Boston-Based Financier Could Purchase Lightning But Trade Vinny

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIJanuary 29, 2010

Since being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 1998 NHL Entry draft, trade rumors have circled superstar Vincent Lecavalier throughout his career.

It seems every single season his name was connected to rumors to teams in Canada or the Northeast, anywhere that could allegedly appreciate Lecavalier more than the ignorant hockey fans in Florida (even though most of the people living in the Tampa Bay area are from the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada, but I digress).

However, if reports are true and Boston financier Jeffrey Vinik completes a $170 million purchase for the beleaguered hockey club, his first order of business is to cut payroll, which brings us back to the oft-rumored face of the franchise.

He's the team's highest paid player, at $10 million a year, and an obvious choice to be moved first.

Lecavalier's no-movement clause prevents the Lightning from trading him without his approval but one has to imagine that he's gotten tired of the constant mongering. He may be willing to waive his clause just to be rid of the uncertainty not only of his situation but the franchise, in general.

Let me offer a piece of advice to Mister Vinik.

Don't let your first act as owner of the Lightning be a financial gutting of the franchise. This team is on the cusp of returning to the playoffs and winning back some of the jaded fans that have been hurt so many times before by previous ownership.

If you start your tenure here by shipping out Tampa Bay's most expensive (and talented) assets, you may set your franchise back another five years.

I know this isn't about the Lightning. Mr. Vinik see's the choice real estate around the St. Pete Times forum and the building itself, which is one of the most profitable in the country. The Lightning, as they always have been, are an after thought in any deal—something to fill 41 or more dates with.

Still, one look at the Lightning's books and you can see that there's issues at the gate and the team is hemorrhaging debt. It's why Miami Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene passed on the Lightning and why St. Louis real estate developer Anthony Sansone Jr. has had trouble putting together a deal for the club.

What the numbers don't show is what happens to this hockey club when they put a winner on the ice. Tampa Bay was in the top five in attendance in the league from 2004-2008, better than many Northeastern and Canadian hockey hot beds. When the team made the playoffs, it actually turned a profit.

Yet, now moving into it's fifth ownership change in 17 years, no one has seemed to put one plus one together.

Japanese Golf Resort operator Kokusai Green had absentee ownership and had no idea how to run a American professional sports franchise.

Motivational Speaker and Insurance Tycoon Art Williams had no clue about hockey or the debt that Kokusai Green had accumulated. The day Lecavalier was drafted, Williams called him "The Michael Jordan of hockey," drawing groans and snickers from the other clubs.

Williams would be gone after one year.

Palace Sports and Entertainment, owned by Bill Davidson, was the first to put money into the hockey franchise, assuming losses for several years until Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup. As Davidson health failed and the economy began fail, PS&E began shedding it's weakest assets and the Lightning were among them.

In came the cowboys, Oren Koules and Len Barrie—the hockey guys. They dropped big coin, made big trades, and fired management. Then the bill came due and one of the guys, Barrie, failed to come up with his part of the pie.

It sent the franchise into a tailspin that they have just now begun to climb out of.

So if the rumors are true, now comes this guy from Boston who's first order of business is to get the payroll "in line."

It's as if there's a conspiracy in the NHL to kill this franchise.

Vinik at least has some experience owning a major sports franchise, as he's a minority owner in the Boston Red Sox. We don't know if Vinik has partners and if they have any local ties (Phil Esposito?) but we hope someone cares enough about the fans of this franchise to not trade away it's best players.

Mister Vinik, don't do this to Tampa Bay. Build upon the foundation of this hockey team. We understand you don't want to lose your shirt, but making the playoffs will offset many of those losses and do more to sustain money coming in than dumping Vincent Lecavalier ever could.

Think carefully about how you enter the scene. First impressions are everything and the fans of this club are tired of being an afterthought.


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