PITTSBURGH – NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned Tuesday that the Penguins’ future in Pittsburgh is uncertain if the Isle of Capri casino chain isn’t awarded a license next month to build a slot machines parlor in the city.

Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. has promised to build a $290 million arena to replace 45-year-old Mellon Arena, at no cost to taxpayers or the team, if awarded the license. The other two applicants are expected to provide money toward an arena, but neither would fully fund a new building.

“If the Isle of Capri doesn’t get the license, we’ve got a lot of uncertainty to deal with, and it’s best for everybody and the franchise that we’re not dealing in uncharted and uncertain waters,” Bettman said.

With the Penguins free to relocate once their Mellon Arena lease expires in June, city and county officials are working on an alternate plan if Isle of Capri doesn’t get the license. Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato has pledged an arena will be built even if it is not fully paid for by casino money, and parcels of land near Mellon Arena already have been acquired for the project.

Bettman met Tuesday with Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, but wasn’t willing afterward to embrace the alternative plan – if only because doing so would weaken the argument made by the NHL and the team that the Isle of Capri plan is easily the best option.

“I think I’ve been very clear about this: We want the Penguins to stay in Pittsburgh,” Bettman said. “This is a great market, there are great fans here, and we would like nothing better for Pens to have a new arena … and on the right economic terms, so we don’t have to worry about the long-term viability of the franchise.

“If we have to deal with something else, a lot of factors come into play and I can’t be as certain about the future.”

Bettman said he wasn’t trying to be “an alarmist” by warning that the Penguins’ future in Pittsburgh is in doubt if Isle of Capri isn’t chosen.

“If Isle of Capri gets the license, the building comes in the ground, the Penguins stay in Pittsburgh, where I think they belong, and this thing is over,” he said.

Bettman said there was minimal talk with Onorato and Ravenstahl about the alternative plan.

“We all agreed it’s important for the Penguins to stay in Pittsburgh and that’s what we all want,” Bettman said. “It’s vital for the Penguins to get a new arena, they need one desperately. That is the scenario that best deals with the future of the team in Pittsburgh.”

Mellon Arena, originally built in 1961 as a home for the Pittsburgh opera, is the NHL’s oldest arena and one of its smallest.

Bettman’s remarks were similar to those made last week to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board by Jim Balsillie, who expects to be approved as the new Penguins owner by mid-December. The Hamilton, Ontario-based business executive will meet Monday with the executive committee of the NHL’s board of governors, and no opposition to his ownership is anticipated.

Balsillie told the gaming board, which expects to choose the slots license winner on Dec. 20, that selecting Isle of Capri’s plan to build the arena and a $450 million casino near the current arena would remove the “cloud of uncertainty” hovering over the Penguins. Current owner Mario Lemieux’s group has unsuccessfully lobbied for a new arena for seven years.

However, Balsillie also said he is committed to keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh as long as a new arena is forthcoming. Under the alternative proposal, the Penguins would have to contribute $8 million up front and $4 million a year for a new arena, though it is likely Balsillie would try to negotiate more favorable terms.

The other casino bidders are Forest City Enterprises, which would build a casino in the Station Square complex near downtown, and PITG Gaming, which would build on the North Side near PNC Park and Heinz Field.

AP-ES-11-28-06 1948EST

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