Don't worry Pittsburgh, your team likely isn't leaving

Updated: December 8, 2006, 12:50 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

In the next seven to 10 days, the board of governors will vote by fax to approve BlackBerry king Jim Balsillie's purchase of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After that, things will get interesting for the team.

On Dec. 20, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (a seven-person regulatory committee) is expected to announce the winner of the much-coveted slots license. If you've been following this drawn-out process, which has taken more than a year, you know the Pens have a significant stake in this decision.

Simply, if the Isle of Capri casino chain is awarded the license, the Penguins, per their agreement with the gaming giant, will receive their long-desired new arena and stay in Steel City. The license has such financial potential that the Isle of Capri agreed to cut a $290 million check for the new arena within 90 days of a winning bid. Evidently, there's a lot of money to be made in gambling. Who knew?

Jim Balsillie
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe board of governors is set to approve Jim Balsillie's purchase of the Penguins over the next week.

If, however, the Isle of Capri doesn't get the license, the Penguins will be able to test the open market when their Mellon Arena lease expires in June. The team could choose to leave Pittsburgh for Kansas City or Hamilton, Ontario, or who knows where.

Listening to several different sources in Pittsburgh, though, I get the sense the Penguins will remain in Pittsburgh.

Contrary to current public perception, however, those same sources agree it probably won't be because of the Pens' deal with the Isle of Capri. No one with knowledge of the situation rates the Isle of Capri as the favorite to get the nod; they believe the Forest City Enterprises/Harrah's Entertainment bid stands the best chance of winning the license.

Why? Why else: Money.

According to several political insiders, Forrest City and Harrah's (like other bidders in this process) have been big-money donors to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, as well as other state and local elected officials. Those kinds of donors expect something for their financial support, and they usually get it.

Rendell hasn't publicly endorsed any of the three bidding groups. On March 30, however, he was quick to come up with a "Plan B" proposal to fund a new arena in Pittsburgh in the shocking event the Isle of Capri bid falls through. Rendell's plan called for the Penguins to contribute an up-front payment of $8 million toward the arena project, as well as an additional $4 million per year for 30 years.

Now, if you were the Pens, which deal would you prefer: the deal under which you pay nothing, or the deal that you pay $128 million over 30 years? Yeah, I thought so.

As part of their deal with the Isle of Capri, the Pens haven't been able to comment on or consider any other bids. When someone offers to build your arena, you say thank you and keep your mouth shut and your fingers crossed. But if the license doesn't end up on the Isle, the Pens will be open to consider other possibilities.

At that point, the club, led by Balsillie, will be well positioned to negotiate a better "Plan B" deal. That's where those in the know see this going, and they believe state and local officials will be willing to work out more reasonable "Plan B" numbers.

After all, they (the politicians) do want to build an arena to replace outdated Mellon Arena. The Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County already has purchased the land on which a new arena could be built. The Penguins' current position as a young, up-and-coming team with a pair of franchise players doesn't hurt their bargaining situation, either. With all that being the case, local officials won't want to see their anchor tenant skate away to another city.

So, Penguins fans, I guess what I'm telling you is this: If the Isle of Capri gets the license, pop open the champagne and take a swig. If not, keep the bubbly chilled and don't let weeks of unavoidable gamesmanship and rhetoric get you down. In the end, I think your team is staying right where it is.

No suffering Sharks

The Sharks might have found a fourth gem from their impressive 2003 draft class. Rookie Joe Pavelski, who was called up from the club's AHL affiliate in Worcester, Mass., on Nov. 22 when Jonathan Cheechoo was placed on IR, has gotten off to fast start, scoring four goals in his first six NHL games.

Pavelski's biggest goal came Saturday night in Detroit. He scored with just 5.9 seconds left in regulation to propel the Sharks to a come-from-behind 3-2 win over the Red Wings.

Despite Cheechoo's return to the lineup, Pavelski remains with the big club. The 5-foot-11 righty pivot has been used in several line combinations by coach Ron Wilson. He even has moved to the wing to work on lines with the club's top two centers, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Top-six forwards Milan Michalek and Steve Bernier were both selected in the first round of the 2003 draft. Defenseman Matt Carle was chosen in the second round. Pavelski, 22, was grabbed in the seventh round (205th overall).

A lot of the credit for the Sharks' shrewd drafting decisions should go to their director of scouting, Tim Burke. The New England native is thought to be one of the best in the business. The proof can be found on the Sharks' bench.

Bad timing

I have to wonder why the Blues and Lightning chose the same exact night to honor legends Brett Hull and Dave Andreychuk in their respective buildings. The league should try to monitor those things -- they are nice moments that shouldn't overshadow each other. In this case, I guess it was just an odd coincidence.

It was odd in another sense, too. Usually, when you honor a player, you'd like to have a good chance to win the subsequent game. It's kind of like a homecoming game in high school or college. You like to play against an opponent you can beat.

The Blues or Bolts didn't opt for such pushovers.

The sad-sack Blues chose a night when the powerful Red Wings were in town. The Lightning, meanwhile, were hosting the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres. Neither team fared well. The Blues were drubbed, 5-1, and the Lightning suffered a 4-1 defeat.

Next time, don't invite those top teams. They end up spoiling a good party.

E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.