Sam Donnellon | One way to sell out

PREDATORS CAN MOVE IF THEY CAN KEEP FANS AWAY

Posted: June 20, 2007

AFTER DECADES of  seeping into places it wasn't really invited, the National Hockey League appears to be receding.

Global cooling, if you will.

Such is the subtext of Paul Holmgren's shrewd machinations this week, when he plucked an established star (defenseman Kimmo Timonen) and a versatile second-line winger (Scott Hartnell) from one of the NHL's top-tiered teams for . . . the 23rd draft pick.

Third in overall points last season, the Nashville Predators need to be bad in a hurry if their owner is to take advantage of a $238 million offer from Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie to buy the team. Balsillie wants to move the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario for the 2008-09 season, but first current owner Craig Leipold has to escape an arena lease with Nashville.

The Predators need to average less than 14,000 in attendance next season to negate that lease. The franchise never has reached that average in its existence - even during last season's 110-point effort - but Leipold isn't taking any chances with that $238 million. Peter Forsberg, acquired by the Flyers, will not be re-signed when he becomes a free agent on July 1, general manager David Poile said. Nor will Paul Kariya.

As for Nashville's other free agents, well, there will be a glut of luxury homes for sale down there come July 1. The Predators are positioning to operate at or near the salary minimum of $30 million next season. They're not just risking being real bad, they're hoping for it.

It's hockey's version of "Springtime for Hitler," the surefire musical bomb central to Mel Brooks' "The Producers." Balsillie, who invented the BlackBerry, already is selling tickets in Hamilton despite the absence of a final sale. It won't even be on the agenda when the NHL governors convene this weekend.

That has forced the fire sale by Leipold, who paid $80 million for the franchise in 2003 and claims to have lost $27 million over the past two seasons - including $15 million last season after spending lavishly on free agents. Despite the presence of Kariya, Forsberg and a slew of stars, despite that 110-point season, Nashville averaged 13,815 fans last season, 23rd in the league.

Balsillie's offer far exceeds what the franchise had been valued at, and by association, potentially increases by tens of millions the value of other NHL franchises. Not bad for a league whose All-Star Game lost a ratings war with "The Andy Griffith Show" and whose finals set a record for least watched in the United States. You can understand the excitement the offer generated in ownership boxes around the league - and the pickle in which it puts commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman has captained the NHL's push into the southern hemisphere, and has championed financially troubled teams remaining in their municipalities. But, well, $238 million is $238 million, and getting in the way of the sale might be the final self-destructive act of a commissioner who has tripped over his own laces a whole lot.

(Can you say Versus?)

(SportsChannel America, remember that?)

Similarly, stepping in to negate the one-sided transaction between the Flyers and Predators -- as baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn once did when Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley tried to liquidate his championship club -- would only prolong the inevitable. As Poile made clear the other day, as long as Leipold owned the team, Timonen and Hartnell were headed elsewhere.

So give Holmgren credit for getting to the fire sale first, and celebrate your town's good fortune, even as it comes at the expense of another. Maybe in the long run it's even a good thing to move this provincial sport back inside of its more devout provinces, even creating some rivalries (Hamilton-Ottawa-Toronto?) where none existed before.

But next year will be embarrassing to a league that just can't seem to get out of its own way. Embarrassing too for a commissioner who, no matter what he does or doesn't do, continues to get run over by glaciers.

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Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/donnellon.

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