Sources say the sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning to Boston-based hedge fund manager Jeffrey Vinik is all but complete and could be official as early as Saturday or Sunday.
In fact, it’s believed that Vinik has already agreed to cover the Lightning’s payroll, which is due Feb. 15, as part of a deal that will be signed in the coming days.
The deal is being brokered by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who reportedly recruited Vinik, a limited partner in the Boston Red Sox who has no hockey background, to buy the team.
It’s unclear whether Lightning governor and CEO Oren Koules of the OK Hockey Group will have any stake in the team, but it appears as though co-owner Len Barrie, who is experiencing troubles of his own with his Great Bear Resort near Victoria, B.C., will no longer be part of the ownership group.
The price is believed to be about $170 million for the Lightning, the lease to the St. Pete Times Forum and 5.5 acres of land adjacent to the arena. That might seem like a high price for a team that has been a perennial money loser and is currently only drawing a paid attendance of about 10,500 per game, but the Lightning has a very favorable lease with Hillsborough County, which owns the rink. The team pays only about $650,000 per year in rent and gets all revenues from the hockey games and other events held at the facility.
Next on the agenda for the Lightning will likely be to begin shopping captain Vincent Lecavalier and his $10 million salary ($7.72 million salary cap hit). In the first year of an 11-year deal with Lecavalier that will pay him $10 million for each of the next six seasons, the Lightning needs to get out from under that onerous contract in order to begin the process of financial stability.
And the way will be paved to do just that when Vinik takes control of the team.
Sources say there was a deal in place last June to trade Lecavalier to the Montreal Canadiens for goalie Carey Price, center Tomas Plekanec and a prospect, but the deal was blocked by Bettman after Barrie refused to approve the deal. That caused a rift between Barrie and Koules that continued to fester and, combined with the financial problems both owners were having, put the Lightning in a state of flux.
The Los Angeles Kings have emerged as the front-runner to get Lecavalier, but it’s believed they are unwilling to part with the package of players and prospects the Lightning is demanding. Sources say the Lightning has asked the Kings for defenseman Jack Johnson, right winger Wayne Simmonds, a prospect and draft picks. The Kings are one of the few teams who have both the cap room and the assets to get a deal of that magnitude done.