Collier: A new Penguins owner sheds little light

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Society in general continues an accelerating trend toward the hurried, the slapdash, the informal, and so maybe the next time the Penguins are sold, the new owner can be slid onto the ice on an overturned puck bucket during a stoppage in play, somewhere between a delayed offside and a punch in the head.

As it was, last night's introduction of Canadian techno-marketing whizbang Jim Balsillie (BALL-suh-lee) ate up the relatively luxuriant span between the first and second periods, and somewhere between a 2-0 Penguins lead and a 3-0 cushion on the Philadelphia Flyers, the new owner managed to buttress everything you knew about the Pittsburgh future of the organ-I-zation without introducing anything you didn't.

All that got accomplished in those clumsy 15 minutes was the quick application of another coat of rhetorical polish on the many uncertain terms already in play: hope, intend, attempt, contingent, workable, viable, and, direct from the uncertainty Hall of Fame, ladies and gentleman, how about another big hand for cautiously optimistic.

Balsillie might not have said any of those things, technically, but he didn't say anything about any Penguin future not tied to a new arena, and more specifically, not tied to the stated intentions of Isle of Capri, the slots applicant with whom the Penguins remain wed until Plan B do us part.

"I haven't seen any detail on Plan B," Balsillie said, apparently not having read the papers. "It's kind of a moving target. It's all so darned fluid on a bunch of stuff."

I'm not a Harvard MBA, as Balsillie is, but as I understand it, the accounting looks something like this:

Penguins contribution to new arena funding if Isle of Capri Gaming wins the slots license -- $0.00

Penguins contribution to new arena funding under Plan B: $128,500,000.00.

Hmmm ...

Even if you've just spent $175 million or so (not including rust-proofing) on a NHL hockey franchise, that apparently doesn't allow you to ignore an opportunity to save $128.5 million over the next 30 years.

"The team made a wise and thoughtful decision to [contract] with Isle of Capri," Balsillie told an edgy thicket of deadline dodging media. "These are the cards I've been dealt, and I'm going to play them the way people expect them to be played."

Wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and a white tie with a bright blue pattern, Balsillie flashed enough humility and politeness in a difficult forum last night, but he spoke almost distractedly, like a man waiting for a late bus, specifically the 8:30 to Blackberry Arena.

"It should have been done a long time ago," he said. "[NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman himself has said that a new arena has to be imminent. It has to be done really, really soon. I don't think you can spring before this is done."

Maybe it's me, but I got that vague sense that if plans for a new building aren't firm sometime this winter and moving the franchise were to become an inevitable alternative, it wouldn't exactly turn Balsillie's Blackberrys blue. Having shown up among Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2005 (this presumably includes Mike Eruzione) and having essentially founded the Center for International Governance Innovation and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, winding up as the guy who was in charge when the Penguins moved to Hamilton isn't really going to sully Balsillie's resume very far from Blawnox.

For reassurance otherwise, only Mario Lemieux offered anything close to confidence that Balsillie would do everything possible to keep the hockey team here.

"Absolutely," Lemieux said on roughly that question. "I think he's going to be a perfect owner for this team and this market, and that he'll do everything he can to make it work."

Lemieux's iconic reputation is likely more at stake than Balsillie's in this matter, and the Hall of Famer acted last night as though he was confident there would be no ill will to come his way as a result of this relationship.

"I'd love to be involved in the franchise and that's something Jim and I will be talking about in the future," Lemieux said on his 41st birthday. "I'm always going to be in Pittsburgh. I'm raising my kids here. I love this team and this city."

Yes, well, that was somewhat reassuring. Where else would we hold the monthly ceremony lifting "66" to the rafters anyway?


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com


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