There are a couple of perfectly logical reasons why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is feverishly brokering a deal to sell the Tampa Bay Lightning to Boston-based hedge fund manager Jeffrey Vinik.
First and foremost, it’s his job to do everything he can to have stable and well-heeled owners for all 30 NHL teams.
But there’s another far more personal reason: His integrity is on the line. After all, it’s Bettman’s regime that is, in large part, responsible for this mess in the first place.
Once again, Bettman and the league failed to do their jobs in vetting another potential owner when it allowed Len Barrie to enter the club. How this regime can continue to turn away Jim Balsillie and allow the likes of these guys boggles the mind.
The big issue in Tampa Bay wasn’t the ownership. It was half the ownership and that half was represented by Barrie. The same man who bulldozed native burial grounds and infuriated environmental groups with his Bear Mountain Resort development in Victoria, B.C., defaulted on loans, tried to stick the knife into the back of co-owner Oren Koules and essentially bailed on the franchise.
Meanwhile, Saw VII, the latest installment of Koules’ film franchise that scares the daylights out of the kids and sucks money out of their pockets, will begin filming in Toronto next week. If you turn on your television Monday in most markets in North America, you’ll probably have three opportunities to watch the Koules-executive produced Two and a Half Men, twice in syndication and once in its regularly scheduled time slot.
So access to money is not a problem for Koules. He has plenty of it. But like former Phoenix Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes before him, he simply got tired of plowing all his own money into an obvious losing proposition. You see, billionaires are funny that way. They tend not to want to put their money into money-losing ventures. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Barrie had maybe contributed a little something for the common good.
And while Koules didn’t throw the keys to the franchise on Bettman’s desk and throw up his hands the way Moyes did, he has clearly had enough of this. So once Bettman realized Barrie couldn’t possibly own the team and Koules was unwilling to keep losing money, he went looking for a new owner and found one when he met Vinik, a limited partner in the Boston Red Sox, at the Winter Classic in Boston in early January.
If this is the kind of return it gets from these things, no wonder the NHL wants to have more outdoor games in the future.
We can only hope Bettman and his office vet Vinik a little better than they have owners in the past. One person close to the situation told me that if the NHL had simply made a call to one of the people auditing Barrie’s Bear Mountain Resort in 2008, they would have heard enough tales to make their nosehairs curl. And they certainly wouldn’t have been naïve enough to believe Barrie could be a legitimate owner of an NHL team.
But they didn’t and he was for a little while. Meanwhile, Barrie has a host of problems of his own when it comes to Bear Mountain. First of all, there’s a group of NHLers and former NHLers – notably Rob Blake, Ryan Smyth, Rob Niedermayer, Matt Pettinger, Mike Vernon, Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Mike Sillinger, Trevor Kidd, Sean Burke and Scott Mellanby – who invested money into Bear Mountain and are now demanding it be returned because they have real concerns their dollars were used by Barrie for other purposes.
His trials have pretty much made Barrie an absentee owner in Tampa Bay this year and left Koules on his own trying to keep the franchise afloat in both an economy and an NHL landscape that were working against him. The Lightning brings in a paltry $400,000 in total revenues for each home date, which means it generates about $16 million a season in ticket sales, parking and concessions. To put that in perspective, that’s just $6 million more than they’re paying Vincent Lecavalier.
Do the math. The Lightning’s payroll is about $50 million and you can see there’s a shortfall of about $30 million to make up and Koules wasn’t crazy about covering that on his own. And while nobody held a gun to the organization’s head and forced it to sign Lecavalier to an onerous contract, the collective bargaining agreement isn’t helping at all. Because the Lightning won’t meet the league’s standards for attendance and corporate sponsorship, it will lose 50 per cent of its revenue sharing money.
(I know people tire of me ragging on the CBA, but any agreement that forces the teams it was supposed to help to have a minimum payroll that exceeds what they spent under the old system, then penalizes them for not growing their business enough, is a very, very flawed document.)
But don’t worry, a new CBA is on the way in a few years. At least that’s what Bettman is telling Vinik, who will soon become the newest participant in the Board of Governors annual croquet game.
We can only hope the next CBA is better than the current one and that Vinik doesn’t become another blight on Bettman’s record.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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