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Lemieux says Pens never “seriously” looked elsewhere

Now that he has his arena, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux has a secret he wants everybody to know.
During 2006 and 2007,  while negotiations were going on for the funding of a new arena, Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and Burkle visited Kansas City and Las Vegas. Most people thought … and Lemieux hinted as such … the reason for the trips were to see if those cities were palatable alternatives if the arena deal in Pittsburgh fell through.

Last week, after the shovels hit the ground and construction started on the Pen’s new home, Lemieux let everybody in on the real reason for the trips: he was hungry. "We had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way," Lemieux said. "Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go, and have a nice dinner and come back."

This is standard operating procedure when it comes to arena negotiations. But it was a little startling to see it so openly discussed.

City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill District (where the arena is located), said Lemieux’s revelation shocked her.

"Every indication pointed to that they were serious about moving," Payne said. "I know that scared the hell out of the governor, the mayor and (Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato). It got them in gear."

Payne may have been surprised and upset but other politician types simply shrugged.

Paul McGannon, president of NHL21, a Kansas City fan group that courted the Penguins, said he doesn’t fault Lemieux’s methods.

"I’m glad that it helped Pittsburgh get their new building," said McGannon, whose group is still trying to attract an NHL franchise to Kansas City.

"If it was a negotiating tactic it was a good one," said Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell. "We’re just pleased that the Penguins are in Pittsburgh where they belong. As to how real the possibility of their moving was, I think it is a matter of history."

It was simply a case of the ends justifyng the means for the team. Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer said replacing Mellon Arena — the oldest venue in the National Hockey League — will make the Penguins more competitive.

"A new arena means we’re here, in Pittsburgh, forever," Sawyer said. "It also means that we’re going to have the resources, finally, to be competitive every year."

Fan reaction was mixed as well.   Kristin O’Neil, 28, of the South Side said Lemieux’s threat was nothing but a way to get what he wanted. "He knew how to strike at the heart of the fans and the city," she said. "I think he really duped the people of Pittsburgh, and he’ll definitely get away with it because of who he is."

"He bluffed, and no one called him on it," said Caryn Lordes, 43, of Millvale. "In the end, he got what he wanted. It makes me lose some respect for Mario, because the way he said it was like he knew it was a little wrong."

But Steve Adler, 20, of Shadyside said he didn’t care how the deal got done.

"The Pens are here, they’re going to be here for a long time and they’re gonna win a bunch of (Stanley) Cups in the new building," he said. "The fans got what we wanted, and Mario is still our hero."

The 18,000-seat building is slated to open in time for the Penguins 2010-11 season.