The National Hockey League was prepared to deliver a team to William (Boots) Del Biaggio and Kansas City's Sprint Center as part of a plan to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, sources told the National Post yesterday.
Del Biaggio, now the frontrunner to purchase and relocate the Nashville Predators, and Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the company that operates the Sprint Center, aggressively pursued the Penguins late last year, offering the team a rent-free lease in the new arena.
But sources said the league, which didn't want to lose a value market in Pittsburgh, asked the Kansas City investors to back off their chase of the Penguins while indicating to the group it would be next in line for an NHL franchise.
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It is believed the commissioner and Leiweke, who was in England yesterday, had an informal arrangement that would have delivered the Predators to Del Biaggio and Kansas City had Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie not stepped in with a richer offer and plans to move the team to Hamilton. Del Biaggio has an agreement with AEG to own and operate an NHL team in the Sprint Center.
Yesterday, the Post reported that Balsillie's US$238-million deal to buy the Nashville franchise from Wisconsin businessman Craig Leipold was off and that the Predators owner was expected to sign a binding, exclusive deal with Del Biaggio, who earlier had claimed he was no longer pursuing the Predators.
"I don't want to officially comment because there's a long way to go," Del Biaggio told the Kansas City Star yesterday. "I don't want to get caught up in all this like Balsillie did, and [after] what happened to me in Pittsburgh.
"If Jim Balsillie falls out, I'm sure Craig is going to look at all his options. I think it's all speculation right now. The reality is it's going to be a process."
Del Biaggio, a minority investor in the San Jose Sharks, has made two runs at the Penguins, the first in 2005 and the second last fall when Balsillie was also in the bidding.
The first attempt was scuttled when the Penguins won the draft lottery and the right to select Sidney Crosby, which prompted owner Mario Lemieux to take the team off the market.
The latter attempt only failed because Pennsylvania lawmakers struck a deal with a Detroit-based casino to finance construction of a new arena, which the Penguins claimed they needed to remain in Pittsburgh.
Still, the Kansas City effort -- AEG was offering free rent and a 50% share of the management agreement for the Sprint Center --left commissioner Gary Bettman impressed.
"Kansas City put itself on the map as an attractive, viable place for a future franchise, be it the NHL or NBA," Bettman told The Star in March. "I can't speak for the NBA, but no doubt if we were considering a relocation or expansion ? we would have to consider Kansas City."
In dismissing Balsillie's bid for Del Biaggio's -- and apparently choosing Kansas City over Hamilton -- Leipold might have cost himself about US$50-million. The Nashvile owner has reportedly lost US$70-million on the Predators in 10 years.
One source suggested yesterday that Leipold might be willing to take the reduced price because he believes Del Biaggio's purchase can be processed more quickly than a deal with Balsillie, and that time could save him from covering the club's operating losses this season.
"We are currently free to explore any and all options regarding the sale of the Nashville Predators," a club spokesman said in a deal yesterday. " However, until and unless there's a binding agreement in place, we don't plan to comment on the status of the Predators' ownership.
Another questions surrounds the NHL governors, who must approve sales and relocation requests, and how they feel about the Predators' dropping price tag. Balsillie's US$238-million bid would inflate the value of every other team, and clubs might also be in line to have their credit lines increased because bank appraisals take the most recent sales prices into account.