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Andrew Conte – Breakaway: The inside story of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ rebirth

October 15, 2011

Andrew Conte of the Tribune Review on his new book – – Breakaway: The inside story of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ rebirth

First, what inspired you to write this book?

 I wanted to find out what really happened in all of the closed-door negotiations over the team. I spent a lot of hours as a reporter for the Tribune-Review covering meetings and discussions that took place in secret. Breakaway tells about what happened in all those private discussions. Fans who followed this narrative as it happened can finally get the full story.  

Where can readers purchase the book?

Breakaway is available at Barnes & Noble stores across the United States, and at Chapters and Coles book stores in Canada. Many independent book stores around Pittsburgh are carrying Breakaway, such as the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. It’s also available online from, and the book’s website  

What surprised you most about the team’s “rebirth” as you did your research? 

 The team came very close to leaving. One short-lived plan had the Penguins going to Los Angeles, and the LA Kings going to Kansas City.  

Who were the key players behind the scenes that readers may not have been aware of – and how so?

Team owner Ron Burkle played a much larger role in the team’s on-ice decisions than fans realize. He was the catalyst for the Penguins to acquire Marian Hossa in 2008, and then for bringing up Coach Dan Bylsma in 2009 before the Cup run. Burkle does not tell the team leaders what to do, but he brings a business mentality to the organization and encourages them to do what they need to win.  

Much is said about Sydney Crosby “saving the franchise.” How much of this is true, in your opinion?

None of this happens without Crosby. When the Penguins win the rights to draft Crosby in the post-lockout lottery, it changes everything. Until that point, the owners plan to sell the team and actually have a purchase agreement in place. Immediately after the lottery, they decide to make a play to keep the team — and to keep it in Pittsburgh. One team insider said it was like selling a house and then finding gold on the property.  

How close was this team really in moving?

Very close. Even at the last meeting at a New Jersey hotel where the owners and public officials sit down with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to work out the details of an agreement, the whole thing nearly blows up. The Kansas City deal was comparable with the one in Pittsburgh, but the arena there already was built.  

In your opinion – what did the prior ownership do wrong that the team was in such difficult shape?

Howard Baldwin’s group faced a difficult situation: They bought a team that had just won the Stanley Cup, and they were determined to keep the team intact. But after winning the Cup, the players could command more money than the team really could afford. To come up with money, the team ended up selling a lot of long-term revenue streams in the Civic Arena, and so the financial problems worsened.  

 How involved was the NHL in the discussions and what role did they play? 

Commissioner Gary Bettman ultimately was the guy who brought everyone together. When the team was for sale, the league quietly let potential suitors know that it would do everything possible to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. No one knows whether the league actually could have kept the team from leaving, but I believe that was one of the key reasons Lemieux and Burkle could not sell the franchise. Then, when the deal for Pittsburgh nearly fell apart, Bettman was the one who convened the secret meeting where the final agreement was reached.  

Some were skeptical of Lemieux’s role on the discussions. Do you think he was aware of this – if so, how did it affect him?

At one point, Gov. Ed Rendell says how hard it is to negotiate with Burkle, a friend from politics, and Lemieux, a player he admired as a fan. Everyone had a role to play, and Lemieux played a key part. Ultimately, I believe Lemieux’s biggest contribution was insisting that the Penguins stay in Pittsburgh if at all possible.   

 What was the “turn around” moment for this team? When ownership knew it was going in the right direction?

 Oddly, it might have been before the 2008 playoffs when Crosby got injured and Malkin and the other players had to step up to fill the void. The owners already had agreed on terms for an arena, and they started winning without their best player. Team insiders had to wonder how great they could be when he came back. It was at that moment that Burkle pulled together team leaders and asked whether they had a chance to win. When the answer was yes, he pushed for them to do whatever they needed to win a championship. Even though the team lost in the final that year, they knew they could win the Cup after that.  

How important was the new stadium for this team? How difficult was it for them to have it torn down?

 The new arena makes it possible for the team to make enough money to stay in Pittsburgh and pay players up to the salary cap. At the Civic Arena, the team had to compete for local fan dollars with two relatively new stadiums — Heinz Field and PNC Park — and the building had many flaws that did not make it ideal for any of its intended uses. At Consol Energy Center, the Penguins should make enough money to be competitive for a long time.  

 Any last thoughts for readers?

 The fans played a bigger role in this whole story than maybe even many of them realize. When the Penguins were competing for the casino license, the fans turned the Gaming Control Board’s meetings into pep rallies for the team. And then when the team nearly left, the fans compelled reluctant public officials to realize the importance of this franchise to the region. Ultimately when the Penguins had competitive deals to stay and leave, the owners chose to stay because of the fan support here. Breakaway really tells the fans’ story.  

Andrew’s book launch and signing events:


Book Launch: 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18, T.G.I.Friday’s at Consol Energy Center.

Signing event: 1-3 p.m. Penguin Bookshop, 420 Beaver St., Sewickley, Pa. 15143. 412-741-3838. 

Signing event: 5-7 p.m. Pensgear Powered by Reebok, Consol Energy Center, near the Trib Total Media Gate, prior to the game.

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