In an about-face brought about partly by the team drafting Canadian super-prospect Sidney Crosby, the Penguins said Friday that Lemieux's group will retain its majority ownership. William "Boots" DelBiaggio, a San Jose-based businessman who was to buy a majority stake, will instead buy a minority share.
The sudden change of plans may be a result of the franchise's substantially increasing value since it won the NHL draft lottery two weeks ago and subsequently drafted Crosby, considered the NHL's best teen prospect since Lemieux in 1984.
Since winning the lottery, the Penguins have sold thousands of season tickets for the 2005-06 season and have had to add extra employees to handle ticket sales -- even before single-game ticket sales have begun. Some team employees suggested the club could sell out a majority of its home games, a reverse from the sharp downturn in attendance during three consecutive losing seasons from 2002-04.
After years of filling more than 90 percent of Mellon Arena on a nightly basis during the 1980s and 1990s and through the nearly sold-out 2000-01 season, the Penguins averaged an NHL-low 11,877 in 2003-04.
Lemieux did not comment about the change in plans, which may have resulted from some of his minority partners -- including California-based supermarket chain owner Ron Burkle -- deciding the franchise was worth more than DelBiaggio planned to pay.
The day after the Penguins won the lottery, Lemieux said on July 23 he expected a sales agreement with DelBiaggio to be reached within days but also suggested some minority owners might be reviewing the planned sale after the team gained the right to draft Crosby. The team made him the No. 1 choice on July 30.
"It could always happen, but I don't see any problems moving forward," Lemieux said at the time. "But it could happen."
A two-sentence statement issued by the club Friday said: "The Pittsburgh Penguins announced today that the club's ownership structure will remain intact, with Mario Lemieux and his partner, Ron Burkle, maintaining a majority ownership stake. William DelBiaggio will join the team as an investor."
Lemieux's group bought the Penguins in federal bankruptcy court in 1999, after the former owners filed for federal bankruptcy protection. It was the second bankruptcy filing for the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup champions since the franchise began play in 1967; the other came in the mid-1970s.
DelBiaggio and other unidentified investors in June negotiated a letter of intent to buy the team. Lemieux was to retain about a 5 percent stake of the team.
DelBiaggio, a frequent Lemieux golfing partner, is a co-owner with Lemieux of the Omaha Lancers of the U.S. Hockey League and also owns part of the San Jose Sharks' American Hockey League affiliate, the Cleveland Barons.
Lemieux has said repeatedly that no matter who owns the Penguins, the team must get a new arena for it to stay in Pittsburgh. The team's Mellon Arena lease runs out after the 2006-07 season.