Oklahoma City minor league hockey owners eye Pens

OKLAHOMA CITY -- An Oklahoma City business group says it's interested in landing an NHL franchise and expects a formal invitation to be extended next week for the Pittsburgh Penguins to visit the city's Ford Center arena.

The Penguins and owner Mario Lemieux have been seeking a new
arena in Pittsburgh and already have an offer to move to Kansas City.

"We've always had an interest in the NHL or anything that contributes to Oklahoma City or the Oklahoma environment," Bob Funk, the founder and CEO of Express Services Inc. and the owner of the Oklahoma City Blazers hockey team, told The Oklahoman. "I think the NHL has a good future."

Funk and Brad Lund, CEO of Funk's Express Sports, met with Oklahoma City leaders Thursday and tabled for the weekend a decision to invite the Penguins, the newspaper reported.

"It's Pittsburgh's team to lose, and Kansas City is well ahead of us," Lund acknowledged.

Funk said he would not go forward without consultation from Oklahoma City leaders, who have sought to bring an NBA franchise to town on a permanent basis. Oklahoma City currently hosts the NBA's Hornets, who are scheduled to return to New Orleans after this season.

"Like we've talked about before, the first team in certainly would have the advantage," Funk said. "That ended up being the NBA. If the NBA is not going to be here, then I would think there would be corporate support for hockey."

Funk also speculated that an NHL team could land in Tulsa, if an NBA team is in Oklahoma City. Tulsa is building a new downtown arena scheduled to open in 2008.

"I'll talk to Tulsa," Funk said. "That's always a possibility, too. We have very successful [Central Hockey League] operations in Tulsa. Our operations over there are doing very well and they have been for a long time."

Despite the possible move, Penguins players and coaches know their focus must remain on the ice.

"We're curious at what's going on, but it doesn't effect us at all," coach Michel Therrien said. "We are focusing on what we have to do, but we read stuff in the papers like everyone else does. But focus isn't on that. We've got confidence and a lot of faith in the people who manage our team, and they all have our support."

Given the highly-transient nature of hockey rosters, players are aware they might have to uproot their lives and families to move to another town.

The vast majority of the team is foreigners with no ties no any U.S. city -- let alone Pittsburgh.

Ryan Malone is the exception.

Born just south of the city, the 27-year-old played high school hockey in Pittsburgh. His father, Greg, is a former Penguins player and head scout.

"I tell all the guys here, hopefully at the end of year we are in the playoffs, and then you can tell this town is quite a hockey town," Malone said.

"Obviously, myself, I'd rather the team stay. But Mario has been very patient, so he's exploring other options," Malone said. "He'll probably take the best deal on the table, so you've just got to put it in the back of your mind and go out there and play hockey."

Pittsburgh is known as a football town, but the Penguins have played to almost 94 percent of capacity this season. The franchise won two Stanley Cups in 1991-92.

Not too many players are worried about a possible relocation, defenseman Ryan Whitney said.

"I think everybody thinks this is a great place to play," he said. "The crowd is unbelievable. If we get a new building, I know myself and other people want to be here a long time. It's a great place to play, a great city, a great sports town. We all hope we end up staying here."