Lack of support likely will mark end of hockey in Music City
Cue the plaintive twang. So long, Nashville.
It might be a long goodbye, but make no mistake, Craig Leipold's plans to sell his Nashville Predators to Canadian techno-wizard Jim Balsillie spell the end of NHL hockey in Nashville and deliver a significant blow to commissioner Gary Bettman's vision of a pan-American footprint for the NHL.
There are two questions that will dominate NHL discussion in the coming months: Where will the Predators potentially end up and, on a broader canvas, what the NHL might look like long-term when the dust settles on a Predators move.
Balsillie was rebuffed by the league when he tried to strong-arm his way into ownership of the Pittsburgh Penguins when it looked as though owner Mario Lemieux wasn't going to be able to come to an agreement with local authorities on a new arena deal to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were instrumental in helping broker a last-minute deal to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future, but don't look for the NHL to come running to Nashville's rescue.
The dynamics in Music City are dramatically different.
There is almost no history of hockey in Nashville. The Predators, after a couple of solid seasons early in their history, have fallen below the Mendoza Line in terms of attendance, season tickets and corporate support, which is nearly nonexistent.
Even when Leipold made it clear he needed some local ownership to emerge to help shoulder the burden of keeping the team afloat, nary a peep was heard.
Enter Balsillie. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, the developer of the ubiquitous BlackBerry made an offer well above what would be considered market value for a team that quite clearly has no future in Nashville -- $220 million, $45 million more than he offered for the Penguins.
For a guy with scads of money and a deep and unquenchable desire to own an NHL team, Balsillie's strategy to overpay for the Preds serves a couple of purposes. First, it knocks other potential bidders out of the arena, and second, it helps drive up the relative value of other NHL franchises. Imagine you live on a street in a nice house, but there's this tar paper shack at the end of the street. Someone comes along and pays well above what it's worth and, all of a sudden, property values look a little better.
Balsillie is hoping his effort with the Penguins, during which he annoyed a number of members of the board of governors with his attitude and demands, might be forgotten or at least mitigated. Getting the board's approval to buy the team is the biggest hurdle facing Balsillie.
By the end of June, the owners of the Predators, whether it's Leipold or Balsillie, are expected to exercise an option that will allow ownership to buy its way out of the lease at Nashville Arena and begin plans to relocate. One would assume exercising that option will be a given regardless whose name is on the company letterhead.
The city of Nashville, which already gave the Predators a ridiculously sweet lease when they arrived in 1998, could force the team to stay by purchasing enough tickets to bump average season attendance to the 14,000 mark, the threshold for the exit process. But the appetite to pour more public money into the team isn't likely to fly.
A source familiar with the process said it's accurate to suggest the NHL's board of governors is less likely to oppose a Predators move for a host of reasons, not the least of which has been the effort on Leipold's part to make things work in Nashville. In a recent e-mail to fans explaining his decision to unload the team, Leipold said he has lost more than $60 million over the past five years.
The sale of the team will say much about the future of the NHL in terms of league structure and in terms of focus.
There isn't much appetite from owners to see another Canadian franchise added to the mix. There are many, including owners and Bettman himself, who still see the United States as the most lucrative soil to be tilled for television revenues, merchandising and profile.
Yet the failure of the Predators to make anything more than a small dent on the public consciousness in Nashville begs the question: Why would it be any better in Kansas City, where the city is desperate for a tenant for its new arena, or in Las Vegas or Houston or Portland, Ore., or any of the other cities whose names crop up?
When asked by ESPN.com about the economic viability of another team in Southern Ontario, where Balsillie is based, a handful of NHL GMs and governors all responded in kind that it would be a license to print money.
It's a long time between now and the unveiling of a Puslinch Predators jersey (or something like that), but Balsillie, a corporate wolf if there ever was one, appears to have culled the perfect NHL straggler from the herd.
The end of the Tocchet line?
Remember all the righteous indignation that poured out of Rick Tocchet's lawyer Kevin Marino when Tocchet was first charged with a series of gambling-related offenses by New Jersey officials some 16 months ago?
"My goodness, they've made a terrible mistake" and "What a grave injustice had been done to Tocchet, a fine upstanding citizen if there was one." Blah, blah, blah.
Funny how the tone changed dramatically this week when Marino offered a flaccid news release after Tocchet pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to promote gambling and promoting gambling.
Marino happily reported that by pleading to the third-degree gambling charges, Tocchet likely would avoid jail time and "revealed" that Tocchet did not bet on hockey.
Well, no one has suggested Tocchet or anyone with whom he did business actually bet on hockey games, so that's hardly a shocker -- a nice confirmation certainly, but hardly news.
As for Tocchet, he can kiss any contact with hockey goodbye. Or he should.
If Bettman has his wits about him, he will send a letter to Tocchet saying that his leave of absence from the game has morphed into a lifetime ban thanks to his guilty plea. No, Tocchet didn't kill or maim anyone, but he worked for an NHL hockey club. At some point, it should have twigged that organizing an illegal gambling ring might have been a bad thing to do.
It's a shame, too. Those who saw Tocchet work with the Phoenix Coyotes saw a man who had the potential to be a head coach someday. He was the in-your-face kind of guy Wayne Gretzky was counting on in his early days as a head coach. Tocchet was the kind of guy who made players accountable. What a waste.
Life of Brian
The news release, coming from the offices of Brian Leetch's agents, was hardly shocking. Still, word that the longtime Rangers defenseman was formally retiring from the game, even though he hadn't played since the 2005-06 season, was a sober reminder that time waits for no man, especially an aging defenseman.
As with many players, the final years of Leetch's career won't be remembered for their greatness. He ended up in Toronto at the 2004 trade deadline, playing with a team other than the Rangers for the first time since New York drafted him ninth overall in the 1986 draft.
That didn't work out so well. The Leafs were bounced in the second round of the playoffs, and Leetch simply wasn't the player he had been.
After the lockout, the Rangers already were past the point of overpaying for players regardless of their pedigree and history with the team, so Leetch signed with Boston. For a time, he played well and even garnered some discussion as a possible Olympian, but injuries and inconsistent play ended that talk -- and Leetch's career.
There were rumors that Leetch might resurface this season, perhaps even with the Rangers, but the will to do what it takes to play at a high level had evaporated, so Leetch's skates remained idle.
In the end, though, Leetch will find his way into the Hall of Fame after playing in 1,205 regular-season games and 95 more postseason games. He won a Stanley Cup in 1994 and was named playoff MVP after that magical run.
He won a silver medal with the U.S. Olympic team in 2002 and won two Norris Trophies as the NHL's best defenseman. Apart from Chris Chelios, Leetch is considered by most to be the finest U.S.-born defenseman to play in the NHL.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com