirt with what was initially a 6% chance of landing Crosby in the draft lottery, they launched a radical gambit to secure what Lemieux insists is the club's only lifeline: A new arena.

Winning and sellout crowds would dramatically improve the odds of securing a new arena, especially since Lemieux and his partners are proposing an unconventional financing plan for a new building.

The state has agreed to permit slot machines in Pittsburgh. Lemieux and company are among half a dozen groups vying for the licence to operate a facility. A portion of the take would finance the arena. A decision is expected within a year.

"If we have a great team and the politicians see the excitement we bring to the city and how important we are to the city and generate the taxes that we do for this community, I think it's an easy sell," Lemieux said. "But with politicians, you have to be nice to them."

And so in addition to making nice, the Penguins leveraged Crosby, who makes a base salary of $850,000 US, $150,000 less than Andre Roy, to attract talent.

"Getting Sidney allowed us to get (skilled defenceman Sergei) Gonchar right off the bat and that was a key signing for us," Lemieux said. "Once we did that, the players realized we wanted to put a great team on the ice and that gave us the chance to go after (Ziggy) Palffy and all the other guys we got."

The Penguins expect to operate with a $31-million payroll, $9 million more than when the team last played.

Lemieux said even with sellout crowds, they will lose money, plenty of it.

"We're projecting to lose $7 million with two rounds of the playoffs," Lemieux said. "In this building, it's the best we can do."

All short term.

The new building is the greater prize.

Mellon Arena offers only 50 makeshift luxury boxes, a third of the number at the Air Canada Centre. The Penguins receive nothing from parking and nothing on concessions. The building is 44 years old, too new to be historic and charming, too old to be anything but shabby. It easily is the oldest facility in the NHL.

Playing to half-full houses in a dilapidated arena in the shadow of a lockout was a pretty daunting proposition.

But then the lottery ball rolled right and changed everything.

The club's lease expires in 2007, and if the slots idea doesn't work, a hot new star and championship-calibre team make Lemieux's oft-stated mantra of "I've got to do what's right for the business," more emotionally charged than ever.

Crosby, meanwhile, already has taken to playing hockey with Lemieux's oldest son Austin in the front drive of the Lemieux home in nearby Sewickley.

Perfect.

Pens coach Ed Olczyk remembers coming to the Penguins late in his career and still feeling the enormous weight of having Lemieux as a teammate.

"I was intimidated," Olczyk said.

"And I had played over 700 games at that time."

But it's a little easier to be unfazed when you've seen Lemieux in an apron.

Crosby has stopped being gobsmacked by Lemieux's presence.

The drives to and from work, the three on-ice sessions the two shared prior to yesterday's opening of camp and the time in the weight room already has started to shave off the awe.

"For the first little bit it was awkward, but it's okay now," Crosby said.

"He has been making me feel comfortable and familiarized me with what's here. That's the main thing, just being around him and seeing how he goes about things every day."

Crosby, of course, is well worth the trouble because he is every bit as ambitious as his mentor is now.

"He is," the 39-year-old Lemieux said, "more mature than I was at his age."

Indeed, Crosby's talent may not approach Lemieux's (whose does?) but Crosby has marched resolutely and unflinchingly into stardom.

"I want to be the best, so whatever comes with that I have to accept," Crosby said. "I don't think there was ever a time where I stepped back and said 'I wish I was doing something different.' "


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