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Lord of the Lightning

The story of a Bristish nobleman and his brief relationship with the Lightning

Lord Angus Montagu Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

The name Angus Charles Drogo Montagu may not ring a lot of bells for Tampa Bay Lightning fans, especially those that weren’t around when the team was formed. Maybe his official title as Lord Montagu, the 12th Duke of Manchester may ring a few bells for folks that followed the sordid genesis of the Lightning. For those that are still drawing a blank, let’s dive into the tale of the man that Lightning founder Phil Esposito referred to as a “lunatic con man”.

Let’s set the stage: it’s 1991 and Phil Esposito is determined to bring hockey to the Tampa Bay area. He’s competing with a rival group and the most important thing he needs is money. The expansion fee is $50 million and he would like an extra 5 or 6 million to cover free agents. Esposito is uncovering every stone and shell he can find to dig up the money.

Actually, it seems that he really didn’t need the money, he just needed to convince the NHL’s Board of Governors that he could get the money. Times were different then and ownership groups weren’t vetted quite as strenuously as they are now. It was the expansion era and the other owners were just looking at all of the free money coming in with the new franchises. Besides, Esposito was one of them. Surely he could arrange the financing.

Back in June of 1990, things seemed to be going well when it looked like he had an agreement with Spectacore and the Pritzker family. They would invest about $22 million and become part of a limited ownership group. By October, they had backed out and Esposito was getting a little desperate for money. A trip to Japan proved beneficial and began the strange odyssey of the Kokusai Green, Ltd.’s ownership of the Lightning. At first, they were only going to be partial investors, kicking in $20 million along with a consortium of other Japanese investors.

Esposito still needed the balance to satisfy the league’s entry fee. His brother Tony knew a guy who knew a guy who knew the Duke of Manchester who, through his company Link International Ltd, was looking to invest in US companies. English royalty! Related to the Queen! He must be rich, right? Espo did his homework. At least in the sense that he called the British Embassy and verified that there was indeed a Duke of Manchester.

What an interesting duke he was. Born in 1935, as a child he lived in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). Later in his life he spent some time in Kenya. According to his obituary, the trips to Tampa weren’t his first sojourns to America, having worked in oil fields in Texas and as a water-ski instructor in Florida. He also wrestled alligators in Australia for a while because that’s what English nobility does apparently.

This being the early 1990’s there was no Google so Esposito had no way of knowing all this or some of the more sordid details that would emerge (not that it probably would have changed his mind). The dance was underway. Esposito wined and dined the Duke as he sold him on hockey. Lord Montagu agreed to invest $22.5 million to become a limited partner, essentially replacing the money that the Pritzker’s were going to provide. Success! Wine and champagne flowed while the Duke wrote out a check for $3 million as a down payment.

In January of 1991, a $5 million deposit was due to the league. According to Esposito in his autobiography, Thunder and Lightning, half of that came from the non-Kokusai Green Japanese partners and the other half from David LeFevre, who represented Kokusai Green. The only problem, he couldn’t get in touch with LeFevre to make sure the money was there. He hadn’t planned on using that $3 million check from the Duke just yet, but he was left with no choice so he used those funds to make the deposit.

On June 4th, 1991, Lord Montagu joined Esposito at the Sheraton Grand in Tampa to introduce the uniforms that the Lightning would wear on opening night in 1992. The Duke and his investing partners were also introduced and Esposito declared that the “our franchise will no longer have any debt”.

It was a good day and The Duke celebrated with a whiskey and a cigar and a sweet personalized jersey. He told the gathered press that he was excited to learn the game of hockey (what is it with the Lightning getting involved with owners who know nothing about hockey?).

Despite the good times that made the front page of the paper, there was trouble behind the scene. Shortly after that initial deposit, the league let them know something - the check bounced higher than Andrei Vasilevskiy’s save percentage. Was it a technical glitch or was there something more devious behind it?

Things quickly unraveled from there. Throughout the summer, there were reports of a power struggle behind the scenes between the investors. A $22.5 million payment was due on June 15th and that date came and went with no money going to the NHL. It was probably a good thing that the other expansion franchise, the Ottawa Senators, were having almost as many problems raising the funds as the Lightning were. It deflected some of the heat off of Esposito and his group.

John Ziegler, president of the NHL, wisely put a gag order on both franchises which prevented them from spilling the beans about their financial struggles to the media. Oh, on top of the money woes, the Lightning were struggling to meet the 10,000 season ticket commitment that the league required. Not that they had a place to put the fans since negotiations for an arena were dragging along as well.

The Duke and his partners were hard to get a hold of and there didn’t seem too much money flowing from them. In fact, if money was flowing in any direction, it was towards them. Having set up offices in Tampa, they were billing Esposito and his partners for services to the tune of about $50,000.

It seems that they may have overstated his wealth a bit. While he was technically in charge of a large trust fund, he didn’t actually have access to the money. In fact, their involvement with the Lightning was part of a plan to use the franchise as an asset in order to secure loans from various financial institutions. You know, fraud.

The Japanese consortium had been wary of partnering with Link International from the get go, telling The Tampa Tribune in July of 1991, “We don’t really want to deal with somebody who we don’t know a lot about. Would you marry someone you don’t know anything about?” It seemed like they were a little miffed about possibly losing their controlling interest within the organization and reportedly froze their money, causing the delay in payment to the NHL.

Things became so bad that George Steinbrenner got involved as a peacemaker. He was brought in to help negotiate a settlement between the warring factions and also to chip in some of his own money and head up a group of local investors. According to Esposito, that money never materialized and he suspected that LeFevere and Steinbrenner arranged to have power swing the way of Kokusai Green.

Esposito had no other options and no leverage. In September, it was announced that there was a restructured investment team with Kokusai Green as the lead investor followed by Tokyo Tower Development, Nippon Ham Meat Packers, and Steinbrenner’s local investors. There was no mention of Link International or Lord Montagu.

So what happened to the Duke? In July, The St. Petersburg Times reported that he was no longer chairman of Link International. By August, Link International Ltd. had ceased operations and no one was responding to calls from the press. A few weeks after that $22.5 million payment was finally sent to the NHL in October, Lord Montagu was making his maiden speech in the House of Lords. He may not have had money, but he had aristocratic blood and that still counted in England.

A few years later he and his business partner Carroll Tessier (sometimes referred to as “Carl” in newspaper reports) would be charged and convicted for defrauding the Lightning. He was sentenced to three years in a Virginia federal prison of which he would serve 28 months before being deported. His lawyer tried the unique defense of pinning all of the blame on Tessier and painting his client as “vain” and “gullible”.

Which, based on his history may not have been that bad of a defense. You see, this wasn’t his first run in with shady financial dealings. In 1982, Lord Montagu stood trial in England for defrauding a bank. While he was acquitted, Judge John Owen had some harsh words, referring to the noble businessman as “absurdly stupid and negligent” and stating that, “on a business scale of one to ten, the duke is one or less, and even that flatters him.”

That judgement comes off a little meaner than it needs to be. From reports, Lord Montagu seemed like a gregarious man of the world; he had no real ill intent, just a horrible sense of judgement when it came to business transactions.

Would there be a Tampa Bay Lightning franchise without him? Quite possibly. From most accounts, it seems all his involvement did was muck up the works. But in his autobiography, Esposito indicates that without the $3 million, he wouldn’t have been able to make the initial down payment and it spurred action from LeFevere and the Japanese investors.