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Preds ownership change priority before relocation talk

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.