Penguins buyer says arena is 'overdue'

In news conference at home opener, Balsillie says he feels like a kid again

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It was hard to keep track of whether Jim Balsillie produced more smiles or pleas for a new arena when he was introduced as the new Penguins owner last night.

Mr. Balsillie, the Canadian businessman who signed a purchase agreement to buy the NHL club for about $175 million, was asked repeatedly about keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

"It's overdue," Mr. Balsillie said of getting firm plans for a new facility to replace 45-year-old Mellon Arena. "It should have been done a long time ago, from my perspective. I don't think anyone can wait, or it's just going to cause another delay in the arena. Gosh, you can't see spring before this is done. Is there anyone in this world who thinks there's merit to waiting another year? I don't."

Mr. Balsillie offered several similar thoughts during a short news conference between the first and second period of the Penguins' season-opening, 4-0 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Asked several times for a guarantee that the team will remain in Pittsburgh long-term or a promise that he won't attempt to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, he did not answer directly but cited the need for a new facility and pushed the team's agreement with gaming company Isle of Capri for arena funding.

Mr. Balsillie is chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion, the company based in Waterloo, Ontario, that markets BlackBerry wireless devices and services. He has no partners in the purchase of the Penguins and is buying them from the Lemieux Group led by Hall of Fame player Mario Lemieux.

Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Balsillie met a few years ago at a golf outing in Toronto and have golfed together since.

"We were fortunate to be able to find a person like Jim, being passionate about the game, and I think he's going to be a perfect owner for this market," Mr. Lemieux said. "His goal is to eventually win a Stanley Cup as an owner."

Mr. Lemieux, who turned 41 yesterday, brought the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999 with a handshake agreement from local officials for a new arena. Although he won't maintain a financial stake in the team, he said he hopes to be involved with the club in some capacity.

He said his time as a team owner and the struggle to get a deal for a new arena have been instructive.

"I've been disappointed a little bit, but I understand politics now," Mr. Lemieux said. "Everybody lies, and then you go along with it."

Mr. Balsillie (BALL-suh-lee) still needs approval from the NHL Board of Governors to close on the sale. NHL spokesman Frank Brown said by email that there is no timetable for the due diligence process, and it's not known whether a vote on approval could come at the governors' next scheduled meeting in December.

Once he closes on the sale, Mr. Balsillie will be bound to the Penguins' agreement with the Isle of Capri, whereby that gaming company will donate $290 million toward construction of a new arena if it gets the city's slots license.

If one of the other finalists -- Forest City/Harrah's or PTIG Gaming -- gets the slots license, state and local officials have a Plan B arena funding proposal. The winning slots company would contribute $7.5 million annually for 30 years, the state $7 million a year for 30 years, and the Penguins, $8.5 million up front, $2.9 million a year for 30 years plus $1.1 million a year in arena naming rights.

Those figures, though, apparently are negotiable, as will be a lease at a new facility.

Mr. Balsillie said he feels a moral and legal obligation to the Isle of Capri contract and has not spoken to any government officials about Plan B.

"Clearly, the focus right now is the Isle of Capri stuff," he said.

Mr. Balsillie's stake in RIM is considered to be worth about $1.4 billion Canadian, thanks to the immense popularity of the BlackBerry. RIM is on track to generate more than $2 billion U.S. in revenue in fiscal 2007. As of last month, there were 6.2 million BlackBerry users.

A staunch hockey fan, Mr. Balsillie is living many Canadians' dream by buying an NHL team. "I feel like a kid again, quite frankly," he said.

Many of the Penguins players took the news mostly in stride, joking after their morning skate that they were looking forward to getting free BlackBerrys.

Veteran winger Mark Recchi said once it got close to game time, the team had to direct its attention to the Flyers -- and yet the future of the team remains a concern.

"We have to play," Mr. Recchi said. "The biggest thing for us is, are we going to be here in a year? But we can't control it. The politicians control that, and you know how that goes.

"What are you going to do? We're a young team with a few older guys. The young guys will play anywhere. Hopefully, the team stays here."

Star center Sidney Crosby is one of those young players.

"That's just the business," he said of the sale. "We all knew that was going to happen. It's not like it's a huge shock."

Mr. Lemieux isn't the only one with the Penguins who has run into Balsillie before. Gilles Meloche, the team's goaltending consultant and a former Penguins player, once was on the ice with Mr. Balsillie.

It was a charity event in 1997. Mr. Balsillie was playing with his idol, former Montreal great Guy Lafleur, who fed Mr. Balsillie a pass in the slot, leading to a goal.

The goaltender who gave up Mr. Balsillie's goal was Mr. Meloche, who now appears about to become one of Mr. Balsillie's employees. "I've been in a lot of charity events, and I don't remember that one," Mr. Meloche said. "But I'm glad now that he scored."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Jim Balsillie (right) with the Penguins current owner Mario Lemieux, prior to last night's press conference at the Mellon Arena.
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

Penguins cruise past Flyers, 4-0, to open season

Some politicians worry Plan B is not enough

Lemieux says he would like to stay in mix

Gene Collier: A new Penguins owner sheds little light

Penguins Notebook: LeClair takes high road on captaincy

Penguins Q&A with Dave Molinari



Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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