Balsillie leaves door open to moving Penguins

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor

PITTSBURGH -- Billionaire businessman Jim Balsillie could barely contain his enthusiasm at buying the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday, but he stopped short of guaranteeing the team will remain in the city.
Balsillie, the chief executive officer of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Ltd., bought the team from a group led by former hockey star Mario Lemieux reportedly for $175-million (all figures U.S.). The deal has to be approved by the National Hockey League, which is expected soon.
"It's exciting," Balsillie, 45, said at a brief press conference last night between periods of the Penguins' game against the Philadelphia Flyers, which the Penguins won 4-0.
Standing next to Lemieux, he added: Pittsburgh "is a great hockey town. I'm just enormously thrilled to be here."Then he smiled and added: "I feel like a kid again, quite frankly."

Balsillie is a passionate hockey fan who has bought the team on his own after months of negotiations. Balsillie, who has helped build RIM into a global company on the strength of its famous BlackBerry messaging device, is worth roughly $1.5-billion.
Yesterday, he was peppered with questions about his intentions for the club, which has been trying to build a new arena for months.
The Mellon Arena is nearly 50 years old and the team's lease expires in June. Lemieux's group has backed a proposal by a local company, called Isle of Capri, which has agreed to contribute $290-million toward construction of a new facility if it wins a licence for slot machines from a county agency. That decision is expected later this year.
If Isle of Capri is not granted a licence, the city and state governments have proposed an alternate plan to build an arena, funded partly by gambling revenue.
Yesterday, Balsillie said he backed the Isle of Capri proposal and added that a new arena is long overdue.
"This is very much a community asset," he said. "It's imperative to get a new arena."
There has been speculation that Balsillie was keen on buying a team and moving it to Hamilton. Last night he declined to comment on those suggestions, saying there has been too much speculation and conjecture. Instead, he said he wants to focus his efforts on getting a new arena in Pittsburgh.
"This team needs a new arena and I think the city is prepared to support that," he said. "The team's here, the fans are here and the legacy is here. You stay with it and you focus on it."
When asked directly if he would guarantee the team would not be moved, Balsillie simply reiterated that the team has got to get a new arena. He added that he can't imagine waiting until next spring for a deal to be reached.
Lemieux said he is confident Balsillie will keep the team in the city.
"I think Jim is committed as long as we get a new arena and a fair deal," he said. "I think he is going to be a perfect owner for this market."
Balsillie "wants to win and that's the main thing," Lemieux added. "He wants a good product on the ice."
Lemieux, who celebrated his birthday yesterday, said he plans to remain in Pittsburgh and hopes to play some advisory role with the new owner.
He bought the team out of bankruptcy in 1999 and put it up for sale this year after facing a tumultuous time with civic officials over the arena plan.
"I feel disappointed a little bit," he said, reflecting on his years as owner.
"But I understand politics now, everybody lies."
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl welcomed Balsillie's purchase yesterday and said he hopes he can meet the new owner soon to start negotiations on the arena. Local officials are "committed to keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh and to doing whatever it is we can to do that."
Ravenstahl, 26, was appointed mayor last month after Mayor Bob O'Connor died of a brain tumour.
Both Ravenstahl and county chief executive Dan Oronato had not met Balsillie and appeared to know little about him. And, they noted that unlike other potential bidders for the team, Balsillie has not made a guarantee to keep the team in the city.
"Obviously the mayor and I both realize this is not a done deal and there is a risk involved here," Oronato said.
"That's clear as day. But [NHL commissioner Gary Bettman] has said this is a great city for hockey and the fan support has been great and that if you build a multipurpose facility, there is no reason this franchise leaves this town. We're going to build it."