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License vote could be delayed

| Sunday, Dec. 17, 2006

If there is a delay by the state gaming board in awarding Pittsburgh's sole stand-alone slots parlor license this week, it could present additional problems for the preservation of the Penguins' future in Pittsburgh.

The local status of the organization was termed "volatile" by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after prospective owner Jim Balsillie broke off negotiations with the league to purchase the club.

"It certainly throws a wrench into the works," Duquesne law professor Joseph Sabino Mistick said Saturday. "These are dangerous times for hockey fans around here."

Mistick was a member of the Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff administrations.

"It appears now that (Balsillie) did not want to be strapped to remaining in Pittsburgh. If he's not committed to that, the responsibility passes to the gaming board to keep this team in Pittsburgh and they may not be ready to make a decision," Mistick said.

"That could possibly sound the death knell for the Penguins in the city of Pittsburgh."

While in Pittsburgh to tour the proposed new Uptown arena site Dec. 5, Bettman said a delay in the awarding of the slots license would "not be helpful to the process" of securing the Penguins' regional future.

Representatives for the state gaming board said a decision to award Pittsburgh's slots license to one of three bidders will be made Wednesday.

However, there is thought among those close to the proposed Penguins sale process that the state gaming board could delay its decision on the Pittsburgh license.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said yesterday he expects the decision on the Pittsburgh license will be made Wednesday. He added that a decision on the Pittsburgh slots license had to be simultaneous with the gaming board awarding other slots licenses across the state.

The Sports and Exhibition Authority owns the land necessary to build a new arena and could move forward with a contingency plan if a vote is delayed, Ravenstahl said. But the mayor also said all parties would like to have a slots ruling made before moving forward with a new arena.

"A delay would make it more difficult for us," Ravenstahl said. "Time is of the essence."

One of the bidders for Pittsburgh's slots license is Isle of Capri Casinos, which has pledged to pay $290 million for construction of a multipurpose arena if it wins the $50 million license. That is the Penguins' preferred option.

If Isle of Capri is not victorious, the Penguins' local future would likely be tied to a city- and county-proposed "Plan B." Unlike the Isle of Capri proposal, Penguins ownership would be required to contribute toward the funding of a new facility under "Plan B."

With Balsillie having withdrawn his estimated $175 million offer, the Penguins remain under the ownership of Lemieux Group LP, which is headed by Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

In a statement released by the organization Friday, Lemieux said his ownership group would "re-evaluate our situation" after the coveted slots license is awarded.

Balsillie attended the Penguins' game Saturday night at Montreal's Bell Centre. A team spokesman said Balsillie was not there to meet with any members of the Penguins and that neither Lemieux nor CEO Ken Sawyer was in Montreal.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Balsillie was not in Montreal to meet with any league officials, nor was he aware of any contact between the league and Balsillie yesterday.

Balsillie's company, Research in Motion, Ltd., is based out of Waterloo, Ontario. He was believed to be sitting in the luxury suite belonging to Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr.

Two bidders previously interested in purchasing the club -- New York businessman Andrew Murstein and Hartford real-estate developer Sam Fingold -- told the Tribune-Review on Friday that they were interested in picking up where their previous efforts ended when Lemieux's group agreed upon selling to Balsillie.

Mt. Lebanon native Mark Cuban, who owns the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, was part of Murstein's original ownership group, though he did not hold a significant financial stake.

After an NBA exhibition game involving his Mavericks in October, Cuban wrote on his blog that he made "a big mistake" not trying to buy the Penguins.

Cuban did not return e-mail requests sent yesterday seeking his comment on the most recent developments surrounding the stalled sale of the club.

Another prospective bidder, Ringgold High School graduate Jim Renacci, did not return a phone call yesterday. Renacci, an Ohio businessman, was previously linked to discussions with the current Penguins ownership group.

Balsillie, a Canadian billionaire, told the Tribune-Review on Friday that his bid to purchase the Penguins remained alive, despite the statement by Lemieux that the deal was off.

Staff writers Bobby Kerlik and Karen Price contributed to this report.

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