Penguins Future in Doubt
May. 18, 1999
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The Pittsburgh Penguins wrote a memorable chapter in their intriguing history this season. Too bad for them it was Chapter 11.
Saddled with millions of dollars in debt rung up under owners Howard Baldwin and Roger Marino, the Penguins filed for bankruptcy in October, borrowed to get through the season, then prayed for the best.
They nearly got it.
Despite an avalanche of distractions, including Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux's bid to bail them out of bankruptcy, the Penguins surprised top-seeded New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs.
The Penguins then were in position to eliminate Toronto, only to lose the final three games. Two were in overtime, both at home.
The end _ and it might be permanent _ came with Monday's 4-3 overtime loss on former teammate Garry Valk's overtime goal at 1:57.
Now, the save must come not from goaltender Tom Barrasso, but U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Bernard Markovitz.
Only the judge, and the dozens of creditors who are owed anywhere from $26 million (Lemieux) to a few thousand dollars (a limousine company), can save the 32-year-old franchise.
If creditors approve Lemieux's reorganization plan by June 24, the Penguins will remain in Pittsburgh. If not, the court could choose an NHL plan that calls for an unidentified buyer _ presumably, billionaire Paul Allen _ to buy them for $85 million and relocate them, probably to Portland, Ore.
A third plan emerged Tuesday. SMG, the Penguins' landlord at the Civic Arena, and Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh presented a plan that would make Lemieux a minority owner and consultant.
``From a city-of-Pittsburgh perspective and a fan perspective, they should be rooting hard for our plan,'' SMG attorney Saul Burian said. ``Our plan, I believe, would produce a franchise that is in better financial shape than that which would result from a Lemieux plan.''
Fox, SMG and their investors would own most of the team under their plan. If Lemieux rejects it, he would be lumped in with other creditors.
Lemieux said the team needs to be run by someone in Pittsburgh. SMG is based in Philadelphia, and Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh is part of a national broadcasting company.
``We need an ownership team committed to one team in one market _ Pittsburgh,'' said Lemieux, the former Penguins superstar and sixth-leading scorer in league history. ``Our ownership group under my leadership will be committed exclusively to the Penguins and only the Penguins.''
``As far as I'm concerned, I'm coming to Pittsburgh for training camp in September,'' forward Rob Brown said. ``In my heart, I'll be in Pittsburgh next year.''
But will the Penguins?
If this was their last season in Pittsburgh, at least they left behind memories.
Depleted not just in dollars but in talent following the offseason departure of Ron Francis, they probably would have been satisfied just to make the playoffs. They did much better.
NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr further emerged as the league's dominant player in the post-Lemieux and, now, post-Wayne Gretzky era.
Except for Jagr, the Penguins were mostly without their customary cast of stars (Lemieux, Francis, Kevin Stevens, etc.) So they improvised, getting a career year from Martin Straka, a one-time castoff who made the All-Star game; and a big lift from rookie Jan Hrdina, who wasn't expected to make the team but became the No. 1 center.
Alexei Kovalev finished with 53 points after being dealt in November for longtime holdout Petr Nedved. Robert Lang and former career minor leaguer Kip Miller made major contributions.
Coach Kevin Constantine also succeeded in selling defense to a team once known only for scoring.
The Penguins slipped to the final spot in the conference playoffs by finishing 2-8-2. That sent them against top-seeded New Jersey, and the Penguins seemed destined for their third straight first-round elimination.
But Jagr delivered a gutsy effort in Game 6, returning from a four-game layoff with a groin injury to score the tying goal late in regulation and the winner in overtime.
The Penguins won Game 7 in New Jersey to reach the second round for the first time since 1996. They won Game 1 in Toronto and were up 2-1 in the series, only to give back home-ice advantage by losing Game 4 at home in overtime.
The Penguins were timid in losing 4-1 in Game 5. They were anything but in storming to their quick lead in Game 6. Goaltender Curtis Joseph kept it from being much worse.
``This group, at any point during the season, could have latched onto a reason to not do well,'' Constantine said. ``They refused to ever latch on to a real, legitimate excuse because they wanted to win a Stanley Cup.''
Now, perhaps, a city has begun to realize those cold winter nights might be much emptier without the former Stanley Cup champions.
``Nobody wants to leave Pittsburgh,'' Jagr said. ``It would be sad.''