February 05, 2010
The Tampa Bay Lightning ownership reign of Oren Koules and Len Barrie practically ended Friday morning, with an agreement to sell the franchise, the St. Pete Times Forum lease and 5 and a half acres around the building to Jeffrey Vinik, a Boston financial wiz.
His $170 million cash purchase of the team still needs NHL Board of Governors approval; but as the Globe & Mail wrote, board chairman and Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs may have played matchmaker with Vinik and Gary Bettman, so don't expect the Spanish Inquisition here. (Although nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.)
Vinik watched the Lightning defeat the New York Islanders Thursday night in New York. Damian Cristodero of the St. Pete Times offered details of the sale's final stages Thursday:
It is believed Vinik, 50, is self-financing the deal and will be a sole proprietor, meaning current co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, as well as six limited partners will not have a role. It also is believed that once a purchase agreement is signed, Vinik will take control of player payroll. That is a big issue as the SportsBusiness Daily web site reported last month that to help meet January's payroll, the team took an advance on revenue sharing it will get after the season. Closing the deal would be the next step. Since Vinik is self financing, that should not be a long process.
A humorous take here from the Hockey Bay Blog.
The deal was essential for a lot of reasons, none the least being that ownership may have been close to reverting back to Palace Sports and Entertainment, as a source told us this week.
But it was also essential for the future of the franchise, which has gone from a hockey success story in a "non-traditional" market to one of the three lowest revenue-generating teams in the NHL this season.
Winger Ryan Malone(notes) told us this week that the economy was a major reason fan apathy was so apparent in Tampa, but it's more than that: Fans can smell mismanagement and bungling a mile away, and the Koules/Barrie/GM Brian Lawton regime made a Milburyian number of fiscal and personnel mistakes in their short time in the board room.
The heartbreaker in this one for us was Koules, who appeared to be the sort of out-of-the-box marketing mind the NHL could have used to push its product better; hell, the guy sold us on Charlie Sheen as a sitcom actor and a maniacal puppet torturing people in horror movies, right?
There were flashes of that ingenuity, from his accessibility as an owner to the cornball video marketing to season ticket holders. Even the ill-fated "Seen Stamkos?" campaign showed a level of effort in building excitement for a last-place team, even if it ultimately may have crushed the kid in his freshman season.
In the end, Mirtle was right (merry next-10-Christmases, James) that Koules and Barrie weren't ready for prime-time, although our argument was always about prejudging the owners before they had a chance to sink or swim:
Just embrace the wackiness of this decision is simply a call to give these guys time to operate and not judge them based on their rather unorthodox background or approach. Melrose seems crazy. Going out and spending Brad Richards(notes)-like money on one of the UFAs seems crazy. Replacing the entire power structure of a professional hockey team with friends seems like the plot of an un-produced Adam Sandler comedy. (Steve Buscemi would have been the creepy Zamboni driver who saves the day.)
But we don't know if any of these things actually will turn out to be crazy until they hit the ice. That's why they call it "crazy." Could be Kubrick, could be Ed Wood.
Turned out they were the Ed Woods of hockey: Earnest in their intentions, driven by love of the source material, but without the necessary skills and faculties to create a successful product rather than a Grade-Z cult classic.
So now the pre-judgment of Vinik begins, with noted Lightning booster (/snark) Ken Campbell of The Hockey News saying that "by all accounts, Vinik is not a hockey guy" before Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune shot back with "he is a big hockey fan, contrary to earlier reports. Thinking this is good news for fans."
Time will tell ... but give him time. The Lightning are right on the playoff bubble, but there's a long road ahead to mending what the previous owners broke. Meanwhile, here's Vinik:
New York fan in Tampa? Crazy ...