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New Penguins owner's 1st save a big one

Friday, Oct. 6, 2006

On a night when Mario Lemieux's jersey number 66 was put away for good, the Penguins' two-time savior and outgoing owner handed over the franchise to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie.

"It's an enormous honor to be here in the house that Mario built," Balsillie said Thursday during the first intermission of the Penguins' season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers. "I almost feel bad being here today because it's really his day -- it's his birthday, and his jersey goes up into the rafters."

Balsillie, 45, co-chief executive officer of Research In Motion, which makes BlackBerry wireless devices, signed a purchase agreement Wednesday for the Penguins for a reported $175 million.

"I think he's going to be a perfect owner for this market," said Lemieux, who met Balsillie several years ago during a round of golf in Toronto. "He wants to win, that's the main thing."

Lemieux, who attended the news conference at Mellon Arena, said Balsillie has no partners in the purchase. Lemieux, the leader of a group of investors who bought the Penguins in 1999, will no longer have any financial stake in the team.

The NHL Board of Governors still must approve the sale.

Balsillie wants a funding plan in place for a new arena before the season is over. Otherwise, he made it clear he will move the Penguins out of Pittsburgh.

"This has to be done really, really soon," Balsillie said. "I sure hope it's done ... gosh, I can't see spring before it's done. Is there anyone in this world who sees merit in waiting another year• I don't think anybody's served by waiting."

The Penguins have partnered with St. Louis-based Isle of Capri Casinos, which would pay $290 million for an arena if it wins the slots license for Pittsburgh. The state Gaming Control Board plans to vote Dec. 20 on awarding the license.

Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed a backup plan -- the so-called Plan B -- in case one of the other two slots bidders gets the licenses. Under Plan B, the team would have to pay $8.5 million upfront and $2.9 million a year, while also forgoing $1.1 million a year in naming rights fees.

Rendell and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato said those terms -- particularly the naming rights -- are open to negotiation. Under the proposal, the gambling company would pay $7.5 million a year, and the state would contribute $7 million from the money it makes on slots.

"Never say never," Rendell said. "The one thing I am adamant about is that we're not going to use taxpayers' dollars, but things like naming rights, sure, we'd be willing to talk about that."

Balsillie said Isle of Capri has offered "an amazing plan" for arena funding. However, Balsillie downplayed Plan B.

"I haven't really seen details of Plan B; they're kind of a moving target," Balsillie said. "I just can't comment, because it's all just so darn fluid on a bunch of stuff. Clearly, the focus now is the Isle of Capri plan."

Rendell and Onorato said they feel Plan B meets, or exceeds, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's conditions for keeping the team in Pittsburgh. Neither Rendell nor Onorato has talked with Balsillie.

Bettman said this week the only way the team could leave is if it does not have an arena deal similar to the stadium deals for the Steelers and Pirates.

"If it doesn't go quickly and people are dragging their feet, then we've got to see if there's something else that's really being played out here," Onorato said. "We have a new arena that's being built in Pittsburgh, and they should be staying here with a 30-year lease."

The city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority would have negotiated a lease for the new arena already except that the Penguins owners have refused to participate, Onorato said.

Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl plan to meet with Balsillie soon to open talks on land the city is acquiring in the Hill District for a new arena.

"(Balsillie's) comments thus far have indicated that he wants to stay, he's willing to stay, as long as an arena deal is in place, and I think we'll be able to do that," Ravenstahl said.

Some of the fans at last night's Flyers-Penguins game aren't so sure.

Bert Hepner, 37, of Kittanning, Armstrong County, arrived with three friends for what he thinks could be the final home opener for the Penguins.

"They are gone," Hepner said. "The new arena will be for 'Sesame Street Live' performances. Let's be realistic."

One reason for pessimism is that Balsillie has been linked to HHC Acquisition Corp., a secretive group of investors that has exclusive rights to bring an NHL team to Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario.

Balsillie has never confirmed he is part of HHC and refused to do so again last night.

"I can't comment on that kind of stuff," Balsillie said.

Hamilton is an industrial city -- residents refer to it as Steeltown -- sandwiched between Toronto and Buffalo. It has been trying to lure a National Hockey League team since the mid-1980s.

HHC recently paid $50,000 for a six-month extension of its rights, which expire in February. Previously, HHC attempted to buy the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres.

Balsillie's wife, Heidi, is a native of Hamilton. The couple lives in Waterloo, Ontario, about a 50-minute drive from Hamilton.

In addition to the arena, Balsillie will have other pressing matters to deal with, on and off the ice.

Despite the brilliance of rookie center Sidney Crosby, the Penguins were the second-worst team in the NHL last season.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the Russian hockey team that claims to have a valid contract for center Evgeni Malkin, is threatening to sue the Penguins in federal court if he plays in the NHL this season.

Officials of the Russian team have been quoted as saying they expect up to $20 million for Malkin's services this season.




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