Penguins sale grounded

The Christmas season is not being kind to Pittsburgh Penguins fans.

Just before the Penguins met the New York Islanders on Friday, news broke that Canadian buisnessman Jim Balsillie withdrew his $175 million offer made more than two months ago to buy the team from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux.

As a player, Lemieux saved the team from an uncertain future by leading them to two Stanley Cups in the early 90s. By the end of the decade, Lemieux again saved the team when a ownership group led by him bought the team in federal bankruptcy court.

Balsillie's purchase price was not the issue, team CEO Ken Sawyer said during a press conference in between the first and second period of the Penguins' eventual 7-4 victory. One issue remains centered on who's paying for construction of a new building to replace the quaint -- read: aging and outdated -- Mellon Arena.

Next week, Pennsylvania gaming officials are to announce a decision regarding some of the state's slots casino licenses. One gaming company, Isle of Capri casinos, has pledged to build a $290 million arena downtown to replace the 45-year-old Igloo -- the oldest arena in the NHL. The company would foot the bill at no cost to team or the taxpayers ... provided they're given the license.

A secondary issue is who really would have control of the team. According the TSN.ca Web site, sources said the league presented a list of conditions to Balsillie before the sale was to close, perhaps most notably keeping the franchise in Pittsburgh under any circumstances and a way for the NHL to take control of the team if necessary.

Balsillie, whose company makes the BlackBerry wireless handheld device, appeared to be leaning toward moving the team to southern Ontario. Hamilton, about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, may have been the ultimate destination to relocate the team, whose lease with Mellon Arena is up in June.

The last thing commissioner Gary Bettman wanted to see was the team, including stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, moving to Ontario, Winnipeg or Quebec. Under his watch, the Jets and Nordiques relocated to Phoenix and Denver, respectively.

If that's true, then Balsillie didn't need much to prove who's the better businessman. Can you imagine, for example, Bud Selig telling George Steinbrenner today that he could buy the New York Yankees, but ultimate control would not rest with him.

Didn't think so. Balsillie knew this was a bad deal, and he exercised his right to stop it.

Bettman envisions himself as David Stern-type -- you will do things my way or you will pay the consequences. History, though, will likely show otherwise. His insistence on bringing hockey to the Sun Belt and overexpansion in the 90s will be one of the hallmarks of his legacy.

Attendance figures show five of those expansion or relocated clubs -- Columbus, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville and Phoenix -- are in the bottom third of the league with Atlanta on the verge of joining them.

The lockout will always be the cloud that hangs over Bettman's head. While claiming to save the sport by imposing a salary cap, he did so at the expense of an entire season, alienating a declining fan base with no real clear way to get them back. His latest crusade is to completely redesign all uniforms, which you can read about here.

Does hockey belong in Pittsburgh? It certainly has a rich history since being part of the "Next 6" expansion in 1967 with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland and the Minnesota North Stars. Crosby has started to make his mark as the league's most exciting player and the future does look quite bright, indeed.

Nothing is forever, though. The Seals ended up moving to Cleveland for two seasons before merging with Minnesota and eventually going to Dallas.

Times change. Circumstances change. If the Penguins are to be sold, it needs to be done without restrictions. If a prospective owner thinks he can make more money with a team in a newer, more modern building in Winnipeg or Kansas City and other owners agree, than pack the bags once and for all.

If Bettman wants to own a team, pony up then.

No comments: