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Jim Balsillie: Hockey superfan

| Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006

Jim Balsillie's home number is listed in the phone book. He rocks out to Rush and Nickelback on his iPod. He grumbles about his golf game. He lives with his perfect nuclear family -- a son, a daughter, and his wife of 16 years -- in a modest, four-bedroom house. He hauls his kids to school and basketball practice in a Honda.

"He's everything you'd want: humble, a good person, a good family guy, a crazy-passionate hockey guy, and he's outrageously able," said Jim Bradbeer, a close friend from Balsillie's college days.

Balsillie, 45, is no different from most other diehard hockey fans -- except he is one of the wealthiest men in Canada and the owner-to-be of the Penguins.

As co-CEO of Research In Motion, the Waterloo, Ontario-based firm that makes BlackBerry wireless devices, Balsillie has an estimated worth of more than $1 billion. Ten days ago, he agreed to buy the Penguins for a reported $175 million.

"That's the ultimate prize for a hockey lover," said New York author Karen Page, who has known Balsillie for nearly 20 years. "It's not that he's doing it to the exclusion of other things. He's still a huge philanthropist in Canada."

In 2002, Balsillie dropped $30 million to establish the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Waterloo-based think tank for economic issues. He also has donated $10 million to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

"He grew up in a very middle-class neighborhood in a middle-class family, and he's pretty much carried that all through his life, even since he made all that money," said his mother, Laurel Balsillie.

The middle of three children, Balsillie was born Feb. 3, 1961, in Seaforth, a small town in Ontario. His father, Raymond, was an electronics technician who worked on nuclear reactors.

When Balsillie was 5, the family moved to Peterborough, a city of 75,000 about a two-hour drive from Toronto.

The city has a team, the Petes, in the Ontario Hockey League. His dad was a season-ticket holder, so Balsillie often tagged along to the games.

As a kid, Balsillie played several sports, but hockey always was his favorite. He played goalie for All Saints' Anglican youth team.

But, even at a young age, he also began channelling his energy into money-making projects.

When Balsillie went door to door selling greeting cards at age 7, his mother knew she had a budding entrepreneur on her hands.

"He had a couple paper routes, as well," Laurel Balsillie said. "We encouraged him in those enterprises."

Billions from BlackBerrys

Balsillie studied commerce at the University of Toronto's Trinity College. In 1987, he entered Harvard Business School. It was around that time that Balsillie met his future wife, Heidi.

The couple lived in the Peabody Terrace apartments, a short walk across the Weeks Bridge from campus. Balsillie excelled at his studies, but he did not allow his life to be consumed by his classwork.

"On the spectrum of ultra-studious to class clown, I'd put him more on the class clown end," said Matt DeVoll, one of Balsillie's classmates. "But he wasn't a goof-off, by any means. He was very balanced about the way he went through business school."

DeVoll, now an executive with a software firm in Los Angeles, chuckled as he recalled late-night darts games with Balsillie at Drumlins, a pub in Central Square in Cambridge, Mass.

"He's like a kid," DeVoll said. "He's a playful person, and he's got kind of a kid's enthusiasm. He doesn't take himself too seriously. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy, the kind of good fortune he's had."

In 1990, Balsillie earned his Master of Business Administration and moved back to Canada.

Balsillie's first job was with Sutherland Schultz Inc., a fledgling technology firm in Ontario. There, Balsillie met Mike Lazaridis, who had founded his own company, Research In Motion Ltd., in 1984.

In 1992, Balsillie teamed with Lazaridis and took an enormous personal financial risk to help jump-start RIM. Balsillie mortgaged his home, took out a small-business loan and sank about $250,000 of his savings into the venture.

Balsillie is RIM's numbers whiz. Lazaridis handles the technical end. Balsillie was raised in a rural town and studied in one of the world's top business schools. Lazaridis, born in Turkey, is a college drop-out.

Together, they became billionaires.

Before unveiling a new wireless communication device in 1999, RIM hired a consulting firm in California to come up with a catchy name for it. One guru said the rows of buttons looked like seeds on a strawberry. The consultants liked the fruity theme, but thought strawberry was too awkward-sounding.

Thus was born the BlackBerry.

The device was revolutionary because it allowed users to read and send e-mail in addition to making phone calls. It was an instant hit -- so addictive that it earned the moniker "CrackBerry" -- and is used by 6.2 million people.

Because of the BlackBerry, RIM's stock has soared more than 1,000 percent since 2002. Currently, RIM has an estimated market value of $20.2 billion.

Balsillie owns about 12 million shares of stock, putting his personal fortune at roughly $1.3 billion.

Moving into the stratosphere of higher incomes gave Balsillie the ability to take some chances and suffer some hits in business. But he has not gone soft.

For six years, RIM fought a losing legal battle against Virginia-based NTP Inc., which claimed RIM had violated its patents. In February, RIM settled with NTP for $612.5 million, concluding a high-stakes standoff that could have wiped out more than two-thirds of RIM's business.

Through it all, Balsillie never backed down. That impressed Bradbeer, president of retailer Sugartown Worldwide Inc. in King of Prussia, Montgomery County.

"He could have settled a lot earlier, maybe even for a few bucks less," Bradbeer said. "But I think he felt his principles had been abused, so he stood up. I respect the heck out of that."

He shoots, he scores

Balsillie's business acumen is matched by his passion for hockey. While cramming for finals, Balsillie would take 15-minute breaks to watch the NHL playoffs on television.

He still lists Gordie Howe, the NHL's "Mr. Hockey," as the greatest influence in his life.

"It must be in your blood if you grow up in Canada," DeVoll said.

These days, Balsillie plays right wing two nights a week in a recreational hockey league in Waterloo. From all accounts, the big-bucks guy is not afraid to muck in the corners or trade elbows in front of the net.

During a round of golf a few years ago, Balsillie and Bradbeer crossed paths with Bill Torrey, the former general manager of the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers who was the Pittsburgh Hornets' public relations director in the early 1960s.

That got Balsillie talking about hockey -- and how he hoped to someday buy a team.

Some golf buddies pipe-dream about a date with Eva Longoria. Others yearn for a Mini Cooper or a winning Lotto ticket. But no one ever really expects it to happen.

Balsillie is different. And Bradbeer figured it was just a matter of time before Balsillie made good on his goal.

"When it happened, I wasn't surprised," Bradbeer said. "He's doing it because he loves hockey. I'm not sure it's the world's greatest investment, but my guess is he sees a way to make it a good investment and to bring winning hockey to Pittsburgh."

First encounter

Since agreeing to buy the Penguins, Balsillie has made just one brief public appearance in Pittsburgh.

On Oct. 5, less than 24 hours after hammering out the purchase agreement, Balsillie attended the Penguins' season opener at Mellon Arena. He met with reporters for about 10 minutes between the first and second periods.

Mario Lemieux, the Penguins superstar who seven years ago bought the team out of bankruptcy court, said he had a friendly relationship with Balsillie before it evolved into a business affair.

"I've known Jim for a couple years," Lemieux said. "I played golf with him a couple years back ..."

"He won," Balsillie interrupted. That drew a wan smile from Lemieux, who is not used to being cut off in mid-sentence.

When he took the podium, Balsillie at first seemed nervous, perhaps even a bit giddy, to be standing next to Lemieux, finally buying a hockey team.

"I feel like a kid again, quite frankly," Balsillie gushed.

It was an unexpected emotional display from someone with the reputation of a cool, corporate shark. Then again, Balsillie is the kind of superfan who named meeting rooms at his company headquarters after NHL legends such as Howe and Guy Lafleur.

Balsillie was grilled about his plans for the franchise and the prospects of building a new arena in Pittsburgh. Finally, a reporter from Kitchener, Ontario, asked point-blank whether Balsillie will say "Enough is enough" and move the team out of town.

At that moment, Balsillie's BlackBerry, which was resting next to the microphone, went off.

"I turned it off," Balsillie said with a self-conscious shrug. Everyone, even Lemieux, laughed, and the tension was broken.

After vague answers to another three questions, the press conference was shut down. As Penguins officials tried to hustle him out of the room, Balsillie suddenly stopped, reached into his pocket and pulled out his BlackBerry.

He held it up and grinned into the television cameras.

There, emblazoned on the device that enabled Balsillie to make the jump from the bleachers to the owner's box, was a black-and-gold Penguins logo.

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