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Penguins try to stay focused as vultures circle overhead

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'It doesn't affect us': Oklahoma City joins mob of suitors vying for franchise:
Sean Fitz-gerald, National Post
Published: Monday, January 08, 2007

A minor-league owner in Oklahoma City has joined the queue of prospective new hosts for the Pittsburgh Penguins, expressing faith the National Hockey League could succeed in his market -- unless it got something better first, like an NBA team.

Bob Funk owns the Central Hockey League's Oklahoma City Blazers, and he reportedly approached local leaders last week to extend an official invitation to Penguins management.

Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux visited Kansas City last week, where he was offered free rent and a management stake in a new arena if he agreed to relocate the Penguins.

Oklahoma City has been acting as a foster home for the New Orleans Hornets, who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and are scheduled to return home next season.

"We've always had an interest in the NHL or anything that contributes to Oklahoma City or the Oklahoma environment," Funk told The Oklahoman. "I think the NHL has a good future."

That future could play out inside the Ford Center, a five-year old arena with a capacity of more than 18,000 seats for hockey. It holds almost 20,000 for basketball, though, and would likely embrace the Hornets -- or the locally- held Seattle Super Sonics -- with more warmth.

"Certainly we need to consider the NBA first and foremost," Funk told the newspaper.

Even if the NBA squeezed the NHL dreams from Oklahoma City,

Mario Lemieux's scouting expedition to Kansas City, where his Pittsburgh Penguins were offered free rent to relocate, brought backmemories of the woeful Kansas City Scouts, who went 27- 110-13 in two seasons from1974-76 with a roster that included former Penguins generalmanager Craig Patrick, former Penguins enforcer Steve Durbano and some guy named Lemieux (Richard, not Mario). Alook at the club's all-time leading scorers:

Player GPG Guy Charron 129 40 Simon Nolet 113 36 Wilf Paiement 135 47 Dave Hudson 144 20 Robin Burns Randy Rota Gary Croteau 151 Ed Gilbert 121

Funk suggested the Penguins could always try Tulsa, a city with a population of around 400,000. The Tulsa Oilers' CHL rivals include such storied franchises as the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs, Youngstown Steel Hounds and Memphis River Kings.

The Penguins, whose lease with the antiquated Mellon Arena expires this spring, have variously been linked to Las Vegas, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Hartford, Conn. But Lemieux and investor Ronald Burkle also met Pennsylvania government officials last week in a bid to avoid relocation.

Amidst all the rumours, the Penguins beat both of last spring's Eastern Conference finalists, shutting out Carolina 3-0 on Tuesday before beating Buffalo 4- 2 on Friday.

"We're curious at what's going on, but it doesn't affect us at all," Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien told The Associated Press. "We are focusing on what we have to do, but we read stuff in the papers like everyone else does. But the focus isn't on that. We've got confidence and a lot of faith in the people who manage our team, and they all have our support."

One reason behind the franchise's appeal is its potential on the ice. Sidney Crosby led the league in scoring yesterday, and could soon be named captain of a young group on the rise, if not also on the move.

"I think everybody thinks this is a great place to pl a y," Penguins defenceman Ryan Whitney told the AP. "The crowd is unbelievable. If we get a new building, I know myself and other people want to be here a long time. It's a great place to play, a great city, a great sports town. We all hope we end up staying here."

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