COLUMBUS, Ohio (CP) - Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie remains in the mix to buy the Nashville Predators despite Friday's apparent setback.
A source close to Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, said Saturday that nothing has changed in his bid to complete the purchase of the NHL club from Craig Leipold.
On Friday, Leipold set the hockey world abuzz when he sent a letter to the NHL's head office asking the league to stop the application process from Balsillie "until we reach a binding agreement."
"The Predators' lawyers have informed us that they want us to put a hold on the Balsillie application for now," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday during the NHL entry draft. "To the extent that there's anything to consider in the future, they want it to be their application, not Balsillie's."
But a source close to Balsillie said Saturday that the only reason Leipold did that was because the application process was costing him a fortune in legal bills and that Leipold wants to focus on finalizing his deal with Balsillie before going back to the league.
"It stopped. But it doesn't means it can't recommence," said Daly. "We've had a number of examples in the past where there's been a breakdown and people have come back. So who knows?"
All that exists now between Leipold and Balsillie is a letter of intent, not a binding agreement, but the Balsillie camp remains confident the deal will eventually go through.
It won't be anytime soon. Balsillie doesn't want to complete the purchase until the league's board of governors reviews and approves his contingent relocation plans for Hamilton. And that can't happen until at the least September, when the board next meets.
In the meantime, because there is no binding agreement, nothing can stop Leipold from entertaining other offers.
"Mr. Leipold at this point has decided he's not going to pursue the Balsillie application unless or until they have a binding agreement," said Daly. "Obviously he's going to look at what his other options might be."
While the process drags on, Leipold continues to trim payroll for his money-losing club. The trades of Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Tomas Vokoun over the last week saves the Predators around US$16 million on next year's payroll, including the rich contracts Hartnell and Timonen signed in Philadelphia.
Leipold, according to sources, wasn't terribly pleased with Balsillie's very public re-location plans to Hamilton, including selling around 14,000 season-ticket deposits. But sources indicate he hasn't closed the door on Balsillie, who has offered between US$220 million to $238 million for the franchise, a monstrous amount when compared to the $70 million the Anaheim Ducks were sold for in 2005 or even the $175 Balsillie offered for Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
Daly, meanwhile, vehemently disagreed when it was suggested the league was sending the message that it doesn't want another team in Canada.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Daly. "It has absolutely nothing to do with what's going on in Nashville. The bottom line is that we have a team in Nashville, the Nashville Predators, they have a lease that goes to 2028. It has nothing to do with Hamilton, it has nothing to do with Canada."
The lease in Nashville has a very important loophole, the only reason Balsillie ever put on a bid on the Predators. If attendance falls under 14,000 in average next season the team's owner can get out of the lease and relocate the team. It was also reported last week that Balsillie could buy himself out of the lease.
In the meantime, the NHL says a lease is a lease, which is why talk of relocation is premature. When asked why the league was seemingly protecting a weak market, Daly shook his head.
"Because they have a lease. We don't encourage clubs to break leases," he said. "They have a commitment to Nashville. As long as they have a commitment to Nashville, we have a commitment to Nashville."