USATSI_8336902_154158418_lowresThe Pittsburgh Penguins owners have hired Morgan Stanley and are exploring “strategic options,” which has led to talk that the franchise could be up for sale.

Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle hired the financial services firm “for their insight and counsel,” they said in a joint statement. “After buying the team out of bankruptcy, ensuring its long-term future in Pittsburgh and creating a strong foundation for continued success, we believe it is time to explore our options,” the statement said.

Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Penguins are for sale or that Lemieux and Burkle are looking to ditch their part in the franchise.

“Our goal all along was to solidify the franchise both on and off the ice,” Lemieux said. “Our star players are signed to long-term contracts, they’ve got a deep and passionate base to support them and I believe the Penguins are well-positioned for the future. Regardless of what happens, I plan on staying involved with the team in some capacity, and Ron and I plan to retain an ownership stake.”

Pittsburgh has certainly been a National Hockey League success under Lemieux and Burkle’s watch, as they’ve made the playoffs nine straight seasons and have sold out 377 straight games. They have also led all US-based teams in television ratings for the past season seasons and have been among the league’s most elite franchises.

Now, it’s true that this exploration of options could lead to the conclusion that Lemieux and Burkle are interested in selling or getting rid of their respective equity stakes in the franchise.

Burkle, who founded Yucaipa Companies back in 1986, is a power investor worth nearly $3 billion. He invested in the Penguins in the late 1990s, but his current share in the club is unknown apart from speculation. Along with Lemieux, he helped set the Penguins up in the CONSOL Energy Center and solidified the future of the franchise.

Lemieux, meanwhile, was Pittsburgh’s largest creditor by the late 1990s due to years of deferred salaries that resulted from Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg’s mismanagement of the team. He was owed an estimated $32.5 million, $20 million of which he converted to equity. That gave him controlling interest in the franchise, which in turn led to the NHL approving his application for ownership in 1999.

So where do Burkle and Lemieux go from here? Nobody really knows. They are interested in seeing what can be done at this point, which suggests that they may be looking for a way out. Lemieux tried to sell the Penguins to Jim Balsillie’s Research in Motion back in October of 2006 before the offer was rescinded after a dispute Balsillie had a dispute with the league over relocation.

There is a history in terms of attempting to sell the team, in other words, which certainly does support talk of Lemieux and Burkle looking to sell the Penguins again. If that is indeed where this road leads, it could make for an interesting summer in Pittsburgh.

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