New Kings in Panthers-land; Ownership Reshuffle Springs Hope in Sunrise

Robert YoungContributor INovember 17, 2009

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 16: Goaltender Tomas Vokoun #29 of the Florida Panthers stops a shot taken by Alexander Frolov #24 of the Los Angeles Kings on November 16, 2009 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Kings made a rare stop in South Florida and handed the Panthers an equally rare shootout loss Monday evening, defeating the Cats 4-3 in the end.

However, this is not what created most of the buzz in Panthers-land on this particular night.

The murmur in Sunrise was more surrounding the reshuffling of the Florida ownership than the game against the Kings.

Stu Siegel and Cliff Viner will now replace Alan Cohen in the Chairman’s seat.

Cohen will remain as a minority owner in the franchise, but the reins have now been firmly handed over to the Cliff & Stu combo instead.

Alan Cohen took over ownership in the summer of 2000, and remarkably, the club never made the playoffs even once during his nine year tenure.

Hence, many Panthers fans have equated Cohen as some sort of evil spirit—only able to make one poor decision after another.

People close to Cohen say that he deeply cares about the franchise, to the contrary of what most fans would make you believe. But either way, his record does speak for itself: It’s been a prolonged nightmare in South Floridian hockey since the day he took over.

It is likely that fans will rejoice in Cohen’s withdrawal from the hockey scene—and hope that Stu Siegel and Cliff Viner will do a better job with this franchise.

There is a good base for hockey here, as the heyday of 90’s clearly showed, but the many years of mediocrity have in many instances turned fans against their own team and management in particular. Or, they’ve simply deserted the cause due to severe disillusionment.

It will thus be no easy task for Cliff & Stu to change the tarnished image of the Florida Panthers around.

However, if the Cats need a role model, they need look no further than to Chicago and the Blackhawks.

The Hawks went through a similar barren spell of mismanagement and poor results, but thanks to new leadership, new ideas and a successful rebuilding through the draft in particular; Chicago once again have a team to be proud of.

And as a direct consequence, Chicago fans have returned to the arena.

The Florida Panthers need to follow that same path.

Obviously the Blackhawks are an original six club and the support for the sport of hockey in the Windy City has deep roots.

Florida clearly does not have any such roots, and so the challenge here is even greater as the club needs to actively try and convert people to the sport of hockey. And they need to do it in a jam-packet sports market; with all major sports well represented.

There is a razor sharp competition for the South Floridians’ sport-dollars; so it’ll be no easy task!

Nonetheless, it’s not impossible either.

All it takes is some success. Easier said than done perhaps, but with such fierce competition—success is what is required to flourish in this market.

America loves a winner. That is a fact. Just look at Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago, for clear-cut examples of how success can revitalize a hockey market.

But on the other token—America deplores a loser.

It might not always be said aloud, but secretly many will feel revulsion toward the apparent weakness of a losing side. For too long now the Florida Panthers have been found on this side of the all-important divide.

So, in order for Cliff & Stu to change the direction of this franchise—from the long slippery downhill slope that it’s currently perched upon—sporting success will be the priority.

To create a winning team and a winning mentality throughout the organization is the key to gaining success—and this will be the challenge for Cliff & Stu to try and provide.

Fortunately they seem to not only have their hearts in the right place, being hockey fans themselves and local businessmen at that, but they also seem aware of both the potential and pitfalls within the franchise—which need to be addressed.

In an open letter to Panthers fans, Cliff & Stu present themselves and their leadership style in the following words:

“As local owners who live and work in the South Florida area, we are committed to developing a winning culture within this organization, something we haven’t had over the past few years. In addition, we will bring a stronger measure of accountability and accessibility to this franchise immediately”.

They go on to take a letter from head coach Peter DeBoer book upon the importance of accountability as well:

“We believe in letting people do their jobs – from the general manager and the head coach down to the players themselves. By the same token, if the right decisions are not being made and we are not achieving our goals as a franchise, then it will be our job to hold people accountable for their actions”.

That will be welcome words for Panthers fans. But, at this stage, words won’t suffice; we want results!

The goal of the club going forward was outlined in the following way:

“Our goal is to build a hockey team that can sustain its success year in and year out, by building through the draft and minor leagues, and by making the right decisions in trades and free agency”.

We hope that will be the case.

But it’s not through a lack of trying that this approach has so far failed in South Florida—it’s a lack of understanding of the game. Consequently one bad decision after another has been made throughout the years.

I know for a fact that many Panthers fans are worried about the influence of President and COO Michael Yormark in particular. And I say “worried” with ample sense of understatement.

To the best of my knowledge Yormark is an accomplished businessman that does well in the commerce part of operations. That is not the worry. It is rather that his influence weighs too heavily when it comes to hockey operations as well.

There is a great danger in having businessmen think they can run a sports team despite their lack of understanding in the finer details of the sport itself. Hopefully Cliff & Stu will let GM Randy Sexton and head coach Peter DeBoer run this part of the organization without too much tampering or superfluous restrictions from above.

The owners should set the framework and take overall responsibility for the franchise; instill a winning mentality throughout the organization, keep people accountable, but yet also let those employed get on with what they know best.

It sounds from the open letter that Cliff & Stu understand their role going into this challenge. However, the real challenge—will not only be to live by those words—but also to sculpture action out of those words.

For now the words bring hope, but at the end of the day, it is results that the new owners will be judged upon.


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