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Lemieux, Penguins Put on Ice 

Arena battle in the final period, but don't panic

Phew. If I'm this bad at calculating odds, I better stay out of Don Barden's slots parlor.

I'll admit it: I didn't think Barden's North Side casino proposal would beat out the Isle of Capri or Harrah's for the city's lone slots license. And I'm in good company. At a Dec. 20 press conference following the state gaming board's decision, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato acknowledged being taken aback as well.

"We were all surprised," said Onorato. Referring to rumors that the "fix was in" for Harrah's, he added, "It appears that the system was open." Reporters, he joked, might even have to rewrite their stories.

Actually, I didn't get any farther in my story than this:

Many Pittsburghers were outraged when the state gaming board awarded a slots license to INSERT WINNER'S NAME HERE.

The truth is, all three proposals sucked ... because they all involved building a casino. Somebody was bound to be unhappy no matter what. As things went, that "somebody" was Pens owner Mario Lemieux and Pens fans, who backed Isle of Capri because it pledged to build a new hockey arena.

But I'm not crying for Mario yet. He's about to be King Shit here. For the next few months, and for the first time in years, he'll have local officials eating out of his hand. The pressure is going to be on Ravenstahl and Onorato to do a deal. Already, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial page has issued this blistering demand:

"We urge the parties to start negotiating now and sign a deal within 30 days. That's right. Thirty days. Get it done."

You guys hear that? The Post-Gazette is pissed! Don't make them print an op-ed by former Mayor Tom Murphy, or we'll all be sorry!

Lemieux, however, would be stupid to take the P-G's advice. All he should do for the next 30 days is talk about how pleasant winters are in Kansas City. The longer he stretches this out, the stronger his position gets. His team's lease at the arena expires in June, and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is facing a special election in May. His most likely opponent: City Councilor Bill Peduto, who plays hockey for fun, and who backed Isle of Capri from day one. The wonky Peduto, whose last mayoral campaign centered on such issues as "performance budgeting," now has an issue that doesn't appeal only to knowledge workers.

Onorato, meanwhile, wants to be governor, and helping Luke now helps Dan later. So these guys are going to get more and more desperate to do a deal. Meanwhile, every rumor of a potential move will be amplified by panicky fans and radio sports-talk hosts. Many of these people are convinced hockey in Pittsburgh is doomed, thanks to the slots decision. (Of course, many of them were also convinced that the "fix was in" for Harrah's ...)

The National Hockey League, meanwhile, will back Lemieux's play.

Days before the license was awarded, prospective Penguins owner Jim Balsillie bailed out on buying the team. Among the reasons, we were told, was the NHL demand that he commit to keeping the team in Pittsburgh -- even if he didn't like the slots-license decision. Then Mario didn't like the slots-license decision, and suddenly the NHL isn't so committed to keeping the team here, either. "The Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation," league Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

This is all about leverage. The NHL has a good thing here: a loyal fan base and a storied history. Bettman won't give that up, though he will try clearing out some space for Lemieux in front of the net.

My prediction: This will drag along for three or four months. Lemieux won't get a free arena, but he will get a better deal. Under Gov. Ed Rendell's first draft of the arena-financing plan, the Pens were slated to shell out $128.5 million over 30 years. That's more than twice what the Pirates paid for PNC Park. The Penguins will get a deal much closer to what the Pirates got, starting with the ability to profit from naming rights to the facility. Lemieux will then sell the Pens, retire to the forest and become a philosopher.

Of course, I was way off on the state gaming board's decision, so I could be wrong about this too. But hey: If it weren't for throwing good money after bad, we'd never have casinos -- or sports facilities -- at all.

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