PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are getting a new
owner, and he arrived on the day a new season started. That
soon-to-be owner, Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, said it's
obvious what has to follow: a new arena.
Balsillie, whose company makes the BlackBerry wireless messaging
device, signed an agreement Thursday to buy the Penguins from Hall
of Famer Mario Lemieux's group for approximately $175 million.
The deal, which must be approved by the NHL, was completed two
months after Toronto-based business executive Sam Fingold reached a
preliminary agreement to buy the team but could not complete it.
Balsillie promised he is committed to keeping the Penguins in
Pittsburgh -- the NHL had all but mandated that the franchise cannot
move as long as a new arena is built. Mellon Arena, opened in 1961,
is the NHL's oldest and least fan-friendly, a 1950s design still in
use a half-century later.
"I really hope we get it done quickly," Balsillie said, though
he said it's not realistic to expect an arena deal until next
spring. "I wish it was done now. It should have been done a long
time ago. It's of urgent priority. ... There's a certain standard
[of arena] a city like this should expect."
However, the Penguins' agreement with the Isle of Capri casino
chain to build a $295 million arena at no expense to the team or
taxpayers is part of the holdup. To build the arena, Isle of Capri
must gain the rights to build a new slots machine parlor in
downtown Pittsburgh, and the state agency that will award the
license is not expected to make a decision until the end of the
year at the earliest.
Balsillie said the Penguins are contractually obligated to
maintain the partnership with Isle of Capri until a slots license
decision is made.
"The contracts and commitments are not only legal, but moral.
It would be very presumptuous of me to come in and reconsider those
deals," he said in a news conference between periods of the
Penguins' season opener with Philadelphia. "At the end of the
deal, these are the cards I've been dealt and I am going to respect
them and play them as people expect them to be played."
Gov. Ed Rendell and county and city officials prefer the
Penguins agree now to an alternate plan to fund the arena -- if Isle
of Capri doesn't get the license -- so preliminary work, such as the
clearing of the arena site, can begin. The state already has
designated money for that project, partly on property the Penguins
acquired in anticipation of a new building.
"It's kind of a moving target," Balsillie said of the
so-called Plan B. "I just can't comment because it's all so very
fluid on a bunch of stuff. Clearly the focus right now is the Isle
of Capri stuff."
Regardless of how it is financed, Allegheny County chief
executive Dan Onorato said earlier this week that a new arena will
Balsillie's company is based in Waterloo, Ontario, not far from
Hamilton -- a city that has been seeking an NHL team. NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday night the league is intent
on keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh as long as a new arena is
"We believe the Penguins should be in Pittsburgh, and as long
as there's a new building coming, our goal and objective will be to
keep the team there," Bettman said.
Asked if he is confident that Balsillie will keep the Penguins
in Pittsburgh, Lemieux said, "Yes."
Lemieux said he won't retain any share of the team, but may
accept an advisor's role.
Balsillie apologized for taking the spotlight from Lemieux,
whose No. 66 banner was raised again to the arena roof minutes
before the game. Lemieux retired as a player for the second time in
January after a bout with an irregular heartbeat.
"Jim is a tremendous businessman and a passionate hockey fan,
and I think he is going to be a great owner for the Pittsburgh
Penguins," Lemieux said.
The Penguins, two-time Stanley Cup champions in the 1990s, were
purchased in federal bankruptcy court in 1999 by a group led by
The 45-year-old Balsillie is co-chief executive officer of
Research in Motion Ltd. He has not mentioned any prospective
partners, and he apparently intends to purchase the team by
Fittingly, Balsillie's BlackBerry went off midway through his
introductory news conference. As he shut it off, he raised it to
show his new screen saver: the Penguins logo.