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Letter of intent signed for Pens

The man in line to be the next owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins is a hockey nut and a thrill seeker who tends to keep to himself, said a longtime business partner.

Connecticut real estate developer Sam Fingold, 34, heads a group that signed a letter of intent Friday to purchase the team, according to a statement released last night by Ken Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Penguins.

"As passionate hockey fans, we are excited about this opportunity to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins," Fingold said in a statement. "We agree with the current ownership group that the Penguins should remain in Pittsburgh, and that a new arena is crucial to the team's long-term success.

"So many of the elements for success already are in place here, including a loyal fan base and a spectacular core of young talent, led by Sidney Crosby.

"The Penguins are an important part of Pittsburgh's sports landscape, and it is our objective to do everything possible to secure their future here," Fingold said.

Fingold's group includes two other family members - his father, David, and his brother, Michael, both developers in Toronto, Ontario - as well as Michael Cohl, founder and chief executive officer of Concert Productions International, one of the most successful concert promoters in the world.

The group is said to be offering about $175 million for the team.

"The letter of intent...means that Sam and his group have exclusive negotiating rights in order to reach a purchase agreement," Sawyer said.

"When you're a kid, you dream of something you'd really love to do. I think this certainly is the pinnacle for Sam," said Philip Schonberger, who has been an investment partner with Fingold in several downtown Hartford properties since the mid-1990s.

"He's attracted to, I guess, the thrills," Schonberger said. "He's a car buff. He's got boats and cars. He's tried 'em all, all the interesting imported cars that are kind of limited edition."

Fingold is principal of Kenyon Investments, a commercial real estate firm in Hartford, specializing in many major renewal and development projects. He is a native of Toronto.

The Penguins' current ownership group is the Lemieux Group Limited Partnership, led by Mario Lemieux and Ronald Burkle.

The two groups have signed a confidentiality agreement, meaning there will be no further comment until a purchase agreement is reached.

Once a purchase agreement is completed, the sale process enters the "approval" stage - a period expected to last several months, in which the National Hockey League must give its OK to the new ownership group.

Schonberger said he believes Fingold -- a father of two who frequents Nantucket, where his wife's family owns an upscale men's clothing store -- will not treat the team as a rich man's plaything or a cow to be milked dry.

"He will look at it not as a black and white, 'How do I make the last 25 cents?' He's been in Hartford, a tough place, and he's stuck with it for a long time to try to make it a better place," Schonberger said.

Kurt Badenhausen, an associate editor at Forbes Magazine and expert on NHL franchise valuations, said $175 million seems steep.

"They're buying the team based on the fact that they're either, a.) going to get a new arena, or b.) move the team to a more desirable location in the owners' eyes," Badenhausen said. "That's why you're seeing such a big number. The Penguins' current economics certainly don't add up to a team worth $175 million."

The St. Louis Blues sold in June for $150 million, which included a lease on their rink. Without a new arena, Badenhausen said, the Penguins are worth about $130 million.

When the family first bid on the Penguins, Sam Fingold talked about moving the team to Kansas City, Mo. But recently he has said the team could succeed in Pittsburgh with a new arena.

All five groups bidding on the team have committed to staying if Isle of Capri Casinos wins a slots license for Pittsburgh and pays $290 million for a new arena.

The team's lease at Mellon Arena expires in June.

If another company gets the license, Gov. Ed Rendell has pitched a backup plan calling for the casino owner to pay $7.5 million a year, while the Penguins would pay $8.5 million up front and $2.9 million a year and give up $1.1 million per year in naming rights.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato talked with Sawyer last night.

"I told Ken that we -- the city, the county and the state -- are prepared to sit down with the new ownership group, if they finalize the deal, to work out details of a plan to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, which would include a new, multipurpose facility," Onorato said.

Fingold has said he would not move a team to Hartford, though Schonberger said his partner was an avid Whalers fan before the city's franchise was moved to Raleigh, N.C.

Last year, when Fingold claimed the city had reneged on a verbal deal to sell him a property, he threatened to block a sale to another buyer.

"Nobody has gone and done as much for the city of Hartford as I have," Fingold told a Hartford Courant reporter.

But after venting, Fingold backed down, Schonberger said.

"It's OK to express your anger now and then. It's another thing to be an impediment to progress, sort of litigious and obstreperous, and that he's not," he said.

The Penguins are not the Fingold family's first foray into sports. Fingold's father tried unsuccessfully to bring a pro basketball team to Toronto in 1988.

Fingold's grandfather bought a Canadian steel company in the 1960s, and it was part of the family business for years

The other leading bidder was Lawrence Gottesdiener, a Massachusetts real estate developer. His bid also is believed to be around $175 million.

Other bidders were Andrew Murstein, president of Medallion Financial Group; Ohio businessman Jim Renacci, who owns the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena Football League and serves as mayor of Wadsworth, Ohio; and a mystery group believed to be interested in moving the team to Ontario.

"It was encouraging to have so many groups expressing interest in the Penguins during this process, and we are delighted to have Sam Fingold's group sign a letter of intent," Sawyer said.

"Sam and his family have a tremendous background in business and investments, and, just as importantly, they have hockey in their blood. We look forward to working with them to complete the purchase agreement, and to achieve their goal of keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh for the long term."

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