Months of rumors of ownership squabbling had looked like just that: rumors. The sources were always from the Great White North and local reporters dare not report on anything off-color regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning professional hockey franchise. The rumor mill from Canada was creating a story of problems for the drama aspect... or so it seemed.
And from all we knew in Tampa, everything was hunky-dory for the most part. The obvious exception being overall operations of the franchise being run rather eccentrically by a Hollywood producer, with a former-#1-draft-pick-turned-agent-turned-GM at the helm of team operations, and an out-of-town former-player-turned-real-estate-developer tied to ownership as well and dealing with his resort in British Columbia most of the time.
Yeah, things were all right... well, not including nickel-and-dime money saving attempts, cost cuts in order to serve you better, and a disjointed operation of the roster where a revolving door policy of players and coaches was (unofficially) put into place.
So it was a bit surprising to see in on the cover of this morning's edition of the St. Petersburg Times, reporting that OK (Not Really) Hockey was in disarray and that Oren Koules and Len Barrie would be meeting with Gary Bettman today to discuss what may amount to the first step of a messy divorce.
This is not the first time Oren Koules hasn't played well with others. No, this is the 2nd ownership group he has been involved with that has faced interal strife and disolvement. The first was Absolute Hockey, which had come to an agreement with Palace Sports and Entertainment to buy the franchise in August of 2007. Things fell apart by November of that year with financial payments being witheld by Koules. His partners sued... But it was settled by December.
Other local suitors were interested in grabbing the Lightning when Absolute Hockey died, but ultimately Koules OK Hockey group won out.
And now? A year after OK Hockey assumed full control of the Bolts?
This morning, the woes grow deeper. Perhaps, by this evening, they will turn uglier.
There is unrest in the ownership group. There is dissension in the ranks. And, almost one year to the day after OK Hockey took control of the franchise, the possibility of a messy divorce between bickering owners is a real possibility.
Oren Koules and Len Barrie are scheduled to have a meeting today with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to determine which one of them will have the authority to make decisions for the franchise. In essence, the commissioner is determining custody of a hockey team.
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Admittedly, this is nasty business, trying to figure out who should be in control. Both men have heavy financial investments in the team, and both obviously want to see the Lightning succeed.
But, today, the fissure seems wide. The talk is that Koules wants to keep Lawton as GM, wants to trade Lecavalier to get out from under his $85 million contract and wants to pare the payroll to the low $40 million range. Barrie is not as solidly behind Lawton, wants to build around Lecavalier and is in favor of signing some free agents to get the payroll closer to $50 million.
The point is these differences must be resolved immediately. The draft is days away, and Lecavalier's no-trade clause kicks in on July 1. It is no exaggeration to say the fate of this franchise, for years to come, could very well be decided in the next 10 days.
So where do we go from here? If Oren Koules is handed full control of the Lightning, Friday night turns into a fire sale... After all, this statement that Koules is trying to dump Lecavalier's contract (which has been repeated time and again in rumors for months) means just that: Dump the contract. What happens when an owner trying desperately to get to the Salary floor can't get more than a 5th round draft choice for the team captain (and not because of skill issues with the captain)? What about Ryan Malone? Or Marty St. Louis for that matter (who probably has more value in the trade market than the other two)?
In essence, the timing of this has devalued both the Lightning franchise as well as any and all potential transactions with other teams. Why pay a high cost when you know there's trouble? When you know salary dumping is a mandate from ownership?
In the end, the only thing that is certain is that things seriously aren't okay with OK Hockey. This bickering and squabbling may seem ridiculous, but it could turn into a seriously painful and messy situation real quick for the fans... Where everything you know gets turned on it's head, and further destroying any shred of confidence one might have that things for the franchise in general (and the team on ice) will improve any time soon.