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Friday, June 6
 
Mario: Pens' future in Pittsburgh hinges on new arena

ESPN.com news services

Penguins owner Mario Lemieux threatened Thursday to move the team, saying it "has no future" in Pittsburgh if local government does not provide funding for a new arena.

It was the first time Lemieux, speaking during a news conference to kick off his four-day Mellon Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational, has made such a statement publicly.

Lemieux said he feels "betrayed" by the lack of support city and county leaders have given efforts to build an arena to replace 42-year-old Mellon Arena -- the oldest and second-smallest venue in the National Hockey League. The franchise, which has had to slash its payroll and unload most of its big-name players because of escalating costs, has been trying to secure financial backing for a new $270 million arena.

Raising the specter of the team leaving Pittsburgh, Lemieux said the targeted 2006 opening for a new arena is "pretty much gone unless something happens in the next 30 to 60 days."

"This franchise is a free agent in 2007. I hope they understand that," Lemieux said. The Penguins' lease at Mellon Arena will have expired by that time. "Time is running out."

In response to Lemieux's comments, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's office issued a statement saying the mayor has worked hard to keep the Penguins in the city but that there is no tax money available for financing a new arena.

Murphy's spokesman, Craig Kwiecinski, said there may be other money available, however, and that "any financing proposal must include significant state and private funding."

Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey said while he will work toward keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh, the county is unable to finance a new arena now.

Lemieux said that promises that the city and county governments would help develop financing for a new arena played a significant role in his decision to purchase the franchise out of bankruptcy in 1999. Lemieux returned to the ice as a player in December 2000 after a 44-month retirement.

He said he won't decide for another two to three weeks whether to return as a player next season but said he is feeling healthier than he did at the end of this season, when the Penguins missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Lemieux said he is committed to remaining with the franchise "in some capacity" for the immediate future and was frustrated by rumors that he would sell his stake in the Penguins for a chance to play elsewhere.

He put those rumors to rest with a statement Monday, saying if he plays next season, it will be with the Penguins.

Lemieux on Thursday said he wants to play only at a high level but realizes another championship run is a long shot.

"I am not the future of the franchise. If the franchise can't survive without me on the ice then I don't like the chances of the franchise staying here," he said.

However, he said he recognizes the value of remaining with the team in some capacity for the next couple of years while the Penguins rebuild and the league negotiates a new collective bargaining agreement with its players after next season.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.




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