Predator Predicament 

The uncertain future of hockey in Nashville

The Haitians have a proverb: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” It’s perfect for that country’s history of false hopes and bloody disappointments. Maybe the Predators should find some way to work it onto their logo.

The Haitians have a proverb: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” It’s perfect for that country’s history of false hopes and bloody disappointments. Maybe the Predators should find some way to work it onto their logo.

The peradventures of our municipal hockey squad keep getting curiouser and curiouser, mountainier and mountainier. Lombard Street has fewer twists and turns than the Preds’ roller-coaster tale of buy, move and whoa.

Accurately predict the weather at the summit of Denali for the next two weeks, and perhaps you’ll be qualified to venture a guess about where this whole mess is headed. Anybody who tells you they know for sure is likely also to be posing on the Internet as the son of the late Nigerian oil minister who is willing to cut you in on $50 million in return for your bank account number.

Craig Leipold, the team’s once and perhaps future owner, may be wishing he’d fallen for the old Nigerian oil ministry con rather than for the Canadian BlackBerry bait and switch. After receiving assurances that the franchise’s would-be purchaser, Jim Balsillie, had no plans to move the team to Ontario, Leipold learned last week—along with the rest of us—that Balsillie was hawking tickets north of the border in anticipation that the Hamilton Predators might play there in 2009.

Now, apparently embarrassed, Leipold has asked the NHL to halt consideration of Balsillie’s bid—at least until the BlackBerry baron forks over some earnest money. Meanwhile, now that an exclusivity provision in the proposed deal has expired, Leipold is free to consider other offers (provided he actually gets one).

That leaves us with a wide range of possible scenarios and variations:

• Balsillie buys the Preds after all and moves them to Canada in 2009 because average attendance failed to reach 14,000 per game, voiding the city’s lease with the team.

• Balsillie buys the Predators but is stuck here through 2009 because Metro contests the language of the lease agreement and takes the team to court.

• Balsillie buys the team and is stuck here because Nashvillians buy enough tickets to push attendance above the 14,000 threshold. (The Predators, by the way, report that season ticket sales are up.)

• Leipold finds another buyer who will keep the team in Nashville. A consortium of health care executives is attempting to raise enough capital (so far, unsuccessfully) to field a serious offer.

• Leipold reluctantly remains the owner without a buyer.

It’s anybody’s guess which of these, if any, represents the future of the team. For the time being, the last scenario is the operative one. And that, unfortunately, is dictating its own reality.

Even if Balsillie buys the Predators, the sale isn’t likely to be approved until August at the earliest. As a result, during the critical period of signing and re-signing free agents and assembling next season’s team, the Predators are saddled with a lame-duck owner who, given his financial losses, doesn’t want to chain himself to another high payroll.

So Nashville fans over the past two weeks have watched in growing dismay as a team built for a deep playoff run is quickly being sold for parts. First, free agents Scott Hartnell and all-star Kimmo Timonen were dealt to Philadelphia. (At least General Manager David Poile salvaged a first-round draft pick.) Come July 1, both players would have become unrestricted free agents—and unsignable given the current budget constraints.

Then, Poile traded Tomas Vokoun, the last of the original Predators and the player perhaps most beloved by fans. Unlike the others, Vokoun was under contract—albeit a pricey one by Nashville standards. Trading him to Florida for draft picks was a pure salary dump.

Former backup Chris Mason, who actually recorded a better save percentage than Vokoun last year, is more than ready for an every-night job minding the net. And even if they lose Paul Kariya—the other key free agent who remained unsigned as of Tuesday—Nashville would still have a solid team that should finish second in the division and contend for a playoff spot.

But amid all the uncertainty, the one solid bet is that, barring some miraculous spending spree on talent, this team will be no match for the one the Predators put on the ice last year.

And that certainty raises another doubt. If the sale goes through as originally planned, and a weakened team causes attendance to suffer this season, Jim Balsillie might get the very broken lease and green light to move he craves. Like so many other scenarios, it’s a possibility.


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