November 17, 2009
The Florida Panthers play in a city called Sunrise, a moniker in juxtaposition with the notion suggested by some in the hockey world that the sun is slowly setting on this 16-year-old franchise.
The Globe & Mail greeted Stu Siegel and Cliff Viner, announced at the new majority owners of the Panthers yesterday, with a sobering assessment of the team's fortunes, or lack thereof. That Florida didn't turn a profit under Alan Cohen, missing the playoffs in all eight of his years as majority owner; that Cohen was losing $20 million a year, and that the Panthers owe $80 million to MSD Capital, which is -- cue ominous music -- the same amount to the same investment firm that the Phoenix Coyotes owed before Jerry Moyes put them into bankruptcy and attempted to sell them to Jim Balsillie.
As David Shoalts wrote:
Viner and Siegel, two Boca Raton businessmen who describe themselves as "passionate hockey fans" are not inheriting a situation as bad as the Coyotes, but the Panthers are considered the second-worst financial basket case in the NHL.
"Basket case" is something to which Siegel (pictured middle) might take offense. The quote/unquote around "passionate hockey fans" is, however, the antithesis of Stu Siegel and his roots on Long Island.
"I actually started playing ice hockey the first year the Islanders came into the League in 1972. One of the original Islanders lived across the street from me, rented the house. We always played street hockey when I was younger, and then took on ice hockey," said Siegel, who used to pretend he was Denis Potvin while playing street hockey.
He still plays, as he did at the University of Pennsylvania. In his second year as a Panthers owner, Siegel got into this often difficult business for many reasons, but passion for hockey was prominent on the list.
As he and Viner take over the Panthers as co-general partners, Siegel spoke with us about the Panthers getting the Phoenix label; whether he plans on selling the franchise; winning fans on and off the ice; whether Florida needs a star player to succeed; and a peek into his life as a hockey fan.
But first, we wanted to know if Siegel regretted labeling their taking over the Panthers as a sign of mental instability.
Q. Now that the quote's been picked up everywhere, do you regret telling the Sun-Sentinel that "we're the only crazy ones that would do this" in taking over the Panthers?
SIEGEL: [Laughs] You know, it was taken a little out of context. I was trying to say that, you know, Cliff and myself are huge Panthers fans and hockey fans. We want to be accessible to the fans and all the constituents. That we want to cheer with them when things are good, we want to cry with them when things are bad.
The crazy thing was that we're crazy about this and crazy about hockey.
If someone says, "Florida is another Phoenix," what do you say to that?
Absolutely not. It's not even a good comparison at all.
Is it because you own your own building?
Well, I don't know the specifics of the Phoenix lease and their situation. And we don't own our own building, but we have operating control over it.
But just from a financial standpoint, a few things: One, we have great support from our ownership. All that's been written about Alan Cohen and the ownership group hasn't been reported accurately. Alan just wanted to step back a bit, and he's still involved in a pretty major way here. He just didn't want to be the guy in charge, day to day. He still holds a stake in the organization. Cliff and myself were natural guys to [take over] since we've probably the most involved owners here.
You're not becoming majority owners to then re-sell the team? You're in for the long haul?
How does life change for the organization with the ownership moves?
People [in the hockey media] come down on us, and for good reason. We haven't been in the playoffs since the year 2000. This would be 10 years, nine seasons if we don't make it this year. Deservedly, we just haven't had a winning culture in our organization. Both Cliff and myself feel that we're winners, and we see the organizational issues. Our No. 1 goal is to develop a winning culture, and one that's sustainable over the long term.
When you talk about trying to get the folks in the area excited about hockey, the first thing anyone's going to say is "make a splash": Sign a free agent, retain a free agent. How does creating more excitement for the franchise translate into payroll?
We don't believe that it's how much you spend; it's what you spend it on. I think, overall, there are very few high-impact free agents out there that are available or affordable. Every year, there are only one or two that are on the block.
But we're not going to rest until we build this team into what we want it to be. If you're doing trades, it takes two to tango. In free agency, it gets expensive, and you have to balance [payroll] in this capped world.
It's an interesting concept you've hinted at: That there are very few players in the current NHL that you could acquire and then market to a general sports fan as a gate attraction. Look at the Atlanta Thrashers: They have a legit star in Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), but what does that mean for a general sports fan in Atlanta? Is he Ovechkin to them, or just a guy with a funny name?
That's a good example, right? That one superstar, arguably one of the top 10 players in the League. And the market doesn't know who he is, or they're not marketing him properly.
There are few extremely marketable players in the League: Crosby, Ovechkin ... there aren't that many.
People look at us and say we don't have any stars on our team. I would argue, "What makes a star?" I would argue that a guy like David Booth(notes) is a star or pretty close to that. Had a great season, keeps getting better and better. Unfortunately, he got knocked out a few weeks ago. Great guy, great worker.
But in a market like ours, probably like what Atlanta's seeing with Kovalchuk, it's hard to market a star.
We've made the argument quite often that people don't understand how difficult it is to grow a fan base when you don't make the playoffs. Is it as simple as that for the Panthers in the last decade? Would things be different in the stands now?
I believe so. The more years you go without making the playoffs definitely hurts and dwindles the fan base as people get frustrated.
We're in a really interesting market. The northerners and the Canadians especially refer to this market as a "non-hockey market." I would argue against that significantly.
What's interesting about this market is that not that many people come from here. They all come from up north, so there are tons of Canadians down here and New Yorkers and New Englanders and Philadelpians. There are a lot of people who have hockey in their background and hockey in their culture. We're also a market of snow birds who come down only for the winter, which is great for us because it's hockey season. We're also a huge market for tourism, and when we have games against teams like Montreal and Toronto and New York, we have a huge number of people in our building cheering for the visiting team.
There are a ton of hockey fans down here; we haven't done a good job of converting them into Panthers fans.
The market is ripe. If we were to be successful, I think people would jump on the bandwagon and get involved in it. We haven't given people enough to cheer for on the ice.
Is there anything beyond the lack of success that keeps people away from the team?
While we haven't given people a lot to cheer for on the ice, we also haven't given them much to cheer for off the ice. From a marketing standpoint or a community involvement standpoint, we just haven't been out there as well as we can be.
I joined the ownership group about a year and a half ago, and I immediately took on a role that I thought was lacking: Running the Florida Panthers Organization, which is our philanthropic arm. And I've been working to make it more relevant in the community. We've instituted programs like Stick To Fitness, which helps conquer childhood obesity in local schools.
There's lots of opportunities for us to get out there. Someone just has to help our players to do that. They all really want to do it, but our players are busy; they tend to be young guys, and sometimes they need someone to show them the way.
We had a great little Thanksgiving dinner last week: 10 families, selected from the Boys and Girls Club, and got a restaurant to host a Thanksgiving dinner. A bunch of players, our coach and the Ice Dancers were there. It was a really nice night, just giving back to the community.
Finally, you're on the record as an Islanders fan early in life and a Panthers fan now. Do you own any jerseys that are near and dear to your heart?
I have a whole collection of hockey jerseys. But probably my most near and dear one is my jersey from back in my playing days at the University of Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, someone during the course of time threw it in the dryer. And it was a jersey that wasn't supposed to go in the dryer; so not only does it not fit over my pads anymore, but it barely fits without pads either.
So you still skate?
Yeah, I still play, in a couple of men's leagues down here. I'm still young. I'm only 46.
I'm younger than Chelios ...