The Midwestern Penguins?

AEG may have the perfect accessory for its new Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins’ lease at Pittsburgh’s 45-year-old Mellon Arena expires in June, at the end of the current hockey season, and the $276 million Sprint Center, due to open in October, is looking for an anchor tenant. The collapse of a pair of deals that would have secured the team’s future in the city resulted in a December 21st announcement by Penguins owner Mario Lemieux that the team is officially looking for a new home.

The first deal to collapse was a bid by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, chairman and co-CEO of Research In Motion Ltd. Balsillie backed out of the deal December 15th, blaming the NHL for imposing last-minute conditions on the purchase. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman allegedly sent Balsillie a letter December 8th, two days before the deal was due to close, aimed at preventing him from moving the Penguins. Balsillie’s last-minute cancellation of his bid so angered Lemieux that he refused to return his deposit, citing breach of agreement.

The second blow came December 20th, when the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board failed to award a slots license to Isle of Capri Casinos. The company had proposed a joint venture with the Penguins to build a $1 billion casino complex at the site of the team’s current home that included a new $290 million arena. The deal would also have legally bound the team to stay in Pittsburgh for 20 years, even if the franchise was sold.

The seven-member board instead granted the slots license to PITG Gaming, which plans to build a casino in another location in the city that doesn’t include a new arena.

State and local officials, anxious to keep the Penguins, have proposed a Plan B, but that would call for the team’s new owners to put up $8.5 million in addition to the reported $175 million purchase price, according to the Kansas City Star. The plan would also prove costly for the Penguins, because the team would end up paying more than $128 million over 30 years. At a news conference December 18th, Lemieux didn’t express much confidence in the plan.

Enter AEG and venture capitalist William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, who’s inked a deal with AEG to own and operate an NHL franchise in Kansas City when one becomes available. Del Biaggio has been a partner with Lemieux in other ventures and made a bid to buy the Penguins in 2005, but the team was taken off the market when they won their No. 1 draft pick.

The possible move to Kansas City is an attractive one for the Penguins, because the team would have no construction costs with the Sprint Center, where all 72 suites are already sold. Del Biaggio would pay rent for the arena, but he also has the option of becoming an equal partner with AEG.

AEG spokesman Michael Roth told Pollstar there would be no comment on the Penguin rumors.

Further muddying the waters, the Star reported that Balsillie is willing to revive talks with the Penguins, and several other buyers have expressed interest in the team.

In a statement issued December 20th, Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer said the team needed some time to think things over and reevaluate its options.

Apparently not too much time though, because Lemieux issued a statement the next day that seemed to outline where the team is headed.

"Recent developments, including yesterday’s decision by the PGCB, and the recent termination of the purchase agreement by Jim Balsillie have convinced us that it is time to take control of our own destiny. Accordingly, starting today, the team is off the market, and we will begin to explore relocation options in cities outside Pennsylvania," Lemieux said.

Although the statement would seem to indicate that a move to another city is in the cards, Lemieux appeared to be hedging his bets when he added that the team would also "begin discussions with local leaders about a viable Pittsburgh arena plan."

The Sports and Exhibition Authority, which owns the land across from Mellon where a new arena could be built, appeared to be unfazed by all the talk about a possible move. Authority officials say they still plan to clear the site in January to make way for a new facility, according to Pittsburgh station KDKA.

"We are going to continue as if the arena is going to be built and the location that we have control of the property," John Chalovich, the chairman of the Authority told KDKA. "If something happens in the interim, I can tell you about that, but the plan is to proceed with the abatement and the demolition."