Potential move still hangs over Penguins' franchise

12/4/2006 - NHL

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- One thing's for sure after Monday's interview between potential Pittsburgh Penguins owner Jim Balsillie and the league's executive committee: Everyone from the Penguins mascot to commissioner Gary Bettman has their fingers crossed that the Isle of Capri gaming company is awarded a slots license Dec. 20.

Because without it, the NHL might well be headed for a battle with Balsillie over what becomes of the franchise.

"It was a good, open, candid dialogue. I think the interview lasted about 50 minutes and I think the sense of the room was, boy, everybody would be really happy if the Isle of Capri got that slots license because that would remove any uncertainty," Bettman said Monday afternoon.

"I think [the executive committee was] very comfortable with Jim as a perspective owner and he's going to try and make it work in Pittsburgh, but he's going to need some help in terms of a new building," Bettman added. "He was crystal clear that he wants to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Obviously he's going to need a new arena to do that, though."

Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion, the Canadian-based company behind the BlackBerry, was asked to comment as he exited Monday's meeting.

"I can't talk right now. I just need two minutes. I'll be right back," Balsillie said as he and Pittsburgh CEO and president Ken Sawyer sailed past. That was about 11 a.m. Balsillie did not return.

Balsillie, who lives in the Southern Ontario city of Waterloo, has closely examined the rules that would govern moving the team and what specifically might happen if he wanted to move a team to Ontario.

Any move would require the support of two-thirds of the NHL's board of governors (20 of 30 teams), and a potential move to Southern Ontario would depend on the location desired and whether it conflicted with the defined geographic territory of the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.

First things first, though: Balsillie has agreed to keep the team in Pittsburgh if the Isle of Capri is awarded a slots license. The company has agreed to build a new arena at no cost to the team or city. But there remain real questions about whether they will be successful in their bid, a question that will be answered before Christmas.

"Obviously, if they get the license, there's a contractual commitment to the team. If there isn't, there will be an opportunity, I suppose, for other places to make their interests known. Although he reiterated, as did the executive committee, that we would like this team to stay in Pittsburgh if that's possible," Bettman said.

Balsillie's acceptance as a new owner is not tied to the gaming decision; he will likely be approved via a fax vote by the board of governors by the end of the week. If the Isle of Capri bid fails, the NHL will be facing a potential challenge to its long-held plan to spread its brand across the width and breadth of the United States.

Kansas City has a new arena and is itching for an NHL tenant, specifically the Pittsburgh Penguins and its core of superlative young players. Houston is another hot spot on the rumor map. Las Vegas is seen by some NHL executives as having great potential for either expansion or relocation, if that becomes a necessity.

But similar cases were made in Nashville, Atlanta, South Florida, Anaheim and other markets that have failed to make good on the rationalization for moving teams there.
So the next question is when, if ever, does the NHL acknowledge its mistakes and move back to Canada, whether it's to Winnipeg (a new arena would have to be retrofit and corporate support would have to be solidified) or the most logical area, Southern Ontario, where officials with various teams have told ESPN.com they believe another franchise would be sure to flourish despite its proximity to Buffalo and Toronto.

Bettman said the league has never considered a potential move of a team to Ontario.

"It's not something we've ever focused on, and frankly our goal and Mr. Balsillie's approval is based on him buying the Pittsburgh Penguins," he said. "If we have to deal with something, we deal with it under the constitution and the bylaws at the time, but it's not something we want to do because we do not want to move the team. He made the point he can get to Pittsburgh almost as fast as he can get to Toronto for the games."

More to the point, even though a move to Ontario seems certain to succeed -- or as likely to succeed as putting a team in Nashville, where the team threatened to black out local television coverage of their playoff games last spring because they couldn't sell out the Gaylord Entertainment Center -- such a move would be an admission of the folly of Bettman's expansion into various U.S. markets.

Stay tuned.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.