Monday, September 18, 2006

Is Hamilton in the running for the Pens?

It must be the silly season for Canadian hockey fans, over excited that hockey is back for another year, the annual wish list of franchise relocations is upon us, last night it was the hope that Winnipeg would soon be back in the NHL. Today it's a report that the Penguins are thinking of driving north.

The last time that Pittsburgh sent something north to Steel City North, it was a collection of football pants for the Tiger Cats.

Now if reports out of Pittsburgh are to be believed, there’s a chance they may send bodies, sticks, pucks and such to go with some hockey sweaters.

Hamilton, the Salvation Army Thrift shop of Professional sports...

Rumours started flying last week when it was reported that the front runner to purchase the seemingly always for sale Pens was a secretive Canadian group, who were “this close” to closing the deal to bring the Pens to Hamilton.

The group suggested by some reports is connected with Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion, maker of that ubiquitous personal device the BlackBerry. RIM is located in nearby Kitchener-Waterloo and no doubt have a few bucks in the bank to make a go of it in the NHL.

However, the Toronto Sun published a story denying that RIM had an interest in the team, a story that seems to have as many detractors as supporters.

While that percolates on the back burner and makes the always ready to roll folks in Hamilton get giddy, there are still a number of issues out there that might throw a dash of cold water on the whole idea.

There’s the simple bit of financial pain that a team would bring to any investor interested in locating in Hamilton, as you have to compensate not only those evil Toronto Maple Leafs for the burden of having to drive down the QEW for a hockey game once and a while, but the Buffalo Sabres mindful of losing potentially half their season ticket base might not be too impressed with a team showing up in Hamilton.

Points which of course can be dealt with by a sizeable cheque, but still ones that might make any would be owner think twice.

Also there is the stated objective by the NHL to keep a team in Pittsburgh, meaning all options must be exhausted before a team could be moved. Though you have to think that the perpetual orphans of Pennsylvania have probably exhausted all that there is to exhaust. A recent sale in principle fell apart in July, leading us back to the point where the team is on the block and the speculation is running like Bulls in Spain.

On the hockey side, for Hamilton it would be a case of terrific timing should the Pens become their home team. The team itself is poised to move up quite rapidly in the NHL structure, with some quality young picks about to come into their own. It might be a nice thing for the NHL to find a location where they might be appreciated for their efforts; Hamilton would be a pretty solid choice one would think.

Andrew Dreschel of the Hamilton Spectator reviewed all the dreams and schemes in Monday’s edition.

Will the puck drop here?
By Andrew Dreschel
The Hamilton Spectator
(Sep 18, 2006)

This coming Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins are rolling into town for an exhibition game with the Buffalo Sabres at Copps Coliseum.

Who knows? It could be a perfect chance for the Penguins to get acquainted with their future home.

That's because -- call it a long shot, call it a forlorn hope -- Hamilton's quest for an NHL team looks to be back in play again.

For the second time in as many months, the Pittsburgh media is abuzz with news that a secretive Canadian group is the front-runner in the bid to buy the Penguins.

And it's widely believed the group is the same one that bought exclusive rights to bring an NHL franchise to Copps.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that the Canadian buyer -- identified by unnamed sources close to the sale as leading the pack of four would-be purchasers -- is the same that came within a whoop of signing a letter of intent to buy the team for about $175 million US in July.

The group pulled back when it became clear it could not move the team because of prior agreements involving the building of a new arena in Pittsburgh. But Hamilton was widely believed to be the destination of choice.

Like the Spectator, Pittsburgh newspapers have linked the group to Jim Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion, the Waterloo-based company that makes BlackBerry, the wildly successful wireless communication tool.

Balsillie, who could not be reached, has previously denied any connection with the group or, more recently, declined to comment.

Regardless, reporters close to the story are convinced he's one, if not the only player, in the Canadian bid.

Balsillie's name recently resurfaced as the potential buyer after Sam Fingold, a commercial real estate developer in Hartford, Conn., and a native of Toronto, was unable to reach a purchase agreement after signing a letter of intent in July.

With their team back on the auction block, Pittsburgh is awash with rumours that a letter of intent or even a purchase agreement could be signed this week.

Well-placed skepticism -- and costly payments for territorial rights to Toronto and Buffalo -- aside, it's only natural Hamilton is once again poking its nose above the horizon.

In June, HHC Acquisition Corp. -- the tight-lipped group linked by reliable sources to Balsillie -- paid the City of Hamilton $50,000 for a six-month extension of its exclusive rights to bring an NHL team to Copps after its initial year-long agreement ran out.

The $50,000 was drawn from the $200,000 HHC deposited in trust when it first negotiated the deal to find and buy a team for the city-owned arena.

The Copps connection plus Balsillie's deep pockets plus a pending Penguins sale equals a Steeltown hope, albeit jaded, that springs eternal.

Toronto attorney Richard Rodier, who is acting on behalf of HHC, could not be reached for comment. And city councillor Terry Whitehead, Hamilton's point man on the Copps agreement, hasn't heard a squawk from Rodier for months.

But fleet-footed rumours are abroad. In Pittsburgh, they include unconfirmed reports the NHL has told the various groups involved in the bid for the Penguins that the team is movable in their eyes.

Certainly Penguin fans, who have been on a roller-coaster ride for months, fear the worst. But stumbling blocks to moving the team remain, as the Post-Gazette has repeatedly pointed out.

The Penguins say they need a new arena if the team is to be viable in Pittsburgh. A new owner would be bound by the team's partnership agreement with a gaming company that has promised to donate $250 million toward a new arena if it lands Pittsburgh's slots licence later this year, which presumably would make the team viable.

Under an NHL bylaw, the league can block a team from moving if there is a plan to make it viable.

In short, the same restrictions that caused the Canadian group to pull out in July still apply. Prior agreements plus NHL bylaws equals hard luck for Hamilton.

Mind you, assuming Balsillie is the man behind the bid, he may simply be interested in keeping the team in Pittsburgh rather than moving it to Hamilton, or anywhere else for that matter. At least, that is, until the arena question is settled.

Andrew Dreschel's commentary appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. or 905-526-3495

The above post first appeared on my HockeyNation blog, a site for things of pucks and such.

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