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Penguins nearly left town last season, now they're in the Stanley Cup final

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The Pittsburgh Penguins quickly sold out next week's two home games for the Stanley Cup final.

That will give them 66 sellouts in a row. How fitting indeed.

Mario Lemieux has done it all for this organization both on and off the ice and now as part-owner he's overseen one of the great on-ice, off-ice turnarounds in pro sports.

Last season, the future of the team was very much in doubt. A new arena deal was dragging and rumours of a move were constant.

"Yes, when I look back when I was hired in May of '06, maybe even halfway through our first year last season, and moving into our house," Penguins GM Ray Shero recalled Wednesday on a conference call. "I've told the story where my wife didn't go about buying drapes and curtains, not certain if we were going to be here for the second year, whether the team was going to be sold or moved.

"A lot of uncertainty."

Finally, in March 2007, the uncertainty ended when the Penguins negotiated a deal with government officials for a new arena, which begins construction this summer and should be open in time for the 2010-11 season. Penguins fans rejoiced last March, their team was saved. Just 14 months later, they're in the Stanley Cup final.

"It truly is amazing," Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "But it's really more than 14 months."

Back-to-back 58-point seasons in 2003-04 and 2005-06 were tough to stomach.

"We were rebuilding, going to the bottom of the standings, our ticket base was declining, and we didn't know if we'd have a new arena and what kind of draft picks we would have," said Sawyer, who spear-headed the arena efforts.

"Now we're sold out, we have great, great young players and a new arena about to start construction. It couldn't be better."

The Penguins sold out every single game this year for the first time in franchise history, just four years after averaging a league-low 11,877 in attendance.

"The town of Pittsburgh, I mean, it's a serious hockey town," said Shero. "This last couple years has rekindled I think what they had 16 years ago with Mario, Jagr, the great teams that won the Cups. They had some really good years. The fans are excited again. It's been a while. The fans are feeling it.

"We've been sold out for, I don't know, 60 some games in a row. You can't get tickets. It's a real hot thing, which is great."

The club actually had to cut off season-ticket sales at 13,500 to ensure some tickets would be available for mini-plans and single games.

"It would have been most unfortunate had the team left," said Sawyer. "I know for sure wherever we would have gone, we would have been sold out with the team we have. You look at the Quebec Nordiques going to Colorado and how that worked."

It was close. It could easily have been the Kansas City Penguins. The NHL nearly lost a good hockey market.

"We always believed that Pittsburgh was a terrific place for NHL hockey and that with strong ownership and a new arena, we were confident that the future would be and is bright," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in an e-mail Wednesday.

The players were able to relax once the arena deal got done. As much as they all said at the time it was out of their hands and they were focused on playing hockey, some of them clearly were playing attention to the saga. Especially Penguins winger Ryan Malone, a hometown product who group up watching Lemieux's championship teams of the early 1990s.

"When you heard all the rumours about we might be moving ... it would have been tough to leave such a good hockey town with the support we were receiving at the time," Malone said Wednesday on a conference call.

"I think deep down inside we knew we weren't really going anywhere. For some reason, people were dragging their feet, finally got the rink deal done. It would have been crazy to think at the end of this year we would be going somewhere else."

The new arena deal is huge. Mellon Arena is the oldest rink in the NHL and doesn't supply the necessary revenue streams to ice a great team. Sidney Crosby's US$43.5-million, five-year extension kicks in next season. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury needs a new deal this summer. The entry-level deal of centre Evgeni Malkin expires after next season. It's going to cost money to keep Pittsburgh's young core together.

"In plain terms, we are going to be going to the cap (limit) with this team, very quickly," said Sawyer. "We need the revenue to be able to do that and to be on a good financial footing. This team has a long history of having problems off the ice. We want to be competitive on the ice and not have problems off the ice.

"So a new arena was essential, absolutely essential."

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