Ron Cook: Power play isn't likely to be effective
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You knew this was going to be big. The Penguins called a late-afternoon news conference yesterday for Mario Lemieux. As sports owners go, Lemieux is only slightly less reclusive than the Pirates' G. Ogden Nutting, whom no one can say for sure isn't a myth. Lemieux generally only comes out for his retirements from and comebacks to the NHL or when he has a really important self-serving message to deliver.
With the awarding of Pittsburgh's slots casino license due tomorrow, this was one of those times.
"Plan B, in my opinion, is really using taxpayers' money," Lemieux said into the television cameras. "I've never heard of a government turning down $290 million of private money to build a public facility."
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
That the person who writes Lemieux's material deserves a big raise?
And that Lemieux has been waiting weeks for just the right moment to deliver that line?
The rest of the Lemieux news conference was mundane. He said repeatedly that Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. should get the slots license because of its $290 million commitment to a new arena. "It's the best plan out there for our region and the Penguins." That's the same thing team president Ken Sawyer said Friday night after word came that Jim Balsillie had backed out of a deal to buy the team.
But, hey, it can't hurt for the politicians to hear it one final time from Lemieux.
Although this Lemieux appearance was predictable, the announcement about Balsillie's withdrawal was not. The cynic in me can't help but think that both are aimed at the same target -- that slots license for Isle of Capri.
At first blush Friday, Balsillie's decision seemed like welcome news. The man is just slippery enough to cause uneasiness. There he was, a guy with more money than just about anyone on the planet, down from Canada to buy the Penguins. He has no ties here. If it came down to it, he would have no problem moving the team.
That's why the Balsillie announcement seemed anything but alarming. Surely, the NHL had stepped in and told him he couldn't move the Penguins even if Isle of Capri doesn't get the slots license. Surely, the league told him he had to work with government officials on Plan B funding for a new arena, which requires a major financial commitment from Penguins ownership.
That's good news for the team's fans, right?
If it went down that way, it is.
But what if Balsillie still plans on buying the team and he and the NHL are pulling a last-minute power play in an attempt to force the state Gaming Control Board to award the license to Isle of Capri?
That's easier to believe than any sort of mandate from the NHL. Sure, the league values Pittsburgh as a market and doesn't want to lose it. But it's not going to force any ownership group into an onerous arena deal. Certainly, it's not going to send any kind of message now to the local authorities that eases the pressure for a new arena. Balsillie did that earlier last week, presumably by accident, when he testified before the board and said Plan B might be workable.
Isn't it possible that the NHL and Balsillie wanted to regain their leverage?
Isn't it reasonable to think that Balsillie's withdrawal sent a loud and clear message that can be heard all the way to Harrisburg?
Listen up, politicos. Here's a potential deep-pockets owner that has soured on a deal to buy the Penguins. If Pittsburgh wants to keep its hockey team, you had better give that license to Isle of Capri.
Lemieux added to the intrigue by refusing to address Balsillie's problems with the sale, saying only that there were issues between Balsillie and the NHL. Lemieux said he was "obviously shocked and disappointed" with the Balsillie pullout and a statement attributed to him by the team said the deal with him was "unequivocally" done. But, curiously, Lemieux refused to say Balsillie couldn't emerge again as the team buyer.
It's nice to think that the Balsillie/NHL power play -- if that's really what it is -- and the Lemieux bluster will be effective, but it doesn't seem likely. There are plenty of loyal, passionate hockey fans in Pittsburgh, but there aren't enough to scare the government officials. None of the politicians wants to see the team leave -- especially when there's a need for a new arena with or without a primary tenant -- but each will survive if it happens. Ed Rendell, Dan Onorato and Luke Ravenstahl will justify it by saying they did everything they could with Plan B.
Isle of Capri still might get the license, of course. The board could decide it really does have the best plan or that the traffic congestion at the proposed casino sites at Station Square and on the North Shore are deal breakers for the other bidders. But Isle of Capri won't get the license merely because of pressure from the NHL and the Penguins. Neither has that kind of clout.
If Isle of Capri wins, the story has a happy ending. The Penguins will stay for the long haul, regardless if Lemieux, Balsillie or someone else owns them. But if Isle of Capri doesn't get the license, don't be shocked if Balsillie jumps back into the picture.
Not to work with Rendell and Co. on Plan B.
To move the team.Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux believes the Isle of Capri should be awarded the slots license.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published December 19, 2006 12:00 am