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The unappreciated legacy of Art Williams

In reflection, Arthur L. Williams Jr.’s tenure as owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning is often looked at as another example of unstable, inconsistent ownership that has plagued the club throughout its history.

He’s dismissed as a fool, as someone out of his element from the get-go. His background was football – former high school coach, former owner of the Canadian Football League’s Birmingham Barracudas – and hockey is certainly not football.

Of course, the stand-out moments of his ownership didn’t exactly make it look like he was anything more than a fool: designating 1st-round draft pick Vincent Lecavalier as “The Michael Jordan of Hockey” didn’t get Williams accolades, nor did his presentation of Lecavalier with the “I Am a Stud” t-shirt.

Williams made his fortune through term life insurance. His fortune, in turn, was a life saving infusion for the riddled-in-debt Tampa Bay Lightning; a franchise that had been gutted of talent in order to appease a previous, cost conscious, prospective owner that had been interested in buying the team (Sports Illustrated had a great piece on the 1997-98 Lightning and their ills).

“Uncle Art” Williams’ reign as owner may have been short-lived, but his tenure wiped the slate clean for the franchise and helped pave the way for future success.

…and provided a few examples for what not to do as an owner of a pro-sports franchise.

I have fond memories of Williams in the capacity of financial savior – the fact he invested in a team in a non-traditional market at a time when franchise movement was at its apex. The Hartford Whalers had just become the Carolina Hurricanes; the Quebec Nordiques had recently become the Colorado Avalanche. Arizona had become host to Winnipeg’s Jets under the moniker Phoenix Coyotes.

In April of 1998, the New York Times had reported:

…a former limited partner got a court order permitting seizure of the team’s sticks, pucks, nets, uniforms and skates, if necessary, to settle a $1.3 million debt from 1994.

With that type of situation afoot, the Lightning could have easily become the next victim of relocation. There may have been a brand new arena in Tampa (Ice Palace, currently known as St.Pete TImes Forum), but with creditors clamoring for money and Japanese ownership desperate to get out… Well, taking the best offer on the table didn’t necessarily mean an offer to keep the team in the Tampa Bay metro area.

And as it turned out, it wasn’t the most lucrative offer on the table that won out. Just the most expedient one.

Future owners Palace Sports and Entertainment came to an agreement to acquire the club for $130 million in May of 1998, but something happened that resulted in Japanese ownership selling the team for substantially less to Williams ($117 million).

Chuck Hasegawa, then-CEO of the club, said that Art Williams “offered the most financially sound proposal of any of the groups who pursued the team” at the time of the announced purchase. How it differed with the Palace Sports offer was simply a no-strings attached aspect. Less money, but fewer complications if something were to go wrong in the closing procedures.

Williams, at his introductory press conference a few days later, introduced himself in a striking way that mystery ownership never would have considered. Note this quote presented in columnist Gary Shelton’s article on Williams introductory press conference:

“We ain’t building this team Phil Esposito’s way or Jacques’ way or anybody else’s way but my way,” [Art] Williams said, his voice almost a shout. “This team is going to adopt my personality. I am a tough get-up-and-get-after-it, take-no-prisoners kind of dude. And that is the kind of team we’re going to have. We’re going to the playoffs every year. We’re going to win championships. We’re going to fill the Ice Palace.”

Reading those words, it may evoke images of Len Barrie and Oren Koules, partners of the more-recent OK Hockey ownership group . While remarks made in public by Barrie or Koules were never so brazen, their actions in the 2008 offseason and beyond seem on par with Williams bluster.

This was a lone gunman though. A guy who had made his fortune and paid his own way, not one that begged and borrowed to get the team in the first place.

Williams, bold as he was, was not too proud to admit mistakes. Allowing for Phil Esposito to attempt a quick-fix for the Lightning via free-agency was one of them. A band of cast-offs and past-their-prime stars were brought in (at grossly inflated prices) to steer the Lightning back into contention. Esposito overstepped a budget that Williams had given him, leading to Esposito’s dismissal from the club in October 1998.

The mistake in this case wasn’t the firing of Esposito, it was the fact that Williams had been advised not to go for the quick-fix but instead rebuild. At the time of Esposito’s dismissal, Williams said:

“I saw some things that were not working,” Williams explained.”If we delay the decision, that’s killing our future. These are major decisions.”

Yet the delay was a second mistake. By correcting one gaffe, he made another: employing such a drastic change after the start of the 1998-99 season, not before it (when he took over) or after it.

Williams ultimately incurred $20 million in losses in his nine-months as owner of the franchise, suffered with thanks to wiping away debt and appeasing vendors and other creditors. He incurred an additional $2 million loss when he sold the team to Palace Sports and Entertainment for $115 million – just less than what he paid for it, but that is still a big chunk of change.

As outgoing owner, he became responsible for the failure of a trade going down (that, in hindsight, was for the best). Incoming general manager Rick Dudley attempted to trade forward Darcy Tucker to the Dallas Stars for goaltender Roman Turek. As it played out, “Uncle Art” nixed the deal. Tom Jones of the St. Petersburg Times pondered why in December 2000:

Why? Only Williams knew, and he refused to say. Maybe he was worried the sale would fall through and he would have to re-sign Turek, who was a restricted free agent. Maybe he feared he would be stuck with Turek’s signing bonus if Turek signed before the sale closed. The best guess: Williams was irritated that the sale was dragging, so to get the Davidson people moving, he killed the deal.

Jones went on to talk about dominoes falling after the rejected trade. Dominoes that did not stop falling until the Lightning secured Nikolai Khabibulin from the Phoenix Coyotes late in the 2000-01 season.

Oddly, Turek would end up facing the Lightning in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final while backing up Mikka Kiprusoff with the Calgary Flames. It was only then that he was told that he was nearly a member of the Bolts.

“Really? I was traded to the Lightning?” Turek said. “I didn’t know that. This is the first I heard about that. What happened?”

Art Williams can be labeled a staunch football guy, a great public speaker, an outspoken owner, a non-hockey person, and a billionaire. Snap judgments of his nine-month ownership paint him in the most negative light. Yet the term that he is more deserving of, and that of which is rarely bestowed upon him, is savior.

Without Art Williams’ cash infusion, there is no telling where the Lightning (or if the Lightning) would be right now. Without Art Williams nixing the Roman Turek trade, history changes on a massive scale. How it changes is up for speculation…

…But the 2004 Stanley Cup Championship was secured, in part, because of Art’s “no” and the players collected thereafter as a result of it.

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