Lemieux in for long haul
Mario Lemieux shoveled dirt on speculation his days as majority co-owner of the Penguins are numbered.
"Not for a while," Lemieux said Thursday of potentially selling his share in the NHL franchise his ownership group purchased in 1999. "As long as the ownership group is having fun and putting a good product on the ice, I'll be here for a while."
Those words from Lemieux came only minutes after he joined Penguins executives and state and local elected officials at a groundbreaking ceremony on the site of Pittsburgh's new $290 million arena.
That arena, which team chief executive officer Ken Sawyer said will open for the 2010-11 season, will include a statue honoring Lemieux, the all-time leading scorer in Penguins history.
"We'd be remiss if we didn't have that," Sawyer said of the to-be-designed statue, which will be positioned near the plaza entrance at the northwest corner of Centre Avenue.
Sawyer said revenue the Penguins expect to generate from the new arena allowed general manager Ray Shero to sign several young players to long-term contracts over the past two years - including captain Sidney Crosby, fellow center Evgeni Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Lemieux, who said he is "always involved" in personnel decisions, added the Penguins are within $3 million or $4 million of the NHL's 2008-09 salary cap, $56.7 million. He said the team will be better positioned to "go to the cap" when the new arena opens.
The Penguins likely would have pressed against the cap for the upcoming season had right wing Marian Hossa not rejected three offers to stay in Pittsburgh. Hossa, who paced the team with 12 playoff goals in 20 postseason games last season, signed a one-year contract July 2 with the Detroit Red Wings.
"It was very disappointing," Lemieux said of Hossa's departure. "I thought he wanted to be part of what we've built here over the past couple of years - especially with Sid and Malkin, having two of the best players in the world."
Sawyer suggested the Penguins' new arena will be among the best in the world. He credited Ron Burkle, a California billionaire who serves as Lemieux's majority ownership partner, for securing funds last year.
"He became more hands-on during the (arena) process," Sawyer said of Burkle, who did not attend the groundbreaking ceremony. "He knows how to put deals together, and this deal was major and outside of the ordinary for us."
Burkle attended many Penguins playoff games on their run to the Stanley Cup final last season. His enthusiasm for the Penguins was on display when he flew to Nova Scotia for Crosby's surprise 21st birthday party Aug. 7.
Lemieux said Burkle is "having fun," and added that "the entire ownership group is very happy with the way business has been the past couple of years."
The Penguins have played before a franchise-record 67 consecutive home sellouts. They have renewed 99 percent of season tickets for the upcoming season.
"My goal when I came here in (1984) - I gave myself five years to build a great team," Lemieux said. "It took a little longer, but I knew from the start it was a good hockey city."
Note: At least six Penguins games will be televised nationally this season. NBC will air a game Jan. 18 at Mellon Arena against the New York Rangers. That network can select three more Sunday games involving the Penguins in the second half of the season. Cable network Versus will broadcast five Penguins games. FSN Pittsburgh will air all remaining regular-season games.