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Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie withdrew his $175-million US offer to purchase the Pittsburgh Penguins last December, and is now close to landing the Nashville Predators. ((Carolyn Kaster/Canadian Press))

Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie's dream of owning an NHL teamis close to becoming a reality.

Nashville Predatorsowner Craig Leipoldconfirmed Thursday that he has entered into a letter of agreement to sell the NHL franchise to Balsillie for $220 million US.

"This is truly one of the toughest days of my life," Leipold said during a news conference. "I poured my heart and soul into this franchise for 10 years."

The sale must be closed by June 30. Approval before that date from the NHL's board of governors would be required.

Balsillie, the co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion Ltd., who saw his recent bid to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins fall apart, said he is respectful of all the "due diligence" required before the Predators deal can close.

"This is still Craig Leipold's franchise until the deal is completed, so for me to comment at this time on any number of topics relative to the franchise would not be appropriate," Balsillie said in a statement.

He said he planned to visit Nashville, talk with Predators fans and "become more familiar with the community" once the deal is final.

Penguins bid rejected

Last December, Balsillie withdrew his $175-million US offer to purchase the Penguins after it was rejected by owner Mario Lemieux for a higher offer.

Despite claims by Lemieux that the team was off the market, Balsillie made a last-ditch effort tobuy the Penguins, but to no avail.

Speculation had swirled that Balsillie wanted to move the Penguins to Hamilton, which is close to his home and RIM's head office in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, a move opposed by Lemieux.

"It was very important for us to keep it here in Pittsburgh," Lemieux said when Balsillie signed the purchase agreement. "I think Jim is committed as long as we build a new arena and we have a fair deal."

Balsillie had indicated his plans were to keep the team in Pittsburgh.

'I can not make it work'

Leipold had been looking for a local investor to buy a minority share of the Predators and more local involvement to boost lagging ticket sales without much success.

Nashville stood atop the NHL for several weeks starting in January and stayed there until March 29. They set franchise records with 110 points this season before a third straight first-round exit from the playoffs.

Despite their success, the Predators had an average attendance of 13,815 fans per game in 2006-07, fuelling speculation as to whether Nashville was a viable hockey market.

"I have come to the conclusion I can not make it work here," Leipold said.

Leipold had the option of asking the city to buy additional tickets to help the team meet attendance goals. If the city declined to do so, the team would have had to pay an exit fee and could have left Nashville after the upcoming season.

Leipold met with team employees in Nashville later Wednesday afternoon to tell them about the sale.

With files from the Associated Press