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Learning to fly

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As the Penguins discover how to soar above the opposition, fans hope the team's trajectory doesn't take them out of town
Michael Traikos in Pittsburgh, National Post
Published: Saturday, December 30, 2006

Evgeni Malkin has been in North America for only four months, so the Russian-born hockey player still requires a translator for interviews.

Meanwhile, his Penguins teammates are trying to change that -- one word at a time.

Yesterday, Colby Armstrong was teaching Malkin the word that best describes the hairdo of Oilers forward Ryan Smyth.

"Mullet?" Malkin asked in a heavy-accented voice to the delight of those around him.

Mastering slang terms and pop cultural references may not help Malkin dazzle a media scrum with the same ease as fellow Russian Alexander Ovechkin. But the 20-year-old is coming along.

And, like the rest of his team -- a group that is rich with first-round talent, but has not qualified for the playoffs in six years -- it may be only a matter of time before Malkin and the Penguins put it all together.

The question is, will Pittsburgh be lucky enough to enjoy it?

Last week, Penguins majority owner Mario Lemieux threatened to move the team to another city after a deal to finance a new arena fell through. The lease on 45-year-old Mellon Arena, the oldest building in the NHL, expires in June.

And unless Lemieux can figure out a way to stay in the city where he hoisted two Stanley Cups -- he has since been approached by the governor of Pennsylvania with an alternate plan -- it could be the people of Kansas City, Las Vegas or Waterloo who will celebrate what many believe is a dynasty in the making.

"The fans have done everything in their power to support the team so that we'll stay," said Penguins alternate captain Sidney Crosby. "They've been through tough times, so they want us to be here when we're good."

Lemieux announced he would entertain offers outside of Pittsburgh after the state gaming control board rejected a slots-license bid from casino company Isle of Capri, which had pledged US$290-million for a new arena if it was awarded that license.

The approval instead went to a group headed by Detroit businessman Don Barden, who had the high-profile backing of former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis.

On Wednesday, Lemieux received a letter from governor Ed Rendell and two other officials that stated they are "solidly committed to keeping the Penguins at home in Pittsburgh" and announced a goal of Mar. 31 for completing a US$290-million arena deal with tax-exempt bonds. Although Lemieux is reportedly still hoping for a better deal, both parties are expected to discuss "Plan B" in Pittsburgh next week.

"I try not to think about it," Armstrong said of the uncertainty surrounding the franchise. "But it would be a shame for us to leave."

Penguins backup goaltender Jocelyn Thibault knows first-hand the effects of uprooting a soon-to-be championship team to another city.

Thibault was a member of a Quebec Nordiques franchise that had teased their fans throughout the 1990s with up-and-coming superstars such as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote, before relocating to Colorado in 1995-96. What made the move hurt more was that the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in their first season.

"We've got a lot of good talent here, for sure, but it's probably going to take some time until you get that experience to win a championship," said Armstrong.

"The fans are in for quite a treat if the team does stay with the amount of young talent that we have in the organization."

Still, the Penguins may yet be years away from hatching into Stanley Cup contenders.

Crosby, who headed into last night's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs with a league-leading 55 points (17 goals and 38 assists) in 33 games, is still just a teenager. So is 18-year-old Jordan Staal. And despite Malkin's offensive prowess -- 17 goals and 34 points in 32 games -- the Russian is nonetheless a rookie who has yet to learn the intricacies of the North American game, never mind the language.

"There's definitely a lot of young talent in the dressing room," observed Staal, who has 10 goals and two assists this season. "It's just a matter of time before we become a team to be reckoned with."

Pittsburgh, which lost five straight heading into last night's game against Toronto, is receiving strong individual performances from its young players. But the team is currently in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and has struggled to perform consistently as a group -- a problem that the team denies has anything to do with the business side of the franchise.

"You can't always judge by results for a young team," said head coach Michel Therien, who has 10 players in his lineup who are 24 years of age or younger.

"We're in a process of learning a lot, learning about the NHL. More than half those players haven't had more than a full season in the NHL. So it's a learning process for us. We really believe we're going in the right direction."

While the team may be trending upwards, attendance figures indicate that the people of Pittsburgh are not following. The Penguins, who have two of the game's most exciting players in Crosby and Malkin, are 20th in the league when it comes to drawing fans (15,767).

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