Kansas City arena operator woos Penguins with offer of free rent

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Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, said the Penguins would not have to buy into the management agreement. The US$276-million Sprint Center is scheduled to open in October.

The Penguins' owners, unhappy with the 45-year-old Mellon Arena, the NHL's oldest venue, have been exploring a move since a new arena deal fell through last month.

"We are not trying to steal the Penguins," Leiweke said. "We have been very respectful of their process. We understand that this is Pittsburgh's to lose, and we respect that."

Anschutz officials, including former Pittsburgh star Luc Robitaille, met Wednesday and Thursday with Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, his partner, Ron Burkle, and other team representatives.

"They have told us they will make a decision within 30 days," Leiweke said. "We will know within 30 days whether they are going to work out their issues in Pittsburgh and get an arena built, or whether they will ask the NHL for permission to move the team to Kansas City."

Pittsburgh has been trying to keep the Penguins in town with a Plan B agreement involving Detroit-based gambling company owner Dan Barden. Lemieux and Burkle were scheduled to meet later Thursday with Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

If a revised Plan B is enough to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, Leiweke said, Anschutz won't try to outdo it.

"We gave them our best shot today," he said. "There's not much left to negotiate. I never underestimate a community's wherewithal to save its team, and I fully expect Pittsburgh to save its team, and I respect that."

The Penguins' owners did not attend Thursday's news conference, and the team had no immediate comment on the visit.

If the Penguins stay put, Leiweke said, there's no guarantee any other team would get as generous an offer from AEG.

"There's something special about this franchise," he said. "This is the best young team, not only in the National Hockey League, but the best young team in sports."

The Penguins' 19-year-old Sidney Crosby is the NHL's leading scorer.

"For people who know basketball, he's our LeBron James," said Robitaille, who is overseeing development of the Sprint Center. "There's no doubt that everybody's banking on him around the league. He's the guy you want to bank on. He's the next Gretzky."

Finding a permanent tenant, either in the NHL or NBA, has been a priority for Kansas City. Officials are counting on the Sprint Center and an adjoining entertainment district to anchor downtown revitalization efforts.

But so far, the arena has commitments only for the 2008 Big 12 men's basketball tournament, which was once a fixture in Kansas City, and the annual BCE Classic, a four-game tournament sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board denied a slots contract bid by Isle of Capri Casinos that would have guaranteed the construction of a $290-million arena. Lemieux and the other owners took the team off the market after that decision.

William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, the venture capitalist who has an agreement with Sprint Center management to own any NHL team that relocates to Kansas City, co-owns a minor-league hockey team with Lemieux.

Kansas City has not had an NHL franchise since the Scouts - now the New Jersey Devils - left town in 1976 after two seasons in Kemper Arena.

The NBA's Kings, who relocated from Cincinnati in 1972 and spent three seasons splitting their home games between Kansas City and Omaha, moved to Sacramento in 1985.


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