Winning any kind of popularity contest is a gigantic long shot for the grand majority of those fortunate (and fortuned) folks who have owned an NHL team.
Unless you’re someone like Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who delivers a Stanley Cup championship, or late Blue Jackets owner John H. McConnell, to whom local fans gave a standing ovation on a number of occasions for bringing the pro game to Columbus, odds are you’ll be painted as a money-hungry businessman first and a hockey fan a distant second.
In some cases, that type of portrayal is unfair. But in other cases, it is well-deserved. And in a few select cases, the bizarre behavior of owners puts them in a league of their own. Like the 10 men listed here.
10. Barry Shenkarow
The former owner of the Winnipeg Jets, Shenkarow maintained he did everything within his power to keep the franchise in town, but turned a tidy profit when the team was sold and moved to Phoenix.
9. Bruce McNall
One in a long line of former NHL owners convicted of fraud, McNall was a coin collector and Hollywood movie producer who assumed majority control of the LA Kings in 1987 and shocked the hockey world by acquiring Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers on Aug. 9, 1988. Less than six years later, he’d defaulted on loans, was forced to sell the team and was sentenced to 70 months in prison.
8. Jeremy Jacobs
He may not be as outlandish as Harold Ballard was, nor as creative as Islanders owner Charles Wang, but just ask Boston residents what they think of the longtime Bruins owner and then cover your ears if you don’t care to hear expletives. Jacobs has penny-pinched many a Bruins legend out of a black-and-gold uniform, and as a result, went through a 39-year Cup drought.
7. The Rigas Family
Former cable TV magnate John Rigas and his sons owned the Buffalo Sabres from 1996-2005, but wound up being stripped by the league of their ownership after they were arrested for bank, wire and securities fraud in relation to the embezzlement of more than $2 billion from their Adelphia Communications company. It seems the John Spano-inspired crackdown on NHL owners wasn’t working as well as the league had hoped.
6. Norm Green
Considered the savior of hockey in Minnesota when he bought the North Stars franchise in 1990, Green eventually came to be known as ‘Norm Greed’ when, after pressuring the city and state to build a new arena, he packed up the franchise and moved it to Dallas. The mention of his name still draws howls of hatred in Minnesota to this day.
5. Charlie O. Finley
The late owner of the Oakland/California Seals franchise, Finley owned many sports teams and always left his individual imprint on them. One of his most infamous marketing decisions came when he made the team’s players wear white skates, to match the appearance of major league baseball’s Oakland A’s, which he also owned. Finley lasted only three seasons as Seals owner before relinquishing control of the franchise to the league when he could find nobody to buy it from him.
4. Charles Wang
The first team owner who handed out a decade-long contract in the post-lockout NHL? Check. A man who seriously entertained the notion of putting a sumo wrestler in his team’s net? Check. The person who hired a GM (Neil Smith), only to fire him mere weeks later and replace him with the team’s then-backup goalie (Garth Snow)? Check. That’s business as usual for the Islanders owner.
3. John Spano
At the young age of 32, Spano convinced NHL brass in 1997 he was worth nearly one-quarter of a billion dollars and that he wanted to buy the New York Islanders. The league believed him at first and allowed him to run the franchise for half-a-year before the ugly truth was revealed: the man was a fraud artist who didn’t have anywhere close to the amount of capital required to assume ownership. Rarely has the league been so embarrassed, which is why Gary Bettman subsequently insisted on much more stringent checking of potential owners’ background.
2. Bill Wirtz
He always claimed to be a devout supporter of the game, but Wirtz really was always more interested in arcane business principles that handicapped his Chicago Blackhawks for decades. The liquor magnate stubbornly refused to televise Hawks home games right up until he passed away in 2007, and alienated the team’s alumni and fans alike with his insistence in putting profitability before Stanley Cup championships.
1. Harold Ballard
When he owned the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1972 to his death in 1990, Ballard ran the organization more like a circus than a hockey team with a constant barrage of sideshows that always seemed to take precedence over the on-ice product. Whether it was firing his coaches and GMs, ostracizing and trading away the team’s best players, or refusing to draft players from the former Soviet Union, no NHL owner wound up in the headlines more often than ‘Pal Hal.’
This Top 10 originally appeared in THN’s Ultimate Book of Hockey Lists.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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