PITTSBURGH — Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle helped rescue the Pittsburgh Penguins, buying the floundering franchise out of federal bankruptcy court in 1999 and eventually turning the team into one of the NHL’s marquee destinations replete with superstars and a glistening new arena.
With the Penguins’ long-term prospects in Pittsburgh secure, the partners are now considering cashing out. The owners said in a statement Wednesday night they have hired investment bank Morgan Stanley to gauge their financial prospects, including everything from an outright sale to simply giving up a share of the team to standing pat.
“We conduct periodic reviews of our business and, because we have received several inquiries about the franchise in recent years, we decided to engage Morgan Stanley for their insight and counsel,” Lemieux and Burkle said. “After buying the team out of bankruptcy, ensuring its long-term future in Pittsburgh and creating a strong foundation for continued success, we believe it is time to explore our options.”
Lemieux, a Hall of Famer who led Pittsburgh to consecutive Stanley Cups as a player in 1991 and 1992, spearheaded a group that purchased the team in 1999. The early days of his tenure were difficult. The Penguins were nearly sold and moved in the 2000s while the franchise and the city haggled over replacing decaying Mellon Arena.
That changed in the mid-2000s, when Pittsburgh rose to prominence following the arrival of eventual MVPs Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the building of Consol Energy Center. The Penguins have sold out 377 consecutive home games, including every game at their new arena since its debut in 2010. The team’s local TV ratings are highest among U.S.-based NHL franchises.
Pittsburgh is coming off a disappointing first-round playoff exit, losing to the New York Rangers in five games under first-year coach Mike Johnston. Still Lemieux remains bullish on the team’s long-term prospects. The core of Crosby, Malkin, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Kris Letang all have deals that run through at least 2017-18.
“Our goal all along was to solidify the franchise both on and off the ice,” Lemieux said. “Our star players are signed to long-term contracts, they’ve got a deep and passionate base to support them, and I believe the Penguins are well-positioned for the future. Regardless of what happens, I plan on staying involved with the team in some capacity, and Ron and I plan to retain an ownership stake.”
Morgan Stanley helped the sale of the Buffalo Sabres to Terry Pegula in 2011 for $189 million, though NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said franchise values have escalated along with league revenue in recent years.
Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images