Preds ownership change priority before relocation talk

Updated: June 21, 2007, 12:19 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- Without a binding agreement between Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold and Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, talk of the team relocating to Canada is strictly premature.

That was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's stern message Wednesday after a meeting of the league's board of governors.

Leipold and Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, agreed to a term sheet for the transfer of ownership of the club, but that is nonbinding. The delay in closing the deal prevented the sale from being up for vote by the league's 30 teams before this weekend's draft in Columbus, Ohio.

Balsillie has already started a process to move the Predators to Hamilton, Ontario, should a potential out in the team's lease with the arena in Nashville be exercised after the sale's completion. Leipold announced May 24 he was selling to the team to Balsillie.

"Currently there isn't a fully completed application before the board of governors," Bettman said. "As a result I think people are getting a little bit ahead of themselves on this entire issue.

"It isn't in any shape or form close to being ready for consideration as it relates to approval of an ownership change. I'm not exactly sure why people are focused on the Nashville Predators being anywhere other than in Nashville at this particular point in time."

The board isn't scheduled to meet again until the fall, so any deal likely won't be approved before next season. The agreement between Leipold and Balsillie carried a June 30 deadline for completion, but that could be extended.

But Wayne Gretzky, who grew up in nearby Brantford, Ontario, told Canadian television network CTV that a Predators move to Hamilton could prove successful.

"You're not just drawing from Hamilton, you're drawing from places like Brantford," Gretzky said, according to The Globe and Mail of Toronto. "I'm not worried about the success for that franchise. I remember back in 1987, when we played the Canada Cup there. It was overwhelming."

"First, it's a great thing for [Balsillie]," Gretzky said, according to the report. "If it actually works out that he gets to move the team to Hamilton is something that we'll have to follow over the next little while."

"On the other side of it, I feel very disappointed for the people of Nashville. But that's business, that's life. I will say this that if the team is allowed to move to that area [Hamilton], it will be tremendously successful," he said, according to the report.

Just three weeks ago, Bettman said he specifically asked Balsillie if had had plans or intentions to move the team, and was told he didn't. But Balsillie already has gained the exclusive right to bring an NHL team to the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, and Ticketmaster began taking deposits last week for "Hamilton Predators" season tickets.

"When I made that statement, that's what he had told me," Bettman said. "I know people are focused on the fact of, 'Why did I say that?' At the time I said it because that's what I was told."

Asked if Balsillie changed his position to him, Bettman said, "The facts speak for themselves. I wasn't completely shocked."

Balsillie's offer to Leipold falls somewhere in the $220 million-238 million range, well above Forbes Magazine's estimated value of $134 million and significantly higher than his bid of $175 million for the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this year.

The Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks were sold for $70 million in 2005.

"There is entirely too much speculation about this whole thing," Bettman said. "It's clear that there has been way too much activity on something that isn't even quite in its embryonic stage."

But Bettman appeared angry and defensive when peppered with questions about the potential sale and subsequent relocation of the Predators.

He characterized discussions Wednesday among the league's owners as merely an update. Bettman said there was no talk of contingency plans should the Predators get out of their lease, which doesn't expire until 2028.

"I'm not in favor of doing anything to destabilize an existing franchise, particularly one that has a long-term lease," he said. "We don't have a relocation issue pending. It would be premature to consider a relocation application. The only thing that could conceivably be pending, and even that's not in position to be reviewed, is an ownership application."

Representatives of the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, the teams that would be most affected if a team moved to Hamilton, declined comment.

The escape clause in the Predators' lease is based on average paid attendance. If the team has two straight seasons of under 14,000 tickets sold per game, Leipold had the right to exercise a "cure" clause which would force Nashville to make up the difference in ticket sales.

He took that action last Friday. The Predators averaged 13,815 in paid attendance last season when they finished third in the NHL with 110 points.

"The Nashville Predators have a valid, binding lease to play in Nashville," Bettman said. "While there is a possibility at some point in the future that that lease could get terminated early, we're nowhere near whether or not that may happen."

City of Nashville authorities say Leipold can't use attendance from the first season after the NHL lockout in the two seasons of under 14,000. That's the number the team must meet to collect all of its revenue-sharing money from the NHL. The city will be forced to either pay the difference to the team or refuse and allow the team to get out of the lease.

"The fate of this franchise long-term rests in their hands," Bettman said. "If the requisite number of tickets are sold, there is absolutely no issue about the lease."

In other matters at Wednesday's meeting:

• Next season's salary cap will rise from $44 million to "somewhere between 48 [million] and 50ish. In that range," Bettman said. That is subject to agreement with the players' association, which hasn't replaced fired director Ted Saskin.

• The board elected Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs as its new chairman, and Tom Hicks of the Dallas Stars to vice-chair. Jacobs replaces Calgary Flames owner Harley Hotchkiss, who held the position for 12 years.

• A player may be awarded a penalty shot if he is fouled on a clear breakaway outside his defensive zone.

• Referees are now allowed to assess a major penalty and a game misconduct when an injury results from an interference infraction.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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