The Pittsburgh Penguins officially began the search for different ownership Tuesday when co-owner Roger Marino withdrew his request to be solely permitted to reorganize the team's finances.
The only prospective buyer to identify himself so far: None other than Mario Lemieux, the greatest player in Penguins history.
Marino initially planned to ask U.S. Bankruptcy Court to extend his exclusive reorganization rights for at least another month, but withdrew that request after creditors and the National Hockey League Players Association voiced opposition.
Among those interested in acquiring all or part of the team is Lemieux, who is owed $26.2 million in deferred salary by the current ownership the most of any of the team's numerous unsecured creditors.
Lemieux, a six-time NHL scoring champion who retired in 1997, heads the creditors committee and was pleasantly surprised with Marino's change of heart.
"We're trying to find some investors who would not only buy the team but keep them in Pittsburgh," Lemieux said. "It's a great hockey town and the fans deserve something better than a team in bankruptcy. We've been working very hard, and it's looking pretty good."
Lemieux did not elaborate on the reasons for his optimism and did not identify any possible investors. But he said, "This is something that has gotten to happen soon."
The Penguins filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October, but Marino has continued to run the team as federal bankruptcy court sorts out the team's financial mess.
The team owes creditors about $125 million, or more than the franchise's total worth of approximately $95 million.
Lemieux is optimistic of finding partners willing to put money into the long-successful but money-losing franchise and keep it in Pittsburgh, the Penguins' only home since joining the NHL as an expansion franchise in 1967.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said at the All-Star Game in Tampa last month there were two groups interested in acquiring all or part of the Penguins from Marino and co-owner Howard Baldwin. He did not identify them.
The SMG management group is also believed to be interested in acquiring an ownership stake. SMG operates the Civic Arena and Three Rivers Stadium and is rumored to be interested in running the soon-to-be-expanded David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.
SMG acquired the Civic Arena operational rights from former Penguins owner Edward J. DeBartolo for $24 million. The Penguins' lease has been renegotiated several times since, and now requires them to pay $5 million a year to rent a 38-year-old arena that will soon be the oldest in the NHL.
"Something has to be done with the lease," Lemieux said. "SMG has smart people, tough people, but for the team to survive here, a (lease) deal has to be struck."
One possible scenario: SMG declines to renegotiatthe lease, thus scaring off any prospective investors, only to step forward with a reorganization plan of its own.
However, SMG has never said if it is interested in buying or operating the two-time Stanley Cup champions or if it is willing to sign a new lease with different owners.
If a local buyer does not step forward to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, it is believed that Marino will ask Bankruptcy Judge Bernard Markovitz for permission to sell to out-of-town owners or relocate the team himself.
Marino reportedly contacted as many as nine cities last summer in an effort to gauge support for a possible Penguins relocation, but later was ordered by Markovitz to cease shopping the team. Among the cities reportedly contacted were Kansas City, Houston and Las Vegas.
Despite the Penguins' ongoing financial troubles, they have seen attendance drop only slightly this season and are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference standings.
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