Balsillie deal 'unequivocally dead': Mario Lemieux

Mario Lemieux "is shocked and offended" that Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie no longer wants to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins for $175 million US.

Pittsburgh Penguins majority owner Mario Lemieux has a bone to pick with Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie.

Balsillie, 45, agreed Oct. 5 to buy the financially troubled Penguins for $175 million US, but withdrew his offer on Dec. 15.

Balsillie reportedly refused to guarantee the NHL that he would keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh, fuelling speculation that he wished to relocate the franchise in Kitchener, Ont., where he lives and oversees Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry.

"We were shocked and offended that Mr. Balsillie would back out of such an important deal at the last minute," Lemieux said in a statement released Monday.

"We intend to retain Mr. Balsillie’s deposit because we believe him to be in breach of our agreement," Lemieux continued. "We can say unequivocally that the deal with Mr. Balsillie is dead."

Lemieux, who bought the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999, claims that the team has struggled to turn a profit in Pittsburgh because aging Mellon Arena is inadequate.

Balsillie's offer to purchase the team from the Lemieux Group and keep it in Pittsburgh was predicated on the construction of a new facility to replace the 45-year-old home of the Penguins.

That said, Lemieux struck a deal with Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., which promised to privately finance a $290-million US arena if it were granted Pittsburgh's lone slot-machine licence by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

"We were told repeatedly during the first six years of our ownership that there would be no public money available to pay for an arena," Lemieux said. "We were told repeatedly that we would have to somehow come up with private funding…against all odds and thanks to Isle of Capri Casinos, we did that."

Decision expected Wednesday

A decision by state regulators on which of the three bidders — Isle of Capri Casinos, Forest City Enterprises Inc., or casino magnate Don Barden — will be awarded the slot-machine licence is expected Wednesday.

If the Isle of Capri loses out on the licence, Lemieux admitted that the Penguins will have to "consider all of our options."

"Wednesday will be a turning point," he said. "And in the fate of the franchise, that's for sure."

Frank D'Angelo, a Toronto businessman who owns the Steelback Brewery, revealed over the weekend that he and billionaire Barry Sherman might bid to buy the Penguins from the Lemieux Group.

With files from the Associated Press