Friday, August 15, 2008

Ceremonial new arena groundbreaking finally arrives in Pittsburgh

The day finally came for those long-time Pittsburgh Penguins fans hoping this dream would become reality.

Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux (third from left) with team and government officials shovel dirt during
the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for Pittsburgh's
new arena on August 14, 2008.

(photo courtesy: Pittsburgh Penguins)

Key members of the Penguins' front office and government officials were on hand yesterday to participate in a ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony at the site of where a new $290 million multipurpose arena will be built in downtown Pittsburgh.

Now Pittsburghers can say and feel that a new era is coming without hesitation as Robert Dvorchak of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out. No more hoping and praying the team will stay in town. No more hoping and praying that a new arena can be built in the Steel City so that for one, Pittsburgh can catch up with the current times instead of staying stuck in yesteryears. And for two, the Penguins can financially compete on the same playing field as other National Hockey League teams.

What a difference a few years make. Just think, when the 2004-2005 lockout happened, the Penguins were in bad shape. Mario Lemieux, one of the greatest players in league history would have to rescue the team from bankruptcy not once, but twice. They couldn't pay their top players market value. They couldn't compete on the ice when it came to wins and losses. Too few fans were coming out to Mellon Arena to watch the Penguins play.

Pittsburgh's fortunes would change dramatically with the arrival of their rising superstar forward Sidney Crosby thanks to the lady luck of the NHL Draft Lottery and officially being drafted first overall on July 30, 2005.

"To go from Junior to the NHL is a big step, but I am excited and a little nervous not knowing what to expect. It's going to be a great time," Crosby said three years ago, just two months before he played his first NHL game. "I think there's pressure, obviously with no season last year, they are going to look to players to step up and bring interest to the game. I believe I am going to be one of those guys, but I don't think I have the NHL on my back. There's a lot of great players that are going to bring interest, but I do feel part of that group."

So far, Crosby has already met expectations and even exceeded them. He became the youngest player ever to win the Art Ross Trophy with a league-best 102 points in his 2005-2006 rookie season. Then he earned league MVP honors with his 120 points in the 2006-2007 campaign. And of course last season with a little help from his friends, Crosby was able to help lead Pittsburgh as their captain all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals just a few months ago.

With all that momentum of a promising future on the ice, now the Penguins are ready to make the transition into a new era of franchise history off it as well. When all hope was all but lost with Lemieux's battles with the state of Pennsylvania, Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh to make public funding available to get a new arena built, somehow all the parties involved were able to finalize a deal on March 13, 2007.

Despite what he or anybody else says publicly, Lemieux was serious about relocating the Penguins to another city had the arena deal not been completed. Just two months prior to it being signed on the dotted line, Lemieux as the team owner had gone to Kansas City to speak with city officials and those that run the new Sprint Center about possibly moving the team there and a proposal was in fact submitted to #66 and his ownership group. Thanks to funding help coming from revenue that will be generated through casino slots over the next 30 years, the Penguins will remain where they are. Despite financial issues involving the original owner of the winning casino slots license where Detroit businessman Don Barden defaulted on loans and ran out of money to continue construction at the casino site on Pittsburgh's North Shore, new blood was infused into the project. A new investment team led by Chicago real estate billionaire Neil Bluhm received approval last night in Harrisburg from the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to take control of the casino with Barden keeping a minority share. More importantly, Bluhm has promised to honor Barden's pledge of $225 million in financial assistance toward the construction of the new arena.

"I'm pleased the Gaming Control Board was able to complete its due diligence regarding the transfer of the Pittsburgh gaming license in a timely manner," Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato said in a statement after the slots license transfer was approved. "According to the board, Neil Bluhm's investment group has the financial wherewithal to open a state-of-the-art casino on the North Shore in 2009. In addition, Mr. Bluhm has pledged to honor all of the obligations originally made by Don Barden, including $7.5 million for 30 years toward construction of the new arena and funding for Hill District and North Side redevelopment projects. We look forward to seeing construction resume in the very near future."

Hours earlier, with fans in attendance at the construction site where the new arena will be built, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl, officials from the Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh & Allegheny County (SEA) as well as Onorato joined Lemieux, Penguins chief executive officer Ken Sawyer and team president David Morehouse for the groundbreaking ceremony. After some remarks by key speakers including Rendell, all of them gathered in the spot where center ice is expected to be located and shoveled some dirt to mark the historic occasion. There were plenty of smiles and sighs of relief the day finally came.

"I am delighted to be a part of this historic event," Rendell said. "Construction of this new arena will provide immediate economic stimulus by creating construction jobs but, more importantly, it will benefit residents for decades to come."

Couldn't disagree with that, Mr. Governor.

"This facility will not only be home to the Pittsburgh Penguins for years to come, but it will also serve as an entertainment centerpiece and economic generator for our entire region," said Onorato echoed the same sentiments as Rendell.

Ravenstahl already envisions the impact of a new world-class facility in his city.

"Through strong leadership and a vision, the Pittsburgh Penguins will soon be playing in a top-notch arena," the mayor said. "Very soon, our city will be able to attract larger events in this multi-use facility, spurring more development around Pittsburgh's new and improved 'face'."

With the city having both PNC Park and Heinz Field each opened its doors in 2001, now the Penguins will finally have a new playpen of their own. For seven years, Lemieux pressed hard to get a venue built in which his team can enjoy the same benefits the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers respectively have with their facilities.

Even though he was not one of the speakers during the ceremony, he had plenty to say afterwards. No doubt about it, by the tone of his voice, he's happy and relieved at the same time.

Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux speaks with the media after the ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony for Pittsburgh's new arena on August 14, 2008.
(photo courtesy: Pittsburgh Penguins)

"It felt pretty good; it's been a long time coming and a lot of hard work from a lot of people through the years from the Penguins side and, of course, our politicians," he said. "To be here and to see it going up in the next couple years is something that is exciting for all of us – not only the Penguins, but the region in general. The entire community should be proud of this building going up in the next two years and being able to enjoy it for the next 30 years."

The 1997 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who spent his entire 17-year playing career with the Penguins had to admit he wasn't sure if this happy ending of shovels in the ground would come to pass based on the struggles of getting the arena deal done last year.

"There were a lot of ups and downs throughout the negotiations. I got frustrated a few times, but, at the end of the day, I wanted this team to stay here," Lemieux said. "I have been with this franchise since 1984 and it would have been a shame to see this franchise go somewhere else. The Penguins belong in Pittsburgh and that's where we are today."

But before then, was he serious about moving the team to Kansas City?

"We had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way. Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go and have a nice dinner and come back," Lemieux said with a slight grin on his face.

Hmmm, I don't know if those Lemieux met with in Kansas City and Las Vegas would take that very well. He probably assumes they would with a grain of salt. Well, not exactly. The Kansas City media ran with his comments, including KMBC-TV taking the time to air a report on this very subject. The station even went out of the way to gauge reaction from Kansas Citians.

But, if the NHL is able to continue its recovery from the lockout of just a few years ago and remains on track economically, those two cities could get serious considerations for expansion teams.

The new multi-purpose arena that will sit across the street from Mellon Arena will seat nearly 18,100 fans for Penguins games and is expected to be on schedule to open in time for the 2010-2011 NHL season. KDKA-TV's John Shumay reported last night that Sawyer said steel framework on the site that is between Fifth and Centre Avenues in the Lower Hill District could rise from the foundation by the end of this year or the beginning of 2009.

Now with this next step in a process that has two more years to go, now Lemieux can also breathe easier with his young and highly skilled superstars such as forwards Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal plus goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury contractually here for a while, winning a Stanley Cup championship in the new digs is a realistic goal now within reach.

"He's (Crosby) under contract for a while now and hopefully he wants to stay here for his entire career like I did," Lemieux clearly stated. "I know he's a loyal kid and he loves Pittsburgh and he loves playing here. I'm sure that he'll want to stay here for the remainder of his career."

How about Lemieux himself? Are his days numbered as chairman and co-owner of the team? There has been talk of #66 potentially selling his share in the NHL franchise his ownership group purchased in 1999.

"Not for a while," Lemieux told Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh-Tribune-Review. "As long as the ownership group is having fun and putting a good product on the ice, I'll be here for a while."

If for the long-term future the Penguins are going to be a more stable and successful franchise with Lemieux in charge, it doesn't hurt to have one of the best players in the NHL today be in Pittsburgh for years to come. The new arena will help go a long way in getting there as Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes.

Now it is just a matter of waiting until 2010 to see him wearing that black #87 jersey with the skating penguin logo on the front in front of his home fans in a brand spanking new building. The team set up a new arena web site page with detailed information on the arena, complete with fact sheets, images of what it will look like and even a computer-generated "fly through" video (see below). Plus, you can watch the construction progress as the Penguins set up a webcam for your 24/7 viewing pleasure.

video courtesy: Pittsburgh Penguins and HOK Sport

Penguins fans have waited this long already, two more years won't feel like such a long ways away anymore.

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