The Penguins’ future was in the midst of uncertainty following the bankruptcy announcement in 1999. Former Penguin Mario Lemieux and businessman Ron Burkle purchased the team with one goal in mind: to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh forever.
To pull off this feat they hired Ken Sawyer as executive vice president to ensure the Penguins would not only stay in Pittsburgh, but become one of the premiere franchises in all of professional sports. Mission accomplished.
“When I came here with the ownership team it was very clear that we had one shot to keep this team in Pittsburgh where it belong,” Sawyer said. “It was very tenuous at that time. There was a lot of negative publicity because of the bankruptcy. It got worse in the sense that the league’s economics got worse. We knew what we had to do. We had to rebuild the team to preserve our business, the bottom line, while we were doing this, and wait out until we had a new collective bargaining agreement.
“We knew we needed a new arena for the revenues to compete, not just with the teams around the league but locally with the new stadiums. The arena, collective bargaining agreement and rebuilding the team - that’s where the fortunate part came in. We knew we were getting some top picks but Sidney (Crosby) and (Evgeni) Malkin in consecutive years is a dream.”
Now that Penguins have become the model franchise for the entire NHL Sawyer, who is currently serving as the Penguins chief executive officer, is stepping down. On Sept. 1, 11 years to the day that the team was awarded to Lemieux and Burkle, Sawyer will be officially retired having accomplished every goal he set in 1999.
“Everything has come together,” Sawyer said. “The arena is the final icing on the cake. We’ve been working on so many things over the years. We’ve had great success and the foundation is there. This is one of those moments in your life that is a big moment: the day you finish school; get married; have your first child; and the day you announce your retirement. In that respect it’s big.”
“Ken Sawyer has done a phenomenal job for this city and this organization, and even in retirement he always will be a Pittsburgh Penguin,” Lemieux and Burkle said in a joint statement. “Ken guided us through the early years of our ownership, provided strong and steady leadership during the uncertainty of the NHL lockout and laid the financial groundwork for our success on the ice, as well as the new Consol Energy Center. The fact that this remarkable new arena will be completed on time and on budget is a testament to his vision and management skills.”
“If I can be half as successful as Ken’s been, I’ll be very happy,” said David Morehouse, who has served the team as president since 2007, and will now lead the Penguins in the dual role of CEO and president. “You couldn’t design a better way to retire. Hopefully in the next 20 years I’ll be able to do the same thing. It’s a pretty good way to go out. I’m happy for him. He’ll have some well deserved time off, and he’ll still be a part of the Penguins family.”
Sawyer joined the Penguins as executive vice president when Lemieux and Burkle bought the team in 1999, was named president in 2003 and has led the organization as CEO since 2006. During his tenure the Penguins emerged from the depths of bankruptcy to become one of the hottest tickets in the NHL, with a sellout streak of more than 150 games, while reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals and winning the Cup in 2009. His crowning achievement was the development and construction of Pittsburgh’s spectacular new arena, expected to open in August.
But it wasn’t always easy. There were bumps and setbacks along the way, and Sawyer was there to provide a steady hand and steer the organization forward.
“There were a lot of obstacles and a lot of things had to happen,” said Sawyer, who served as chief financial officer of the National Hockey League for 14 years before joining Pittsburgh. “Some adversity surfaced that you didn’t expect. Some things we were able to resolve and move forward. Some of it was good fortune. Some of it we worked hard on it, and it was perseverance. The staff here and ownership totally committed to staying the course and making it happen.
“The toughest decision was early on, saying we need to go to the bottom. We needed to be there and we needed the fans to understand, which they did, why we’re doing this. We are in the business of entertainment but it put us in a position now to be a great team indefinitely.”
But the tough times made the sweet taste of victory even greater for Sawyer. During his 11 years with the Penguins Sawyer has made many great friendships and memories.
Winning the Cup is numero uno for sure. Hiring Ray Shero was a big moment. Getting the arena deal done in 2007. As it comes to open it will be a big milestone. There have been some great moments in addition to that. Mario’s comeback is probably the biggest moment of that, and the lottery for Sid - Ken Sawyer
“Winning the Cup is numero uno for sure,” he said reflecting. “Hiring Ray Shero was a big moment. Getting the arena deal done in 2007. As it comes to open it will be a big milestone. There have been some great moments in addition to that. Mario’s comeback is probably the biggest moment of that, and the lottery for Sid.”
But there is still much work to do before Sawyer steps down, and possibly more memories to come.
“I would love another Stanley Cup. I’m being greedy now,” Sawyer said with a smile. “I have two sons and I don’t want them fighting down the road as to who gets my ring. The playoffs I’m looking forward to with great anticipation and the opening of the new arena. It’s surpassing my expectations. Those are the two big things would say.”
But just because he is retired doesn’t mean Sawyer won’t be around anymore. He has experience as a consultant, and will continue to be available to the Penguins in a consulting role, and as a friendly face.
“I intend to be a frequent visitor as a fan,” Sawyer said. “The arena will open with a concert in August. I will be front and center for the opening events in October for the regular season. I anticipate being here a great deal.”