Mario Lemieux saved the Pittsburgh Penguins again.
Lemieux was approved today by a federal bankruptcy judge as the team's new owner, breaking new ground as the first player-turned-owner in major pro sports and preventing the Penguins from leaving Pittsburgh.
"I feel like a rookie again," said Lemieux, a Hall of Fame player who revived what once was hockey's worst team as a player from 1984 to '97. "It's been a long road and it's finally great to get the team."
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Bernard Markovitz had two choices: the Lemieux plan, which keeps the Penguins in Pittsburgh and preserves Lemieux's financial stake in the team, or an alternative NHL plan that would have moved the team, probably to Portland, Ore.
The NHL supported Lemieux and offered its plan only as an alternative if there was no hope of keeping the bankrupt Penguins in Pittsburgh.
"I'm not in it to make money, but I'm not in it to lose money," said the six-time scoring champion. "We want to make sure the Penguins stay here. They've been a big part of my life and my success . . . I wanted to do it to repay the Penguins."
Lemieux's plan was approved after a 6 1/2-hour hearing in which the only objections were offered by the company SMG, which manages Civic Arena.
SMG and Lemieux negotiated without success on a new lease until midnight, only nine hours before the hearing began in a courtroom packed with lawyers, city officials and fans who were disappointed Lemieux wasn't in court.
Markovitz all but ordered the two sides to continue talking after lawyer Saul Burian argued SMG's case for hours, calling witnesses and, at times, taxing the judge's patience. During several testy exchanges, Markovitz ordered Burian to refer to him as "sir" and made several references to the absence of SMG's top officials.
When Burian suggested the NHL plan was the only alternative to Lemieux's, Markovitz said, "There is little chance that plan will be confirmed, and if your client were here, maybe he would be getting that drift. . . . I wonder what's going on with your client?
"What is it your client really wants? Do you want this franchise terminated? Does your client want this team to leave this city?"
Burian, in turn, threatened to drag Lemieux into lengthy litigation if the judge effectively rejected SMG as the arena manager and allowed the Penguins to operate the arena themselves.