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Penguins' wild season takes yet another twist Rookie star Crosby has lost his veteran linemate, first coach, and now the team is officially up for sale, SHAWNA RICHER reports

Rookie star Crosby has lost his veteran linemate, first coach, and now the team is officially up for sale, SHAWNA RICHER reports


Sidney Crosby raced up and down the ice at the Igloo yesterday morning, getting comfortable with new linemate Konstantin Koltsov a day after his regular one, mercurial veteran Zigmund Palffy, surprised everyone by announcing his retirement.

Inside the Pittsburgh Penguins' dressing room, Mario Lemieux, Crosby's boss, landlord and mentor, was confirming he has put a for-sale sign on the financially troubled team and there is a chance it may leave Pittsburgh.

It is the latest chapter in the long-running saga that has made the Penguins seem more night-time soap opera than National Hockey League club. The chronic melodrama may be more than Crosby, the teenaged future of the franchise and face of the new NHL, bargained for as he makes his way through a pressure-packed rookie season.

In the past month alone, head coach Eddie Olczyk was fired and replaced with Michel Therrien. Crosby has moved from wing to centre and been made an alternate captain, for which he was criticized by some outside Pittsburgh. He went from scoring slump to streak and has increasingly been the target of on-ice bullying but left largely to fend for himself. (This week, however, Pens general manager Craig Patrick traded for big, tough defenceman Eric Cairns to protect his star player.)

The team continues to struggle under Therrien, which prompted the forthright francophone to tell reporters last week that most of his players only deserved half of their salaries. Away from Pittsburgh, the NHL's other exceptional freshman, the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin, has padded his scoring lead to seven points over Crosby entering last night's action, making the Capitals' left winger the current favourite for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

Even the sad-sack Washington team, its only star Ovechkin, ranks higher in the standings than the Penguins, who, before the season, had been expected to easily make the playoffs.

At 11-27-9 after last night's 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers, the Pens are playing for pride. Now, again, the club's uncertain future in Pittsburgh is in the spotlight.

"It's been a lot, no doubt," Crosby said yesterday after Lemieux and Ken Sawyer, the newly appointed chief executive officer, addressed reporters about the sale of the team that has been in Pittsburgh since 1967.

"I'm here to play and the team being put up for sale. It's big, but it's not something I think is my concern. I play, I don't try to interfere with that stuff. That's not what I'm here for. That's the way hockey goes sometimes and you can't control it. There's things in life you can't always prepare for."

News that Lemieux and his ownership group have chosen to sell the team broke yesterday under a front-page headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

With the Rangers in town, a half-dozen television cameras and three dozen reporters from both cities, including high-profile hockey analysts John Davidson and Sam Rosen, made for the perfect media circus as they pressed around Lemieux and Sawyer.

"I'm out," Lemieux confirmed with a nod. "We are now in a situation where we are going to look at all our options."

The Hall of Fame player said he has received inquiries from several groups interested in buying the team, but declined to name them.

It is well known that groups from Las Vegas, Houston and Kansas City, Mo., are keen to acquire an NHL team, but Lemieux said he would like to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

But anyone who buys the team -- Lemieux said he would let bids set the market value -- will be bound to the recent proposal for an arena and casino with gambling operator Isle of Capri, which has committed $290-million (U.S.) to constructing a new rink if it wins a coveted slots license from the Pennsylvania gaming commission in the next year.

Lemieux, drafted No. 1 overall in 1984 and a lifelong Penguin, headed a group that bought the club out of bankruptcy in 1999, personally trading more than $20-million in owed wages for equity in the franchise.

"This is not being done out of frustration," Sawyer said. "Nobody expected for Mario to own this team forever. He's done more than he should. He's teed us up perfectly to move ahead. We have the next generation of Penguins [players] here and we want the next generation of owners to run with that ball."

Sawyer, too, would like it to be in Pittsburgh, but said he's "not going to sell the team for a third of the value just to make it a local transaction."

Lemieux resumed his playing career in 2000 after spending three years in retirement. He was excited about playing this season with what he expected to be a highly competitive team led by Crosby and a mix of veterans at every position. But they have the second worst record in the NHL, and Lemieux has been sidelined with an irregular heartbeat.

Palffy has retired. Defenceman Sergei Gonchar has been a disappointment. Goaltender Jocelyn Thibault has been both injured and underaBut the youthful talent on the Penguins promise a brighter future on the ice.

"We think the time is right with the way things have unfolded," Lemieux said. "We've got a new [collective labour agreement] that levels the playing field for all teams. We've got a strong base of young talent led by Sidney Crosby, Marc-André Fleury, Ryan Whitney and soon Evgeni Malkin. And now we've got a tremendous arena plan on the table that can deliver a new arena at no cost to taxpayers."

The Penguins' lease at the Mellon Arena will expire in June of 2007, and if plans to build a new rink aren't in place by then, the club would certainly relocate.

Sawyer will now oversee the operation of the club and lead the sale process. Lemieux will remain as the chairman of the board until the team is sold.

"We've done everything we can as an ownership group as far as setting up the franchise for the long term here in Pittsburgh," Lemieux said.There has been much uncertainty and turmoil this season, but the budding superstar is sure about one thing.


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