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Mario and city's relationship on thin ice

| Saturday, June 7, 2003

Dismayed and betrayed. This is the abridged version of how Mario Lemieux is feeling these days.

His mood might not be improving anytime soon.

The Penguins owner has a strained relationship at the moment with two local politicians whose help is vital to getting a new hockey arena built: Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy.

Lemieux believes he was promised a new arena by city and county officials when he bought the team in 1999. He is dismayed over the glacial progress made since then toward the facility. He feels betrayed by Roddey and Murphy, who haven't exerted much effort to make the Mariodome a reality.

So aggrieved is Lemieux that he is threatening to move the team to one of the few remaining cities in North America without an NHL franchise. Chillicothe, Ohio, perhaps. We might find out when the Pens' lease at Mellon Arena expires in four years.

It's not difficult to see why the world's number one yinzer Canadian is upset. He looks to the North Shore and is jealous. The big lug sees how a new facility can reverse the fortunes of a failing franchise.

The Pirates were perennial losers before moving into PNC Park. Now look at them. The team has won two consecutive world championships and is setting attendance records, albeit using some original promotions to lure fans. (The frequent promotion in which fans come dressed as empty blue seats has proven remarkably successful.)

Lemieux sees the Pirates' turnaround, and he is envious. He hears Roddey's and Murphy's continued assertions they have no money to build his arena, and he is upset. They have let him down, broken his heart. So he has struck back.

"This franchise is a free agent in 2007," Lemieux said Thursday. "Hopefully, they understand that."

He sounded as though he has all but given up. He sounded as though he is contemplating a trip to the emotionally battered multimillionaire shelter.

Cele Fichter-DeSando of South Fayette is this column's official relationship expert and author of the book "Taking Charge of Your Love Account." I called her Friday to ask whether the splintering ties between Lemieux and our local elected officials can be successfully mended.

Fichter-DeSando isn't overly optimistic. "Mario is trying to make the city and county jealous, and that sort of thing never works in building a solid relationship," she said.

What if Roddey and Murphy extend Lemieux an olive branch• What if they try to soothe his feelings by buying him a nice bouquet, carnations maybe, and a steak dinner?

"No, it goes much deeper than that," Fichter-DeSando said. "For this kind of dismay to have been voiced publicly, emotions must have been bubbling underneath the surface for quite some time."

The Penguins sported the league's second-worst record last season. The NHL is facing a potentially lengthy and devastating work stoppage at the end of next season. The argument can be advanced that the Pens have become a rapidly diminishing asset under Lemieux's ownership.

Given those facts, is Lemieux wise in resorting to heavy-handed tactics to get a new arena?

"Mario is sort of threatening to pack his bags and go home to mom," Fichter-DeSando said. "That kind of threat only works on people who are still attracted to their partner."

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