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On Penguins' anniversary, remembering when the NBA almost came to town

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, June 5, 2018, 2:06 p.m.
The 1967-68 Pittsburgh Penguins, the first team in franchise history.
The 1967-68 Pittsburgh Penguins, the first team in franchise history.

Fifty-one years ago today, the Pittsburgh Penguins officially became an NHL franchise.

State senator Jack McGregor presented a check covering the $2 million expansion fee to the league at a ceremony at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. The next day, the Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings and California Golden Seals filled up their rosters with an expansion draft.

The anniversary is a good time to remember just how close Pittsburgh was to becoming an NBA city rather than a hockey town.

The NBA was planning an expansion in 1965. Chicago was the favorite to land the new franchise, but the league's board of governors was skeptical. The city had failed to support a pro team twice before.

Pittsburgh was the contingency plan. If the board vetoed the Chicago ownership group, Pittsburgh would get an NBA team.

The NHL also had a contingency plan. If any of the six chosen expansion cities failed to meet a series of conditions, Baltimore would take its place.

Pittsburgh was no slam dunk to meet those conditions, one of which was that the city's arena had a minimum capacity of at least 12,500. The Civic Arena held a maximum of 10,723 fans at the time.

In time, the NBA board of directors got over its cold feet with Chicago and a plan to expand the seating capacity of the Igloo was successful.

But what if those pieces hadn't fallen into place? Michael Jordan could have played for the Pittsburgh Bulls and Mario Lemieux for the Baltimore Penguins.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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