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RIM boss buys NHL's Penguins

Globe and Mail Update

TORONTO — Jim Balsillie , the 45-year old hockey fanatic and co-chief executive officer of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Ltd., has signed a purchase agreement to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As first reported on Wednesday night, Mr. Balsillie is acquiring the Penguins for $175-million (U.S.) from a consortium of owners led by National Hockey League legend Mario Lemieux. He will be in attendance in Pittsburgh for the home opener this evening against the Philadelphia Flyers, where he will get a firsthand glimpse of teenaged phenom Sidney Crosby, the centrepiece of the team's rebuilding efforts. He's scheduled to meet with reporters during the first period intermission.

The remaining step for Balsillie is to get the approval of the NHL Board of Governors, a process which is expected to be completed this fall.

Rumours have swirled about Balsillie perhaps moving the team Hamilton, which is close to his home and RIM's head office in Waterloo, Ont., but he indicated Thursday that he plans to keep the team in Pittsburgh.

"Pittsburgh has shown itself to be an outstanding hockey market, and the team has an incredible tradition of success and fan support," he said in a statement. "With young stars such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, we all know the Penguins have a very bright future on the ice. I look forward to owning this team for a long time in Pittsburgh."

The NHL does not want the Penguins to move.

"We are committed to keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh, provided the team has a new building," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "Mr. Balsillie has assured the commissioner that he shares this commitment."

Negotiations for an arena to replace the 45-year-old Mellon Arena have been held up because Lemieux's group has a deal with the Isle of Capri casino chain to build the arena at no cost to the team or city. That deal is contingent on Isle of Capri being granted the licence for a new downtown Pittsburgh slot machine parlour.

The licence is not expected to be awarded until at least the end of December.

City and Allegheny County officials have urged the team to agree to a Plan B deal to build the arena if Isle of Capri does not get the casino. Land for the project has been acquired across the street from Mellon Arena.

However, Lemieux's group has declined to accept the alternative plan, saying it is bound to the Isle of Capri deal.

Mr. Balsillie had repeatedly declined to comment on his potential involvement as a bidder for the team, even after his name surfaced in news reports last month as the leading contender among four bidders.

Certainly, the fact that he eventually elbowed his rivals aside shouldn't surprise anyone — least of all those who know him. Mr. Balsillie has always been extremely competitive, and his aggressive reputation stretches from the board room to the beer hockey leagues of Waterloo.

He plays just about everything — basketball, tennis, badminton, golf, backgammon, even darts — and plays each of them to win.

Hockey, though, is his biggest love, and he has gone so far as to name some of the board rooms at RIM's corporate headquarters after NHL greats like Gordie Howe.

"He's very competitive, always has been," his mother, Laurel, acknowledged in an interview.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this win-at-all-costs attitude better than Mr. Balsillie's six-year fight with NTP Inc., an obscure Virginia company that claimed RIM's technology violated its patents.

A U.S. judge assessed damages of $23-million (U.S.) in NTP's favour, but Mr. Balsillie refused to back down, waging a fiery public-relations campaign that reached the U.S. Congress and appealing the legal ruling all the way to the Supreme Court. In the end, his battle-hardened instincts may have gotten the better of him: RIM was forced to settle this year for $612.5-million.

"It's not something that anyone feels good about," he said at the time. "No question we took one for the team."

Even with this setback, Mr. Balsillie remains a wildly successful businessman: His stake in RIM alone is worth about $1.4-billion (Canadian), and the company's BlackBerry device has become a global phenomenon, earning the nickname "CrackBerry" for the slavish devotion it inspires.

As Mr. Balsillie's fortunes grew with the soaring popularity of RIM's handheld device, so too did his interest in buying a NHL franchise. A few years ago he met with Steve Stavro, who at the time controlled the sports empire that houses the Toronto Maple Leafs, but was unable to do a deal, according to insiders.

Undaunted, he began looking elsewhere, and finally caught a break when another bidder's attempts to buy the Penguins fell apart this summer.

Now that he has appears to have won the prize, the question on many minds is how the ultracompetitive Mr. Balsillie will handle losing — especially in something as dear to him as hockey. This is a team, after all, that finished second-worst in the NHL last year, despite the stellar talents of Mr. Crosby.

Mr. Balsillie developed his love for the game while growing up in Peterborough, Ont. His father, Raymond, had season's tickets to the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League and he often took his son to games.

Although he describes himself as a diehard Montreal Canadiens fan, his mother recalled that he favoured the nearby Leafs as a boy. He played in a league sponsored by his church, All Saints' Anglican, usually in goal or on defence.

These days, he has moved up to right-wing, where he religiously patrols the ice every Sunday and Thursday night with a group of recreational players, often barking out orders to teammates, according to those familiar with him.

David Johnston, the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo, said he doesn't mind one bit that he never had the chance to face off against Mr. Balsillie.

"His speed is a little faster than mine," said Mr. Johnston, a two-time hockey All American at Harvard during the early 1960s. "Listen, he's very competitive. I'm quite happy I'm not facing Jim. I'd want to play on his team, not against him."

Several of the people who play hockey with Mr. Balsillie refused to chat about him yesterday.

"He is good," was the terse description offered by Joe Lafleur, an investment adviser at Canaccord Capital Corp. who plays left-wing on Mr. Balsillie's line.

Mr. Lafleur, no relation to the former NHL star, helped to organize the charity event in 1997 where Mr. Balsillie bought his autographed jersey.

The highlight for the RIM executive came when Mr. Lafleur (the ex-NHLer) fed him a pass in the slot that he slipped past former Minnesota North Stars goaltender Gilles Meloche.

An elated Mr. Balsillie told a local reporter: "I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for a week."

With files from Canadian Press

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