Mario: We never planned to leave Pittsburgh |

Mario: We never planned to leave Pittsburgh

Mario Lemieux said the Penguins were never serious about leaving Pittsburgh.

“It wasn’t a possibility,” Lemieux said during a groundbreaking ceremony today for Pittsburgh’s new $290 million hockey arena.

“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. Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go, and have a nice dinner and come back.”

During 18 months of tense negotiations in 2006 and 2007, the Penguins threatened to leave Pittsburgh if city, county and state politicians didn’t find a way to help pay for a new arena. Lemieux and fellow majority co-owner Ron Burkle traveled to Kansas City and Las Vegas in the weeks before an arena financing deal was reached in March 2007.

But Lemieux said the Penguins used the visits as a sure-fire negotiating tactic.

“(Pressure) was felt, and that was the important thing. A lot of things happened throughout the negotiations. Ups and downs. That was just a way for us to put more pressure, and we knew it would work at the end of the day,” Lemieux said.

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 Pittsburghwhere they belong. As to how real the possibility of their moving was, I think it is a matter of history.”

City Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill District, 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.”

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.”

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

During the groundbreaking ceremony, Rendell said the arena project would not have happened without legalized gambling in Pennsylvania. Gambling revenues are paying a large portion of the costs, including $7.5 million a year for 30 years that’s expected to come from Pittsburgh’s lone slots casino.

“Let the record show that we wouldn’t be here today without expanded gaming,” Rendell said. “Without that money, we’re not here today; it’s as simple as that.”

Lemieux and team President David Morehouse joined Rendell, Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl at the ceremony.

Onorato said he expects the arena to usher in “another renaissance” of economic development Downtown and in the Hill District.

“This is great news for southwestern Pennsylvania,” Onorato said.

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