Saying hi is easiest part

New Lightning owner's job will not be easy

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
Published August 8, 2007

Coming in the door, all new owners look the same. No one ever loses a game by saying hello.

They flash the same smiles, they wear the same suits and they repeat the same lines that other new owners spoke before them. Goodness, they are happy. Gracious, they are confident. Golly, they invite their customers to envision a better tomorrow.

We have seen it before. We have heard it. In his opening statement, there is very little a good owner can say to convince you he isn't a bad one. And vice versa.

With that, let us welcome the members of Absolute Hockey Enterprises, the new owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Anytime they wish to start proving themselves, it's just fine.

If nothing else, they are an intriguing group. There is Doug MacLean, the hockey guy, and Jeff Sherrin, the business guy, and Oren Koules, the show business guy. If you think of them as a hockey prospect, there are a lot of skills to admire. It isn't difficult to imagine success.

What kind of owners will they be, however, if the team starts out 8-13? What kind of owners will they be at the trading deadline if there is a chance to pick up a proven goaltender by adding another $5-million in payroll? What kind of owners will they be if the Lightning has another season of sneaking into the playoffs and being bounced out?

We'll see.

"We have a lot to prove," said MacLean, a former coach of the Florida Panthers and president-general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. "That's understandable. We have to prove ourselves to the fans, to the community ... and to ourselves."

For a new owner in Tampa Bay, that's a new position. Over the years, the most popular thing an owner could do around here was walk away. Fans loved it when Hugh Culverhouse was no longer the owner of the Bucs or when Vince Naimoli was no longer the owner of the Rays or when Art Williams -- and before him, Kokusai Green -- was no longer owner of the Lightning.

This time, it's different. The best thing you can say about Bill Davidson's ownership is there is a sadness to see it end. During his tenure, the team won a Stanley Cup. It went to four straight playoffs. It has been a long time since anyone referred to the Lightning as the worst franchise in pro sports.

That said, something was missing. Davidson always seemed more like an investor than an owner. He never seemed to love his hockey team, certainly not like he loves his Detroit Pistons. Fans don't ask much, but they like to believe that defeat bothers the guy in charge. Davidson never showed that. When he decided for the first time to stop $5-million short of the salary cap, it seemed his commitment with the Lightning had reached its limit.

With MacLean, that should be different. For the first time since the early days of Phil Esposito, the Lightning will have an owner who is passionate about hockey. Potentially, that's a good thing. Potentially, it isn't.

Certainly, there will be an adjustment. Over the past few years, the Lightning fortunes have been run by general manager Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella. You have to wonder how a new voice in the mix will work. Because his Columbus Blue Jackets never made the playoffs with MacLean as a coach or general manager, you have to wonder what he will say. Because he is the owner, you have to wonder how he will say it.

For a new owner, deciding how much to be involved and when is a balancing act. Does MacLean want to be Mark Cuban? George Steinbrenner? Jerry Jones?

"I said this to Jay," MacLean said. "We'll sit down and we'll feel our way through. I think I work well with people. We'll be involved with the decisions, but Jay is the general manager. I respect that position. I think we are going to be a great management team, but Jay will be the general manager."

Questions remain. For instance, what did Tortorella say to Doug MacLean when they met Tuesday? Was it: "Oh, so you're the guy who took my Fredrik Modin and only gave me a Marc Denis in return?"

Then there is Koules, the Hollywood producer. Given that he is responsible for the Saw series, does that mean that cutdown day is going to be a lot more fun? And can't you imagine a new goaltender's mask inspired by Jigsaw?

Here's what I wish the new ownership group would say: I wish they had guaranteed a Stanley Cup. I wish they would have said they were going to the goaltenders' store and they were going to make it rain thousand-dollar bills. I wished they had talked about how rare an opportunity the team had with a foursome of Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle.

Short of that, this could work. MacLean says this group has enough money, enough commitment, enough expertise, enough passion, enough business acumen. Given all of that, perhaps it also provides enough hope.

From the sound of it, it's a good place to start.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.