by PuckStopsHere on 09/02/09 at 12:57 PM ET
A lot has been written this summer about the bankruptcy of the Phoenix Coyotes and its aftermath. Phoenix is not the only team with financial difficulties. It is a very reasonable expectation that the Tampa Bay Lightning could follow them down that path in the near future. As we have learned from the Phoenix bankruptcy, the NHL will attempt to hide and deny problems for as long as possible (they are probably doing so already).
Here is the case that something is amiss in Tampa Bay. The OK Hockey Group (Oren Koules, Len Barrie and some other minor investors) bought the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008. They could not afford to buy the team through normal means and required former owner Bill Davidson to extend financing for the purchase. Davidson has died since the purchase, but his heirs remain major creditors to the Lightning and could use their leverage to attempt to take control of the team, if they decided that was in their best interests.
The new Tampa owners were unconventional. They made poor trades (including Dan Boyle. They hired coach Barry Melrose and fired him after only 16 games. They fought with one another and seemed unable to stick to any coherent plan on how to run the team.
Things got so bad that Gary Bettman had to step in to officiate the feud between the two owners. It appears that Len Barrie is on his way out the door. He is accused of using money that did not belong to him to buy the Lightning. Len Barrie made his money with the construction and sale of real estate at Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria, British Columbia. He is the CEO of Bear Mountain. He is accused of having used between $16 and $20 million of Bear Mountain money to buy into the Lightning. The Bear Mountain project carries a large debt load without this scandal and that alone is likely to lead to the demise of Barrie as Bear Mountain CEO and probably will adversely affect the project.
That leaves Oren Koules to own the Tampa Bay Lightning. He could not get financing to buy the team through normal means with a partner. How can he afford to keep the team afloat by himself? How likely is it that Gary Bettman has been involved in the Tampa finances already (for example giving them an advance on league revenues from TV or merchandising)? If he has not been involved yet, how long until it becomes necessary.
It is a shame that the Tampa Bay market that looked so strong with their 2004 Stanley Cup win now looks so weak. The lockout killed their momentum, the new salary structure that followed knocked the team out of contention and the new owners may be killing whatever is left. Can Tampa Bay recover from their current poor ownership? How long until they are the next NHL team in bankruptcy? Will the NHL successfully keep their problems more hidden from the public eye before they can be sold to new owners at a cut rate price?
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