Andrew Conte, author of the fascinating new book, “BREAKAWAY: The Inside Story of The Pittsburgh Penguins’ Rebirth,” says the project was an eye-opener for him.
Even though Conte covered the quest for a new arena as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and even though he followed hockey as a fan, he unearthed so much more in his reporting for the book about the details, decisions, debates, and strategy sessions involved in the team’s “rebirth” – including how trades are made and coaches are fired -- that he sometimes found himself shaking his head in amazement.
“I had a sense it was going to be a good story – I just didn’t really know how good,” said Conte, whose book started appearing in bookstores and online last week. “I remember one night standing outside a meeting about the new arena at the state office building in the freezing cold and wondering what was really going on in there.
“This team came out of bankruptcy and almost left town, but ended up getting a new arena and becoming one of the premier franchises in sports. I wanted to tell the story of how it happened, and what really went on behind those closed doors.”
Want to know how Penguins management deliberated and ultimately decided to make a major trade for Marian Hossa? Conte has it. How the team brass debated and then finally decided the coaching future of Michel Therrien? Conte has it.
Want to virtually sit in on the final, crucial negotiations for a new arena between Governor Ed Rendell, local political leaders, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and team officials? Conte takes you there.
And as for the drawn-out process on deciding who would receive the Pittsburgh casino license and directly impact the future of the team and the city, the author has that nailed.
No less an authority than national hockey writer Craig Custance, now with espn.com, says, “Breakaway has the perfect blend of dogged reporting and colorful story-telling. The detail Andrew Conte provides while lifting the curtain on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh is remarkable. This is not just a hockey book, this is a story of politics and of business that shares the blueprint on how to successfully run an organization. Even the most die-hard Penguins fan will learn something new about the power brokers who saved their franchise.”
But it is not just a story from the Penguins’ perspective, and it is certainly not a whitewash of the mistakes the franchise made along the way. Although Conte spoke to many key club officials both on and off the record, his book was an independent project that tells all aspects of the Penguins’ remarkable narrative, warts and all.
“The story ends up great for the Penguins – a Cinderella story where they get a new arena and the win the Stanley Cup – but there were a lot of twists and turns along the way,” Conte says. “The team was almost sold several times. The team almost moved out of town. In the end those twists and turns make for quite an amazing tale.”
Conte’s book underscores the important role of co-owner Mario Lemieux, the well-known face of the franchise, and even takes the reader inside some conversations between Lemieux and GM Ray Shero on key hockey matters. “Clearly, none of this happens without Mario,” the author said. But it also for the first time reveals and examines the essential role of co-owner Ron Burkle, the billionaire businessman who always operates away from the spotlight. Burkle’s impact on the Penguins’ success is one of the delightful fresh takes of the book.
And it wasn’t just on arena negotiations, where he excelled.
At a meeting of ownership and senior management in early 2008 to discuss a potential trade for Hossa, Conte reports that it was Burkle who set the tone. When a member of the Penguins’ old guard mentioned the existence of a five-year plan that might be disrupted by dealing prospects and draft picks for an established star like Hossa, Burkle said, “The Soviet Union had five-year plans. It didn’t work out well for them. The question is, do we have a shot if we make this move.”
There certainly were risks involved in the trade, including financial risks from significantly increasing the payroll, but Burkle sensed it was time to strike. His business savvy was legendary, and now he was helping to shape a strategic decision on the hockey side – especially after his staff convinced him the Penguins could make a run at a championship that year if they stepped up and made the deal. “I think we ought to go get him now,” Burkle is quoted as saying. “Don’t we owe it to our fans to try and win every single year?’
The book is jammed with other such revelations and anecdotes, including:
- Team CEO David Morehouse’s incomprehensible rise from an underachieving student in Pittsburgh’s Beechview section to a brief career as boilermaker to national politics and the White House, to Harvard and, eventually, to an executive role with his hometown team. “He’s a guy who never forgot where he came from,” Conte said. “He was once a kid sitting outside on the sidewalk, hoping he could get a ticket. He grew up a Pittsburgh sports fan, and he remembers the experience. That shapes how the Penguins treat their fans today.”
- The raucous arena negotiating session at the state office building in Pittsburgh that featured Rendell screaming at attorney Chuck Greenberg and pounding the table in anger – and the Pens’ negotiating team, led by Burkle, getting up and walking out.
- Penguins center Evgeni Malkin’s first detailed interview on the day he secretly slipped away from his Russian team in Helsinki, Finland to come to the United States and join the Penguins. Conte also talked to the coach of Malkin’s Russian team, who, remembering the day, said “We’re getting on the bus with all our equipment and my translator tells me they can’t find Malkin. My first thoughts were, ‘Holy geez, I wonder if this is it.’ ”
- The revelation that the Penguins looked at selecting Don Barden as their casino partner but ultimately declined because they concluded Barden didn’t have the money. As it turned out, Barden got the license in an upset – but didn’t have the money to complete the deal.
- The surprising admission by Sanford Rivers of the Gaming Control Board about his decision not to award the license to the Penguins’ casino partner, Isle of Capri, which had promised to pay for a new arena: “Isle of Capri, their only hook was ‘Save the Penguins, save the Penguins, save the Penguins,’” Rivers said. “The animosity I had is that the city of Pittsburgh is more than just the Penguins.” Even after Barden’s financial deal had fallen apart, Rivers told Conte, “It never crossed my mind that he was not funded.”
- The fact that the decisive meeting resulting in a new arena for Pittsburgh and the Penguins took place not in Pittsburgh or even Harrisburg but in the ballroom of a Crowne Plaza hotel in New Jersey. And that when Rendell asked Commissioner Bettman to take a seat at the center of the table as a neutral observer, Bettman declined, saying, “I’m going to sit with my friends Ron and Mario.”
And much more. There are so many behind-the-scenes revelations in the book that many folks who work for the Penguins or local government will learn astonishing new details of the team’s odyssey.
“No one person knew the whole story,” Conte said. “That was part of the challenge, and part of the motivation. I had to talk to a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life to put it all together. I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed reporting and writing it.”
The book is available online at amazon.com
; at the author’s website, breakawaypenguins.com
; at Barnes & Noble stores in Pittsburgh and around the country; at the PensGear store in CONSOL Energy Center; and in Canada at Chapters and Coles bookstores.