August 17, 2011
TORONTO — Oren Koules came to the NHL from Hollywood, where he helped bring the world Charlie Sheen as a sitcom actor and a maniacal puppet torturing people in horror movies. So in cinematic terms, this has been Koules's storyline with the League:
The first act has Koules, passionate hockey fan and innovative marketer, teaming up with friend Len Barrie to achieve a dream: Owning an NHL franchise in the Tampa Bay Lightning, which they purchased in 2008.
The second act was the downfall: Barrie and Koules had a bitter split, and Koules eventually sold the franchise to Jeff Vinik in 2010 having watched the Lightning bleed money and turn fans apathetic while missing the playoffs.
The third act? It could turn out to be the redemption of Oren Koules, NHL owner.
Attending the NHL Research and Development Camp in Toronto, Koules confirmed that he's had discussions with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about returning to the League as an owner, saying Bettman put him "in touch with a couple of people."
For the ex-Lightning owner, there's both a passion to get back in the game an a desire to rewrite his legacy in the NHL.
"Of course there is. Everybody has pride," said Koules.
Koules came to the NHL as a maverick: an inventive and aggressive marketer who managed to turn the "Saw" movie franchise into one of the most success horror series in the last decade. There was every reason to believe he had the chance to be hockey's answer to Mark Cuban: Someone from outside the 'old boys club' that could inject some new vibrancy into the League's leadership.
But that success didn't transfer over to his stint in the NHL from 2008-10, even if some of his provocative ideas did.
"I had two problems. I had a partner that went bananas and the second problem is that the economy kicked us in the balls," he said. "We went from 38 million in tickets to 17 million."
As for his time with Barrie: "I signed documents to say I wouldn't talk about it."
His renewed interest in NHL ownership comes at a time when several NHL teams are for sale: The Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues, officially. Teams like the New Jersey Devils are also looking for people to buy into current ownership groups.
Is it a buyer's market?
"Yes and no," said Koules, who was in Toronto to watch his son, Miles Koules, compete in the NHL Research and Development Camp. "I mean, what are you getting [in a franchise]? There are so many uncertainties with the economy and the CBA coming up. It's a buyer's market but you gotta make sure what you're getting.
"It's the usual suspects. I'd like to flash forward a year to see what happens with the new CBA."
As for the Lightning's newfound success under Vinik, GM Steve Yzerman and Coach Guy Boucher, Koules can't help but wonder what might have been.
"I actually took a lot of pride in [our stewardship of the team]. I really did. I think at one point 15 or 16 of the players out there were ours. They've got a great farm team now. We drafted really well. It was a circus at first, but by the time it was done Lawton did a really great job," he said.
"I would have liked to see through what we did. That's the hard part."
Hollywood loves a comeback story. So would Oren Koules.