So you’re a fan of the New Jersey Devils. You remember the days when John McMullen owned the team and treated all the players like he was their grandfather. You recall the times when Lou Lamoriello had unfettered control to run the franchise as he saw fit. You watched your team make wise decision after wise decision and you enjoyed the Stanley Cup parades every few years in the parking lot of an arena built on a swamp.
Then you wake up this morning to learn that, according to the New York Post, the club, now owned by Jeff Vanderbeek, might be pushed into bankruptcy (The Devils issued a statement Monday afternoon refuting the report). This is the same guy who reportedly engineered the signing of Ilya Kovalchuk to an outrageous and irresponsible contract.
The Devils have never been a glamorous team. You don’t need The Hockey News to tell you that. Just ask anyone who has watched them play over the years. But one thing you could never argue about was their success in building an organization and putting a winning team on the ice. They’ve never drawn particularly well, even during the glory years, and they’ve never exactly been flush with money.
But it has never been this bad. Despite having a brand new arena in downtown Newark, the Devils ranked 25th in attendance last season. Then there was the news that emerged today that the owners missed their Sept. 1 loan payment, which gives its lenders a chance to put the team into bankruptcy. Not only that, these guys apparently owe more on the team and the Prudential Center than they are actually worth at the moment.
It’s no secret that the Devils owners, principal stakeholder Vanderbeek and non-controlling co-owner Ray Chambers, aren’t on the same wavelength. Chambers’ 47-percent share in the team has been for sale for well over a year and the asking price has gone down from $250 million to $200 million.
The Devils are hardly the only team in financial straits these days. In a scenario that has basically become business as usual for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, any one of about eight teams could be purchased by anyone willing to withstand the massive losses that come with them. The Phoenix Coyotes’ situation has been well documented, while ownership groups in Florida and Columbus would love to be able to sell. The Carolina Hurricanes have been looking for additional investors and are coming up empty.
Then there are the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars. There was a time when the Stars were looking for somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million and now they’ll be lucky to get $180 million. The Blues, meanwhile, have a desperate seller and at the end of the day, if they get sold, it will be for something in the Tampa Bay Lightning range of $110 million.
You could certainly argue selling a franchise has never been more difficult than it is right now. Even the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to find a buyer for their sports empire, for which they want more than (use the Dr. Evil voice and put your baby finger up to your lips) $1 billion.
So if you have a few hundred million dollars and you don’t mind the thought of losing untold millions more, you too could join the annual croquet game at the Breakers Resort. Just take your pick.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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