Source says Leipold has plan to move on to Minnesota

8/1/2007 - NHL

If there is one particularly odd part of the Nashville Predators' ownership drama, it has been current owner Craig Leipold's quietly passive role in all of it.

He is, after all, a shrewd businessman who was sold on Nashville and the NHL by commissioner Gary Bettman and has lost his shirt as a result ($70 million by Leipold's own count since the team's inception a decade ago, $27 million over the last two seasons).

Given those losses, it seems strange Leipold has voluntarily taken what amounts to a $45 million haircut to sell his team to a group of local businessmen and California venture capitalist William "Boots" Del Biaggio III.

The $193 million cobbled together by the eight-man group is still far less than the $238 million offered by Canadian businessman and BlackBerry developer Jim Balsillie, which begs the question why Leipold didn't push harder for the NHL to work with Balsillie earlier this spring.

That Leipold has been a loyal foot soldier in Bettman's never-ending battle to foist the game on the unsuspecting citizens of America has been well-documented. But now that the lockout is history and the Predators are still bleeding money, one would think Leipold owes Bettman little at this stage.

Unless of course Leipold doesn't really want to get out of the game, but rather just get out from underneath the mess that the Predators have become.

A source close to the negotiations told ESPN.com that Leipold wants to remain in the NHL and that plans are in the works for him to step into an ownership role with the Minnesota Wild after cutting ties with the Preds and when current Wild owner Robert O. Naegele Jr. decides to step away from the business.

Both Leipold and Naegele declined to speak to ESPN.com about their future plans and Leipold did not respond to a specific e-mail query about his plans with the Wild.

Fair enough. But if such a plan is in the works, it would go a long way toward explaining Leipold's reticence to do anything to tick off Bettman, who continues to rule the board of governors with an iron fist, threatening millions of dollars in fines if team officials speak on the record about the ownership debacle unfolding in Nashville. Better to stay on Bettman's good side if you want to hang around the NHL club, even if it means waving goodbye to $45 million on the sale of a team.

Leipold said Wednesday that part of the reason he declined to pursue the Balsillie offer was because Balsillie went ahead and secured a lease with an arena in Hamilton, Ontario, and took season-ticket deposits in the event the Predators failed to hit the 14,000 paid attendance mark needed to keep their lease. He also cited Balsillie's "rogue" lawyer, Richard Rodier, although he did not mention Rodier by name.

"Jim Balsillie went his own direction with a rogue lawyer who had no intention of honoring the process of being an NHL owner," Leipold said during Wednesday's news conference to announce the letter of intent to purchase the Predators.

As for the future of the NHL in Kansas City, where Del Biaggio was expected to try to move the team had he himself become owner, don't sell those retro Kansas City Scouts jerseys just yet.

While David Freeman, the Nashville businessman who is the spokesman for the seven local investors, insisted the Predators had nothing to fear from Del Biaggio, there is absolutely nothing stopping the group from turning around and selling out to Del Biaggio if the Predators continue to bleed red ink.

One would expect Del Biaggio has worked a right of first refusal into his partnership with the group. If a sale to Del Biaggio were to happen, the Predators would once again be on the fast track to Kansas City, which is where many believed the team was destined to go in the first place.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.