When Judge Bernard Markovitz finished presiding over the
bankruptcy court proceedings that led to the approval of Mario
Lemieux's purchase of the Penguins on Sept. 3, he reflected on
Lemieux's potential impact: "If he runs this team the way he
played the game, we will all be pleased."
Penguins fans immediately expressed their happiness. Within
hours of Lemieux's takeover, the Penguins sold nearly 100 season
tickets, and at press time the team had sold about 9,100 season
plans, up 800 from last year's total. Lemieux, 35, the most
dominant athlete in Pittsburgh history, who retired after the
1996-97 season with 613 career goals, has become the linchpin of
the Penguins' marketing campaign. His likeness appears on
billboards throughout the city, clad in his old uniform as well
as in a business suit. He swiftly endeared himself to the
faithful by slashing some ticket prices by 20% and creating $10
seats for children. "I want kids to be able to come see their
heroes," he says.
One of those heroes, league MVP Jaromir Jagr, recently
celebrated the opening of his sports bar in the Czech Republic
by donning a red wig, lipstick and a full-length dress, a
Rodmanesque stunt that caused only slightly less excitement than
Jagr generates in a typical game. He led the league with 127
points last season, and Lemieux has pledged to keep Jagr, a
right wing who will earn $10.4 million this season, in
Pittsburgh for the rest of his career.
Before Lemieux stepped in, the club needed help with its
finances, but the Penguins are in fine shape on the ice. Jagr is
complemented by a dynamic offense that includes centers Martin
Straka (35 goals last year) and Robert Lang (21) as well as
multitalented wingers Alexei Kovalev and German Titov. The
defense is unspectacular, but coach Kevin Constantine's system
makes good use of the marginal talent, and he has the ability to
motivate them to play their best.
Since Constantine took over as coach in the summer of 1997, the
Penguins have adapted to the loss of Lemieux, withstood last
summer's free-agent departure of elite center Ron Francis and
weathered a bankruptcy that threatened to shut down the team.
Over that time they've gone 78-54-32, and Constantine has kept
the team focused. He's in the last year of a three-year, $1.2
million contract, and he deserves an extension.
Lemieux is leaving such matters to general manager Craig
Patrick. For now the new owner is concentrating on making a
strong impact in the community. And just as in his playing days,
Lemieux's methods are winning over Pittsburghers.
Center Martin Straka increased his production from 0.56 points
per game in 1997-98 to 1.04 per game last year, the biggest
increase by anyone who played at least 60 games in each of the
last two seasons.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 2 Jagr leads explosive front line
DEFENSE 12 Penguin system makes no-name defense work
GOALTENDING 14 Barrasso can still be top-notch netminder
SPECIAL TEAMS 8 Outstanding power play, below average
COACHING 8 Constantine is right coach for so-so