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Thursday, January 19, 2006
Updated: January 22, 4:13 PM ET
With Pens for sale, Mario plans to step down as CEO

ESPN.com news services

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been put up for sale, and owner-player Mario Lemieux plans to step down as team CEO, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Thursday.

Mario Lemieux
Lemieux

Team president Ken Sawyer would be expected to replace Lemieux, who will remain as chairman. Lemieux told the Post-Gazette that Sawyer "really has been running the franchise on a day-to-day basis, so it's not really a big change. He's been doing all the work the last few years."

Lemieux also told the paper on Wednesday that "a few groups" have expressed interest in purchasing the Penguins.

Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. could be a player if the Penguins gain a license to operate a slot-machine parlor in Pittsburgh. Isle of Capri has reportedly pledged $290 million for a new arena if the Penguins gain the the license, which would affirm the franchise's commitment to stay in Pittsburgh.

"I think we've done pretty much everything we can do, as far as setting up the franchise for the future," Lemieux told the paper

He also added that the team has "a plan with Isle of Capri to make sure this franchise stays in Pittsburgh forever, which has always been my goal. I really feel that we've set it up to do that if the right things happen."

Lemieux did not identify who expressed interest in the team and did not quote an asking price.

"I'm sure there are going to be a few bids," he told the paper. "That's how the process works."

Lemieux and Sawyer wouldn't identify the interested parties. Most of the prospective buyers approached them before Isle of Capri made its $290 million offer for a new arena.

Lemieux also said that any new owner would be bound by the provision that the team stay in Pittsburgh. Isle of Capri must beat out three others seeking the license, which isn't expected to be awarded until later this year.

The Penguins' lease on 45-year-old Mellon Arena, the smallest and oldest facility in the NHL, runs through June 2008, and Lemieux has said the team could leave the city if it doesn't have a new arena by then.

Asked why he's not waiting to see if the Isle of Capri deal is approved before selling the team, Lemieux said: "I said before I'm not going to be the one that's going to move the franchise, and there's a possibility of that happening."

But Lemieux said the team isn't being shopped in an effort to move it.

"There's some [interested buyers] from out of town, but that doesn't mean they're going to move the team to Kansas City or Vegas or Houston or all the towns that have been mentioned," Lemieux said.

Although the Penguins' value remains undisclosed, Mike Ozanian, a senior editor who specializes in sports franchises at Forbes Magazine, said the value of all NHL franchises has increased since before the lockout due to the salary cap. He estimates the Penguins are worth $100 million, but would be worth up to 30 percent more with a new arena.

Lemieux and Sawyer said the team isn't being sold out of frustration with its performance -- the Penguins entered play Thursday with just 31 points, the second lowest total in the NHL -- or because state and local politicians have yet to come up with a deal for a new arena.

"I hope none of you expected Mario to own this team forever," Sawyer said. "He's done more than he should ... and he's teed this up perfectly for the community to jump at a great opportunity for this team to stay here."

The team filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1998, after running up $120 million in debt under former owners Howard Baldwin and Roger Marino. Lemieux's group bought the team out of bankruptcy and he further boosted its fortunes by ending his 44-month retirement in December 2000.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.