Regular readers of this space will recall back in December when I made my annual trip to Pittsburgh to watch the parent club Pittsburgh Penguins, and I visited the team store to make my Christmas purchases.
I noticed at the time that WBS Penguins jerseys were not displayed on the racks, even though Wheeling Nailers jerseys could still be found. This was a change from prior years, where WBS jerseys were displayed prominently alongside their ECHL brethren.
Upon inquiry with the staff at PensGear, I was told that the plan at the time was for Pittsburgh to relocate its AHL affiliate upon the expiration of the team’s lease agreement on June 30.
From there, information on the ongoing lease negotiations between the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority, the governmental entity that oversees the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza where WBS has played for 20 years, and the Pittsburgh Penguins to extend the lease agreement for the Pittsburgh AHL franchise has been very scarce.
Both the Authority and the Penguins signed nondisclosure agreements to govern the lease negotiations, so the only information that would come out during 2019 were regular updates during the monthly Authority board meetings that could essentially be summarized as “yeah, we’re still talking” or “we’re hopeful” or “we’re cautiously optimistic.” Even updates regarding capital improvements for the arena back in February had to be smothered by the nondisclosure agreements.
Hope was sparked anew during Fan Appreciation Night on April 13, as the Pittsburgh Penguins released a statement during the first stoppage of play that read, in full:
The Pittsburgh Penguins remain committed to Wilkes-Barre and are in good faith negotiations with the Arena Authority and the County on a long-term contract. More information will be available in the near future.
AHL vice president of communications, Jason Chaimovitch, told the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader’s Bill O’Boyle on May 2 that a final decision on WBS’s future location plans had to be made in a meeting held by the AHL’s Board of Governors on Monday, May 6, otherwise Pittsburgh would be required to name a new home for its AHL affiliate and minor league hockey would cease to exist in Wilkes-Barre Township.
As it turned out, the hope that was sparked on Fan Appreciation Night was cashed in today. First reported by WNEP-TV’s Dave Bohman:
Sources tell Newswatch 16 that the Penguins and the arena authority reached a deal over the weekend that includes another 10-year lease that will keep the Penguins in town for the foreseeable future.
One source says the news could help season ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.
The exact terms of the deal have not been revealed. We expect to get those details on Wednesday when the Luzerne County Convention Center Authority is expected to vote on the deal.
And then confirmed roughly an hour later by both the arena and the Penguins:
“The agreement in principle is the culmination of months of hard work by the LCCCA and the Penguins,” said LCCCA Board Chairman Gary Zingaretti. “We are proud of the result and look forward to working with the Penguins for the next decade.”
“The iconic and historic Pittsburgh Penguins hockey franchise will continue its long partnership with Luzerne County in delivering high quality AHL hockey to the fans of Northeastern Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania State Senator John Yudichak. “I am grateful for the relationships we have been able to forge with the Penguins executive team in Pittsburgh, and here locally, that clearly made these complex, but fair negotiations beneficial to both the Penguins and the taxpayers of Luzerne County.”
The first 20 years of the affiliation with WBS can ultimately be seen as successful, as WBS has provided the training ground for numerous Pittsburgh Penguins star players, role players, goaltenders, and coaches.
WBS itself qualified for the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs 17 times in its first 20 seasons, including a streak of 16-straight qualifications that was the longest active streak in the AHL upon its conclusion this past season. It fell eight years short of the league record of 24 by the Cleveland Barons (1941-1964). WBS qualified for the Calder Cup Finals three times (2001, 2004, and 2008) in its first 20 years, losing each time. WBS also set the AHL record for consecutive sellouts with 90 between 2002 and 2004, a record that stood until the St. Johns IceCaps broke it with 120-straight sellouts between 2011 and 2014.
Technically it’s not final-final, as Bohman’s reporting above states that the full Luzerne County Convention Center Authority has to vote on the deal during the next monthly meeting, which is set for Wednesday, but if the reporting is true, then Pittsburgh is committed to WBS for the next 10 years. Those next 10 years have a lot to live up to, but it will be exciting to see the future of the WBS Penguins.