Whom should we believe: Balsillie or Bettman?

Updated: December 19, 2006, 8:16 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

There are two ways to look at the NHL's driving away of Canadian billionaire and would-be owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jim Balsillie.

First, there is the NHL Kool-Aid view. By slapping last-minute conditions on the hard-nosed businessman, thereby restricting Balsillie's ability to move the team from Pittsburgh, the league has given the Penguins and their fans the best chance not only to survive but also thrive in Pittsburgh. Keeping the team in Pittsburgh will definitely be viewed as a plus for the NHL, a league that craves stability.

Second, there is the more troubling view. The league has risked driving out perhaps the perfect owner, opened itself up to unrest from its current ownership group, set itself up for future ownership problems and exposed itself to potential lawsuits.

"The guy's a perfect owner," a top team executive told ESPN.com. "He's got deep pockets. This guy was going to write a check. He plays hockey. He loves the game. No one's going to have to explain anything to the guy. We should have driven a car over to his house. We should have been bending over to try and get this guy in.

Lemieux and Balsillie
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBack in happier days, Mario Lemieux, left, believed Jim Balsillie was the answer to the Penguins' prayers.

"I think we made a horrible mistake," the executive added.

The history of NHL ownership is chockablock with owners who knew little about the game and whose financial wherewithal was suspect at best, criminal at worst. Even now, there are a handful of owners whose presence in the league makes hockey people at all levels cringe.

But whether Balsillie was (or still might be) the perfect owner, he wouldn't play ball with the league when it came to following a prescribed process to ensure the Penguins got every opportunity to stay in Pittsburgh.

Specifically, Balsillie balked at agreeing to a process should gaming company Isle of Capri fail in its bid to land a license to operate slots in Pittsburgh.

The Isle of Capri is one of three companies that made bids to the state to run such an operation in the city. In exchange for such a lucrative opportunity, the company has agreed to build the Penguins a new $290 million home at no cost to the team or taxpayers.

The state's decision on the gaming licenses is expected Wednesday. Many believe the Isle of Capri will not be awarded the slots license, a belief that might have made the Penguins look extremely attractive to Balsillie, whose interest is reported to have been in buying the team with the express purpose of moving it out of Pittsburgh.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, however, has been very vocal about keeping the team in Pittsburgh, not only because the team has enjoyed a mostly positive run for almost 40 years, but also because keeping the team in Pittsburgh speaks to the league's post-lockout stability. So, wary of having to go to war with a new owner over the future of the team, Bettman imposed a number of restrictions on Balsillie's bid, including the stipulation that the league could step in if Balsillie couldn't come to an agreement with the winning slots licensee and/or city and state officials on the team's role in building a new arena.

Balsillie walked away and left the team without an owner as the hours slipped away before the state's all-important decision on the gaming license.

Sources tell ESPN.com that had those same restrictions been in place for other owners who have purchased teams in recent years, those owners would have walked away from the league in a heartbeat.

That begs the question of how the NHL proceeds with the sale of the Penguins and future franchise sales.

One team executive said if the same conditions imposed on Balsillie are not imposed on Toronto brewery owner Frank D'Angelo and his partners, who have emerged as leading suitors for the Penguins, or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who is also reportedly back in the picture, then Balsillie might have grounds to launch a suit against the league for bad-faith negotiations.

And if those restrictions remain in place for future Penguins ownership bids, what happens when Charles Wang decides he's had enough of Rick DiPietro and decides to sell the New York Islanders? Or Alan Cohen wakes up one morning and says "Hockey team? I thought you said hemlock tea," and decides to sell the Florida Panthers? Will those same conditions exist?

Expect Mr. Balsillie's lawyers to be keeping a close eye on what transpires, not just with the Penguins, but down the road.

Even if the NHL suggests that ownership restrictions will be imposed on a case-by-case manner, the team executive suggested "this is a slippery slope" from which owners might not retreat.

This brings us to those owners already in the NHL's club.

One team source said he thinks once the rest of the owners are made aware of the restrictions that drove Balsillie from the table, "they'll be sour. Every owner has to have the right to walk away. That's all you have at the end of the day."

By agreeing to restrictive conditions on moving a team, "you put yourself in a position of tremendous vulnerability," another league source told ESPN.com.

Bettman has been loath to discuss a potential Plan B – the state and/or city would ante up money to help pay for a new arena in the event Isle of Capri is unsuccessful. But top NHL officials believe such a deal must also be in the works, which is why the league believed it could take a hard stand against Balsillie.

Penguins chairman Mario Lemieux took a shot at Balsillie on Monday, saying in a release: "We were shocked and offended that Mr. Balsillie would back out of such an important deal at the last minute – and less than a week before a decision on the funding of a new arena that will have far-reaching implications on our franchise, our city and our region. As a result, we intend to retain Mr. Balsillie's deposit because we believe him to be in breach of our agreement. We can say unequivocally that the deal with Mr. Balsillie is dead."

But the team source said Lemieux might be equally chagrined at the league for pushing away a man whose personal wealth would have allowed him to purchase the team without financing.

"I can't imagine the current ownership group in Pittsburgh is very happy with Gary," the source told ESPN.com.

Unless Bettman is already in the process of negotiating a backroom deal with the state and/or city to ensure a palatable Plan B is already in place if Isle of Capri is dealt a losing hand.

There's also the issue of who benefits most from Balsillie being pushed from the table, and, at first glance, it's Bettman and the two markets most likely to be effected by the Penguins' potential move to Southern Ontario: Buffalo and Toronto.

All in all, one source said, "it's pretty murky."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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