As he sat in his Pittsburgh hotel room late Tuesday night, surveying the skyline of his new hometown, Roy Mlakar was in an upbeat mood.
And why not?
Mlakar, who is leaving his position as president of the Kings, had escaped the disarray, doubt and depression gripping his old organization to the brightness and optimism of a new life with a new organization.
Mlakar expressed sympathy for the Kings, but he wasn’t about to dwell on the frustration and bitterness he left behind. His team plunged from the Stanley Cup finals a year ago to missing the playoffs this season and the owner, Bruce McNall, went from being one of the NHL’s leading figures to being investigated by a federal grand jury and under further pressure from a huge debt load.
Earlier in the day, Mlakar, King president for the last two years and an official with the club since 1988, had been introduced to his new employees as the president and CEO of Pittsburgh Sports Associates. As such, he will oversee the operation of the organization’s four teams--the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL, the Pittsburgh Phantoms, a roller hockey team, the Pittsburgh Stingers of the Major Indoor Soccer League and the Russian Penguins. The latter is a Moscow-based hockey club, formerly the Central Red Army team, which plays an interlocking schedule with the International Hockey League.
According to Mlakar, a fifth entity will also be added to the organization in the near future.
Mlakar, who had an option year remaining on his King contract, has signed a five-year deal with the Pittsburgh group.
With majority control of the Kings about to pass from Bruce McNall to Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joseph Cohen, there has been much speculation that Mlakar would be forced out.
Not so, insists Mlakar, who said his resignation from the Kings, made two weeks ago, was his choice.
“It was the toughest decision I ever had to make,” Mlakar said. “But being given the opportunity to run five entities like this was a tremendous challenge. It was like the old Godfather offer, too good to refuse.
“I feel like I’m going home. I grew up in Cleveland, not far away from here.”
Mlakar’s decision won’t be mourned by some. He was an administrator with a reputation for being tough and demanding, but effective.
When the Kings were struggling a few years ago, McNall told reporters he was going to step down as club president and install an SOB who would whip the team into shape.
“When does Roy start?” a reporter asked.
“Not that big an SOB,” McNall replied, laughing.
It was indeed Mlakar, who, despite his new title, continued to successfully run the business end of the Kings’ organization, having a hand in everything from arena advertising to the Kings’ hockey stores that are spread around Southern California.
Of course, it helped that another figure also joined the Kings the same year as Mlakar, a player by the name of Wayne Gretzky.
As McNall’s fortunes tumbled this season, the vacuum of leadership at the top created an apparent struggle for power. Mlakar was aligned with General Manager Nick Beverley on one side, with Coach Barry Melrose on the other.
What is to be Beverley’s fate now?
Mlakar no longer has a say in that matter, but he had plenty of nice things to say about Beverley on Tuesday.
“Nick’s done a great job,” Mlakar said. “It’s a credit to his work ethic. The fruits of Nick’s effort are the kids the Kings have coming up.”
As for McNall, Mlakar said, “I pray that Bruce comes out of this all right. Bruce is not only a survivor, but a catalyst for many industries. The Kings will only benefit from his continued participation.”
And one does Mlakar see as his contribution to the club?
“I leave the Kings a lot stronger than I found them,” he said. “Bruce McNall’s problems have nothing to do with the Kings.”