You knew this wasn't going to be easy for Pens

Updated: December 21, 2006, 11:11 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Penguins fans, in your heart of hearts, you knew it was going to play out this way, didn't you?

It would have been too neat, too tidy otherwise.

As many predicted, on Wednesday Isle of Capri was not awarded a license to operate slots in Pittsburgh. As a result, the gaming company's generous offer to build the Penguins a new arena, and secure the team's future for at least the next two decades, is worth little more than the paper on which the offer was written.

Melrose Line:
What Next For Penguins?
The Penguins' future is in doubt after the Isle of Capri lost out on a slot-machine casino license. ESPN.com's Joy Russo and Barry Melrose break down what's next for the team.

To listen, click here.

It's the thought that counts, right?

So, somewhere in Southern Ontario, you have to imagine Canadian technology mogul Jim Balsillie is having a self-satisfied chuckle at the expense of the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and thousands of Penguins fans who now wonder the fate of their team.

As of now, the Penguins' future extends only as far as June. A matter of months, not years, for a team approaching its 40th anniversary, a team that won two Stanley Cups, a team that has been home to some of the game's finest players.

Wednesday's much-anticipated decision brings into question the rationale of Pennsylvania's Gaming Control Board. They not just turned down a bid that would have ensured their professional hockey team would remain in the city, but they did so unanimously. It's a vote that might well cost the city its team for good and is yet another indication of the low priority the NHL has with those who aren't most intimately connected to the game.

In short, state officials thought so little of the Pens' future in Pennsylvania, they ignored the one sure way to keep the team.

Now, the league and the team's current ownership, led by former Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux, are back to square one in trying to save the team. Actually, minus square one.

After the NHL forced Balsillie from the table by severely restricting what the BlackBerry guru could do with the club, it's believed the league must now place those same restrictions on future ownership bids or risk a massive lawsuit from Balsillie.

A week ago, the league had in Balsillie an owner in waiting that loved the game passionately, still plays the game and has more money than the North Pole has snow. Now, the league has no new owner, no arena and no real idea of what the future holds for one of its franchises.

"The decision by the Gaming Commission was terrible news for the Penguins, their fans and the NHL. The future of this franchise in Pittsburgh is uncertain and the Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation," Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement following Wednesday's vote. "The NHL will support the Penguins in their endeavors."

You can bet Lemieux is breathing a heavy sigh of relief knowing that he has the NHL's support. Some league sources believe Lemieux would have been more than happy to hand over the Penguins keys to Balsillie last week, and maybe even give Balsillie the name of a good moving company. After all, Balsillie was prepared to write a check for the team with no financing muss.

Instead, the league intervened, and now Lemieux is still left holding the keys to a team he didn't want to buy in the first place. One wonders if Lemieux hasn't been on the phone with Balsillie since the gaming board decision ("Hey, Jim, just kidding about keeping your $10 million deposit. Let's talk.").

Not that there isn't a lot of interest in a team that has the makings of a Stanley Cup champion thanks to the presence of NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and a handful of other top young players.

Canadian brewery owner Frank D'Angelo has gone on record to say he wants to buy the team and would even build an arena himself (he is apparently quite handy). But as one NHL executive told ESPN.com this week, the surest way to get your name in newspaper headlines, at least in Canada, is to announce you want to buy an NHL team.

It's a long road between saying and buying, especially given the murky situation surrounding what owners can and can't do if they take over the Penguins.

The winner of the slots license, PITG Gaming Majestic Star, owned by Detroiter Don Barden, had previously pledged to support a new arena to the tune of $7.5 million annually for 30 years, but that pledge means the state, city and the team will have to ante up, as well. The cost to new Penguins owners, whomever they might be, could turn out to be millions of dollars up front and millions in annual fees.

Why would D'Angelo or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban or even Balsillie, who remains very much on the periphery of the team's future, agree to that kind of deal when there are other less costly options for the team elsewhere?

Balsillie had a pretty good read on the situation, believing that Isle of Capri wasn't going to be awarded the slots license, and thus making the team more portable. It has long been rumored that Balsillie wanted to move a team to Southern Ontario and has the financial wherewithal to build a rink and fend off challenges from NHL neighbors in Toronto and Buffalo.

But by imposing restrictions that would have made such a move more difficult for Balsillie to pull off, the NHL has potentially made the team less attractive to other buyers, especially given that it looks like it'll cost owners more to keep the team in the city.

The league could withdraw those restrictions, citing the gaming board's decision, but how long do you think it would take Balsillie's lawyers to file suit against the league? That's right, not long.

The other option? The restrictions are left in place, and eventually the league allows an ownership group to move the team to a mutually agreeable location using the rationalization that no owner will keep the team in town given the cost factor.

That's what the folks in Kansas City, who have significant NHL support in the form of Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, and San Jose Sharks minority owner William Del Biaggio, are banking on.

In Kansas City, the news of the Isle of Capri's defeat was cause for celebration given that they are desperate for an anchor tenant for their brand-new multipurpose arena set to open just in time for the NHL season next fall.

The Kansas City Star quoted Spirit Center GM Brenda Tinnen as saying, "Let's just say it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas."

If Kansas City is feeling festive, Pittsburgh and its Penguins fans are feeling more like Crosby just rattled a chunk of coal off their foreheads with a slap shot.

Whether it's Kansas City or Houston (the top two potential markets according to NHL observers) or Portland, Ore., or even Las Vegas, with its endless supply of corporate money and one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, Penguins fans better get used to hearing about the many places their beloved team might be playing as early as next fall.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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