I've stayed out of the casino-license fray in this column so far, because the modicum of objectivity I otherwise maintain goes right out the window on this issue. But it really is time to panic about the Penguins, and not because of their poor special-teams play.
The winner of the slots-license Bingo game will be chosen Dec. 20, so there's no time left for self-deception, rationalizations and false hope. It really is time to confront the possibility that Pittsburgh sports fans may be getting a big, giant lump of coal in our stockings if the slots license goes to anyone other than Isle of Capri, which has partnered with the team.
I stopped short of saying it would be a lump of something else. But make no mistake: My delicate language notwithstanding, that's exactly what it will be.
When this paper hits the streets, on Dec. 13, new owner Jim Balsillie will appear one last time before the state's gaming board to discuss alternative arena funding. I hope he's persuasive about the Isle of Capri's proposal, because if he doesn't get a new facility, he's going to take his shiny new toy and play somewhere else. Whereas if Isle of Capri gets the license, Balsillie is required to keep the Pens here.
Can you blame him in a climate where sports owners routinely hold cities hostage? After Mario Lemieux pleaded for a new facility for seven years without success?
And if the Penguins do load the Zambonis onto moving trucks at season's end, could you blame the citizens of Pittsburgh for feeling government has failed them? Aren't officials supposed to look out for the little guy?
All we want is a fair shake -- and yeah, our hockey club too. They've been here a long time, and we've got a nice relationship with them. They add to the quality of life of the city.
There is not one shred of evidence that points to any other slots plan being more advantageous for Pittsburgh. I can't think of anything dumber than putting a casino adjacent to Station Square. And if the Pens get the shaft, we'll be stuck with an empty mausoleum of an arena, and be down one sports franchise.
Eventually, somebody will decide to build a new facility on the taxpayers' dime: If we're lucky, Pittsburgh may land an expansion NHL franchise before I get wheeled into a nursing home. There's no guarantee of landing an expansion franchise, and doing so will cost more than keeping the team we already have: The city and ownership would have to build a facility to lure the NHL and pay the fees the league charges.
In 1992, when the Ottawa Senators returned to the league after a 58-year absence, the club's owners paid a $50 million license fee. In Columbus, they paid $80 million to add the Blue Jackets to the NHL in 2000. Who knows what a license fee would cost five or 10 or 58 years from now?
If it plays out like that, either the powers that be are indifferent to the wishes of the masses, or they're incompetent. So why haven't we taken to the streets like some bloodthirsty rabble out of Frankenstein?
Lately, if one group wants the slots parlor in the Hill -- Isle of Capri backers PittsburghFirst -- another wants it on the North Side: the Hill District Gaming Task Force. With all the finger-pointing, it's easy to lose sight of the bottom line.
I don't want a casino anywhere: not in the Hill, the South Side or the North Side. I won't bore you by re-hashing the evidence about the negative social effects of gambling. Suffice it to say that I don't expect the economy to boom, buoyed by Teresa Heinz Kerry and the upper crust playing slots like drunken lab rats.
But a slots casino we will get. The question is: Will we get the plan with the biggest benefits to offset the drawbacks? We can get an arena at no cost to the taxpayers and no cost to the team -- a place where we can see the Killers on Friday and the Pens on Saturday. Where's the flaw in that?
Any time someone stonewalls on doing something so obvious and logical, it makes me suspicious. I ask myself: Who does this benefit?
One thing's for sure. It isn't us.