Bolt from the blue: Tampa Bay Lightning sold

STAYING PUT: The buyers say they won't move the Lightning. In fact, they're moving here.
FEW CHANGES: Their new bosses praise GM Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2007

TAMPA -- It all began with two buddies sitting on a couch, having a couple of beers and watching hockey on television.

The Anaheim Ducks had just won their first Stanley Cup title June 6 with a 6-2 Game-5 victory over Ottawa. As player after player hoisted the Cup over their heads, Jeff Sherrin asked Doug MacLean, "Do you want to buy a team?"

"He just turned and said, 'What do you think about it?' " MacLean said. "I said, 'Yeah, it sounds pretty exciting.'"

Five days later, Sherrin called a New York investment firm that provides capital and advisory services to the sports industry and helps facilitate acquisitions.

On Tuesday, Sherrin, MacLean and Oren Koules were introduced as the principals of Absolute Hockey Enterprises, which signed an agreement to buy the Lightning, the St. Pete Times Forum lease and 5.5 acres of surrounding land from Palace Sports & Entertainment for about $200-million.

The deal, negotiated at Palace Sports' offices in Auburn Hills, Mich., was so behind the scenes, some Lightning executives in Tampa said they did not know about it until Monday.

"I was surprised," said team president Ron Campbell, who met with owner Bill Davidson in May. "Mr. Davidson told us, ideally, we'll keep this in the family for decades."

The three new owners said they will not move the team.

"Absolute zero thought of that. It's never entered our minds," MacLean said.

In fact, they said they plan to move to the Tampa Bay area.

"This won't be a toy for us," Koules said. "This is our job."

It is an interesting group.

MacLean, 53, is a former Florida Panthers coach and former general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Sherrin, 51, is a real estate developer from Coral Springs, and Koules, 46, is a Hollywood producer best known for the immensely popular and immensely gory Saw movies who also played minor league hockey.

Sherrin said there are six or seven other investors, believed to be from Toronto, who will be introduced next week.

If approved by the NHL Board of Governors the earliest that could happen is at the late September meeting, they face what seems a daunting task.

Davidson, who also owns the NBA's Detroit Pistons, bought the Lightning and the arena lease for $98-million in 1999, and the company claims to have lost at least $76-million on its Tampa operation.

CEO Tom Wilson said the only year Palace Sports was in the black in Tampa was 2003-04, when the team, which has made the playoffs four straight seasons, won the Stanley Cup and the bottom line gained $3.5-million.

"The answer really is, that usually takes care of itself," Sherrin said. "The better the team is, the better the numbers, and I know Doug's focus is 100 percent in putting the best possible team he can on the ice."

The team's the thing

There is little doubt MacLean will be the point man when it comes to hockey operations.

That doesn't mean there will be any immediate changes in the hierarchy. MacLean went out of his way to praise general manager Jay Feaster, whom he knows well, and coach John Tortorella.

"To be quite honest, the coaching situation and the general manager situation are not a priority," MacLean said. "I feel very comfortable with Jay. ... I don't know John, but I respect what he's done. When you last seven years with one organization, you're a good coach."

Still, he added, "I can't say I'm not going to be hands-on, but I'm hoping it's a positive hands-on. ... Jay will be making the final hockey calls, but there will be some good discussions."

Feaster said that is not a problem, and added it will be a pleasure having easy access to an owner instead of trying to contact Davidson in Auburn Hills.

"In the past everything has been filtered through the prism of Tom Wilson," Feaster said. "It has been a very difficult and challenging process from that standpoint. The ability to knock on a door upstairs or down the hall, that's going to be kind of liberating. We're getting it straight from the owner."

Tortorella agreed.

"I welcome this because it's enthusiasm, and it's a passion for it," he said. "Jay and I beat our heads against the wall in the years we worked together that we didn't have the passion from Detroit about this team."

The team has $6-million of room under the league's $50.3-million salary cap. But MacLean did not commit to spending more than the Lightning's current $43.67-million payroll.

MacLean, who coached the Panthers to the 1996 Cup finals but couldn't get the Blue Jackets to the playoffs in eight seasons as president and general manager, said there will be weekly evaluations of the on-ice product.

He seemed committed to enter camp with goaltenders Johan Holmqvist, Marc Denis and Karri Ramo. Of the disappointing Denis, whom he traded to the Lightning in the summer of 2006 for Fredrik Modin, MacLean said, "Marc is going to bounce back and come to training camp a very determined guy. I'm looking forward to that."

Also looking forward is the St. Petersburg Times, which in 2002 bought the Times Forum naming rights and this year will pay $2.43-million as part of a 12-year deal transferable to the new owners.

"We have a very high regard for the Davidson organization," Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash said. "We made our naming rights agreement with them, so we look forward to meeting the new owners and to hearing about their plans for the team and the building that bears our name."

A hush-hush deal

Sherrin and MacLean, fired from Columbus in April, said the Lightning was the only team on their radar as they sat on MacLean's couch in Columbus, Ohio.

Sherrin is a South Florida native, and MacLean said he always wanted to get back to Florida.

"This is the team that really jumped out at us," MacLean said. "It's become a well-recognized franchise. It's one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch. We have a chance to win and a chance to be successful."

It didn't hurt that Tampa Bay's 19,877 average attendance last season was third in the league.

So Sherrin called Sal Galatioto, president of Galatioto Sports Partners in New York, which last season did a financial analysis for the team.

Galatioto said he told Sherrin the team was not for sale. Still, Lightning executives had always said if someone backed up a truck of money, they would listen. So Galatioto said he put Sherrin in touch with Wilson, who reiterated there was "no interest" in selling. But the sides stayed in touch, and a deal took shape.

"When I'm really passionate about something, I usually don't take no for an answer," Sherrin said.

"It may have been their profile. It may have been the background that they had," Wilson said. "But ultimately, we thought they would be really good for the franchise and the city."

Galatioto said Sherrin, who made a failed bid for the Ducks during the 2004-05 lockout, demanded confidentiality. That is why Wilson said he did not inform his colleagues in Tampa, including Feaster and Campbell, until so late, and why there were no leaks.

"They were just the right people at the right time," Galatioto said.

Galatioto said Davidson insisted any buyer keep the team in Tampa, keep it competitive and own it for the long run.

"We want it to be a great business model and we want to win hockey games," MacLean said. "I think they go hand in hand."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.