The moving vans haven't yet pulled up in the middle of the night, but almost everything pointed to the Pittsburgh Penguins splitting town. Their prospective new owner backed out. Their sugar-daddy gambling group has gone sour. Owner Mario Lemieux wasted no time sounding the alarms.
Now does Super Mario have everybody's attention?
We in these parts remember when the owners were being hustled away in handcuffs and the Buffalo Sabres were filing for bankruptcy and that sick feeling that comes with the unknown. Pittsburgh faced a daunting possibility that the Penguins could be moving out of town, and other cities were lining up.
Kansas City appeared to be the front-runner because it already has a sparkling $276 million arena that was waiting for a hockey club, even though one already failed there. We in Buffalo know the other usual suspects (see: pawns): Portland, Ore., Houston, Las Vegas and Winnipeg.
In the dirty world of professional sports, it looked like all this talk was about getting more action. The Penguins' situation is a mess, but the possibility they'll relocate might not be as threatening as Super Mario & Co. want people to believe. Not long after Lemieux fired off a statement claiming he would be open to moving the team, another plan was in motion to keep the Pens where they belong.
Investor Jim Balsillie, scared off when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told him he couldn't move the team, is back wedging his foot in the door. Lemieux was furious when the Isle of Capri casino company, which offered to build a new building to replace dumpy old Mellon Arena, wasn't awarded a slots-gaming license.
Lemieux wants to unload the franchise he pulled from bankruptcy sooner than yesterday, but he doesn't want to be responsible for being the owner who moved the Pens. It's especially true now that they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the 21st century version of Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
Super Mario will first exhaust all options, not just the ones that most benefit him, for a terrific hockey town with great tradition and a history of success. The Igloo is a hole, but fans keep filling the place now that they have something worth watching. And in this case, it's also something worth keeping.
The latest had Lemieux headed back to the bargaining table with state and local governments and other investors. In another month, the Penguins' contract with the Isle of Capri will expire. A solution could be found much sooner.
There's a plan out there that calls for the company awarded the gaming license to kick some $225 million toward an arena for the next 30 years. The Pens would pay $8.5 million up front and some $120 million over the next 30 years. There are possibilities that could bring another $210 million over the same period.
It should be enough for a new building, which was all Lemieux wanted.
Luce buoys Flyers
You can bet former Sabres scouting chief Don Luce threw in his two cents before the Flyers decided to acquire veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik from the Islanders for young blue-liner Freddy Meyer.
Luce quietly took over as director of player personnel a few weeks ago after the Sabres decided not to renew his contract after last season. It might be the best move Philadelphia made all season. Luce was the one largely responsible for building the Sabres into the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Twenty of the 28 players who appeared in a game for Buffalo this season were acquired in the draft. Let's not go overboard, however. Sabres GM Darcy Regier isn't given full credit for building this team because most players were selected under the NHL's old rule book and thrived afterward. The same thing applies to Luce.
Scoring takes a dip
NHL warden Colin Campbell created a stir in Toronto last week when he suggested nets might need to be expanded because there's been a decrease in scoring. Campbell jumped the gun on this one, but he could eventually be right.
Scoring was down from 6.1 goals per game last season to 5.8 last week, a minuscule drop-off the league hopes doesn't evolve into a trend. Mostly, it's the result of teams getting more accustomed to the rule changes and adjusting with better defense.
Still, if scoring continues to decrease, the league should look into adjusting the nets. The cages were designed for goalies about 100 years ago, when they were much smaller and the game was slower. I don't have any real evidence, but it sure looks like bigger shoulder pads are creeping back into the game, too.
Staying away in droves
Delaware North Chairman Jeremy Jacobs is getting antsy about plummeting attendance figures in Boston. The Bruins were averaging 13,787 for their first 17 home games, but on many nights it looked closer to 5,000.
Obviously, fans are still angry over last season's debacle, when the Bruins blew up a 104-point team in 2003-04 and attempted to rebuild their post-lockout team with underachieving free agents. Fans also aren't ready to spend their money on a team that could be years from contention.
The only game the Bruins sold out was the opener, and many believed it was only after the Bruins papered the building. Do the math, and the 3,700-plus unsold seats equates to some $8 million in lost revenue throughout the season. Years ago, the Bruins were the second-most popular team in town, behind only the Red Sox.
"Absolutely he's concerned," rookie GM Peter Chiarelli said of the Buffalo-based owner. "Any owner would be. This organization has done a lot, including bringing in a lot of new and exciting players."
No problem with fans having fun with the campaign to get Rory Fitzpatrick voted into the NHL All-Star Game, but they shouldn't expect to see him play.
Fitzpatrick was second among defensemen in the Western Conference in voting going into the weekend, behind Scott Niedermayer and ahead of Nicklas Lidstrom. Fitzpatrick is one of the all-time good guys. He wouldn't actually accept an invitation, would he?
"I think from his point of view, it's great," Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said. "From what the All-Star Game is all about, it's 100 percent wrong."
Canadian-born Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash on Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony's punch-and-run approach against the New York Knicks: "Typical NBA punch. In hockey, your own team would beat you up for that."
Around the boards
*The Wild entered the weekend with a 13-3-1 record at home, which included a four-game winning streak. The Wild was just 4-11-1 on the road with a franchise-record seven-game losing streak. The biggest offender was forward Brian Rolston, who had 11 goals at home and five on the road.
*Look no further than Dallas' pitching line going into the weekend for the cause of its recent struggles: Eric Lindros, no goals in 10 games; Jeff Halpern, no goals in 13 games; Stu Barnes, two goals and three points in 21 games; Patrick Stefan, no goals and one assist in 14 games.
*Phil Kessel's recovery from testicular cancer was utterly remarkable. The Bruins rookie slipped into the hospital Dec. 8, had one testicle removed and was back in the lineup Dec. 16 against the New Jersey Devils. Doctors already have determined that he's cured and should experience no complications.
*Flames winger Jarome Iginla had nine goals and 19 points during a 10-game stretch going into the weekend, which made him only the second-hottest player in the league. Sid the Kid has seven goals and 23 points for Pittsburgh over the same stretch.