Balsillie given rights for Hamilton sports complex

Updated: May 31, 2007, 11:44 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

You've just got to love this bit of irony.

Two days after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman scoffed at the likelihood of the Nashville Predators moving in the next year or two, and specifically scoffed at the notion they're headed to Southern Ontario, some news seems to suggest that is exactly the plan.

At a City of Hamilton council meeting Wednesday night, Canadian mega-millionaire Jim Balsillie, whose company helped develop the BlackBerry, reactivated an agreement with the city for exclusive rights to the city's main arena, Copps Coliseum. Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger said he and Balsillie talked about the agreement.

"He has assured me that he wants to secure a team and he is interested in bringing it to Hamilton," Eisenberger was quoted as saying Wednesday night in the Hamilton Spectator. "Certainly he has the resources to do it and we will leave it up to him to pull it together."

Balsillie has made an offer to purchase the Predators from current owner Craig Leipold. Given the team's declining attendance and scarcity of corporate support in the community, the team could be in a position as early as next summer to break its lease with the city of Nashville and relocate.

Balsillie, whose operation is in Southern Ontario, has been long-rumored to wanting an NHL franchise in the area. But in Bettman's "state of the union" address before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday, the commissioner insisted such talk was pure speculation and that Balsillie told Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly he has no plans to move the Predators.

"I met with Mr. Balsillie last week. Bill Daly and I both did, and I specifically asked him whether or not he had specific plans or intentions with respect to moving the franchise, and he told me he did not," Bettman told reporters Monday. "And so, I think there's been entirely too much speculation in terms of what comes next.

"What's clear to me from meeting with Mr. Balsillie is that he's passionate about the game, would like to own a franchise, and certainly has the resources to do it. Beyond that, there have been no promises. There have been no predictions. And I think if anybody believes that [Nashville] is destined to a particular location, that's more a matter of speculation."

But talk is cheap, which is why Balsillie's renewed control of Copps Coliseum as it relates to the NHL seems to contradict Bettman's position.

The long-held theory has been that if Balsillie's more than generous offer to buy the Predators ($220 million) is green-lighted by the NHL's board of governors by the end of June and the Predators escape their lease, he would like to move the team into Copps Coliseum until a new facility can be built somewhere in the area outside the protected zones of both the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Earlier news reports say Balsillie has purchased a plot of land in the Waterloo area, a plot of land west of Toronto that could conceivably house a new NHL-sized arena.

Hands up for those who believe this is all a strange coincidence. No? Didn't think so.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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