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Lemieux ushers Penguins into new era

PITTSBURGH -- They've joked for years in pro sports that players made so much money, they would eventually own their teams.

Guess what? At age 33, with no high school education but with plenty of hockey sense and business smarts, Mario Lemieux now owns the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lock, stock and Zambonis.It's finally happened. After years of escalating player salaries and ever-growing contentiousness among players and owners, a player has crossed over and become an owner. If Lemieux's prediction is true, others such as Michael Jordan and John Elway and Wayne Gretzky might soon step over, too.

History has been written. For the first time in major U.S. pro sports annals, a recently retired player has taken the money he made in sports -- and the money he was owed -- and bought his team.

What an intriguing story it is, too: French-speaking Canadian moves to a foreign country at age 18, learns the language, wins six NHL scoring championships and two Stanley Cups, beats cancer, makes the Hall of Fame and buys his team at age 33. Whew!

"Eventually, I'm sure you're going to see a lot more players become involved," said Lemieux, celebrating his Thursday takeover of the Penguins by playing this weekend in Jordan's celebrity golf tournament. "The way players' salaries are going, players are making a lot more money, I'm sure you're going to see more of them buying into franchises."'

Right now, what Lemieux most wants to see are ticket buyers, as the new Penguins seek to increase their season ticket base from 8,300 to 12,000.

Lemieux had to be encouraged Friday when, buoyed by the news that one of the most popular athletes in the city's history was officially their owner, the Penguins sold more than 200 season tickets. Lemieux expects a bigger spike in sales once he personally becomes involved in marketing.

"We're going to bring the ticket prices down, too, quite a bit," Lemieux said. "We think it's important to get the fans back."

Not that many have gone away. Despite the uncertainty over the team's fate and their October bankruptcy filing, the Penguins played to about 86 percent of the Civic Arena's 17,103 capacity last season.