Pittsburgh Penguins chief executive officer Ken Sawyer. (AP File/Gene J. Puskar)
The Penguins ownership group, headed by Hall of Fame player Mario Lemieux, was discouraged by the outcome and said the franchise would begin weighing all options - including possible sale to owners who would move the two-time Stanley Cup champions.
The Isle of Capri rejection came only five days after wealthy Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie unexpectedly pulled out of his $175-million deal to buy the franchise, because he was uncomfortable with the NHL's list of conditions in the final sale agreement. Balsillie had been expected to close on the deal late last week.
"At this point, our franchise enters a period of uncertainty, with our lease at Mellon Arena set to expire this summer," chief executive officer Ken Sawyer said. "We will re-evaluate all of our options before deciding on a course of action and making further comment."
Even as city and county politicians held a news conference to announce they would immediately begin to finalize an alternate arena deal for the Penguins, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned that the Penguins' future is in doubt.
"The decision by the gaming commission was terrible news for the Penguins, their fans and the NHL," Bettman said in a statement. "The future of this franchise in Pittsburgh is uncertain and the Penguins now will have to explore all other options, including possible relocation. The NHL will support the Penguins in their endeavours."
After the decision was announced, the Penguins practised at Mellon Arena, the 45-year-old building the team says must be replaced for it to remain viable in Pittsburgh.
The board voted unanimously to award the city's only slot-machine licence to Detroit-based casino developer Don H. Barden's PITG Gaming. Barden's group proposes building a casino and entertainment development on the city's North Shore, near Heinz Field and PNC Park. Both the Steelers and Pirates were strongly opposed to his plan.
Barden had promised to contribute some money for a new arena over 30 years under a plan proposed by city and county officials that would include public funds. But that plan also calls for the Penguins to help pay for the facility.
"I am committed to what we said we were going to do," Barden said Wednesday. "We're going to fund $7.5 million a year for 30 years toward financing a new multipurpose arena."
He said he will meeting soon with Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl to get the process moving.
"It will be the largest of our operations and we're going to put a lot of attention on this project," Barden said. "We're going to get it going right away."
Onorato and Ravenstahl all but promised the Penguins will get a new arena. A parcel of land near Mellon Arena has already been obtained for the arena, and officials said a groundbreaking ceremony could be held as early as next month if they can reach an agreement with the Penguins.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind we will get an arena done," Ravenstahl said.
Balsillie, the co-chief executive officer of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd (TSX:RIM), says he's still interested in trying to purchase the team.
"All it takes is three motivated parties and a five-minute phone call to get this deal back on track," Balsillie told globeandmail.com in an email after the slots licence decision Wednesday. "We've fully studied the situation, and are prepared to complete the purchase and immediately commence good faith 'Plan B' negotiations with the government officials to keep the team in Pittsburgh."
Balsillie didn't immediately return a phone call to his Waterloo, Ont., home from The Canadian Press.
Toronto brewery owner Frank D'Angelo, meanwhile, officially declared his interest in the Penguins on Monday. And he said he's willing to build and pay for his own arena in Pittsburgh and commit to keeping the team there.
D'Angelo, whose bid for a CFL franchise in Ottawa was recently turned down, says he and billionaire partner Barry Sherman are teaming up to make an offer.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a Pittsburgh native, is also believed to have contacted the league although it's not clear how serious he is about making a bid.