It has become trendy in recent years to play revisionist historian and pretend the Penguins were never in any real danger of leaving Pittsburgh circa 2007. That, one way or another, the franchise's ownership group, helmed by Mario Lemieux, was always going to figure things out and make sure the Penguins never, ever, ever left Pittsburgh. Anything said otherwise was simply a negotiating tactic.
As Lemieux said in August 2008, a year-and-a-half after the Penguins finalized the deal that led to the creation of the CONSOL Energy Center:
Mario Lemieux says the Penguins never were serious about leaving Pittsburgh.
"It wasn't a possibility," Lemieux said during a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for Pittsburgh's $290 million hockey arena.
"We had to do a few things to put pressure on the city and the state, but our goal was to remain here in Pittsburgh all the way. Those trips to Kansas City and Vegas and other cities was just to go and have a nice dinner, and come back."
During that tense 2007, as the Penguins' lease of the Mellon Arena neared its conclusion and threats to relocate the franchise hit at the pit of a frequently disheartened fan base's collective stomach, the Lemieux Group entered relocation negotiations with a number of cities desperate to land an NHL team.
Kansas City looked to be the odds on favorite, and made perhaps the most compelling pitch for the Penguins, but there were others in play too. Like Kansas City, Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle visited Las Vegas to discuss moving the team. And then they spoke with representatives from Houston. And Oklahoma City. Hartford and Hamilton, ON were considered possibilities.
But, according to Lemieux again, it was all a clever ploy. A chance to go have "dinner" on another city's bill.
To fall in line with this logical leap requires a good bit of of George Lucas-esque retconing, where what the ownership group said and did in the past wasn't really what they meant. Where the mastermind had something completely different than what all evidence indicated in mind.
Instead of reworking the original print to make the hapless Greedo shoot wildly first, allowing Han Solo to kill him in as a benevolent practitioner of self-defense rather than an opportunistic scoundrel, we're making the Lemieux Group far less interested in the bottom line, and far more interested in lofty, idealistic goals.
Of course, this isn't true.
In "Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Pittsburgh Penguins' rebirth," author Andrew Conte is able to piece together quotes from a number of Penguins sources intimately involved in discussions at the time that show how close to a reality the franchise moving actually was.
Ken Sawyer, CEO of the Penguins from 2006 through early 2010:
If the governor ever pulled the deal off the table in Pennsylvania, the team was not going to be in Pittsburgh," said Sawyer later. "Whether it was going to Kansas City or not, I don't know, but there was no future. You had to lay the groundwork for eventualities.
David Morehouse, President of the Penguins since April 2007:
Later that afternoon, Morehouse called a conference call with Burkle, Lemieux, Sawyer and Chuck Greenburg. "Listen, this is where they are," Morehouse said. "They're not getting the message. We've tried everything. We're going to have to explore a move."
Ron Burkle, co-owner of the Penguins since 1999:
If the decision had been only about the best offer on paper, the Penguins might have gone. Talk about moving to Kansas City had been real. "Things started dragging out" on the Pittsburgh negotiations, Burkle said. "Then we kinda lost faith that we were going to get a deal done, because we didn't feel like there was any motivation to get something done. So we had to face reality. ... We had to go out and get busy and figure out what our alternatives were."
All of this being said, the Lemieux Group did save the Penguins. They did save the team from liquidation, and made it very obvious that they wanted to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. That was always the group's first choice, and there should really be no argument to the contrary. And it is through Lemieux's ownership that the Penguins have become a modernized, consistently successful franchise.
But to go back and pretend that there was no real shot of the Penguins moving, that it was all some silly game, is disingenuous at best.