They don't have the keys in hand yet, but the presumptive new owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning are saying all the right things. In back-to-back appearances this week, the new ownership group, OK Hockey, demonstrated a passion for the game and sense of commitment that any professional sports community would want. The new owners need to apply that outlook on and off the ice, by keeping the publicly owned arena, the St. Pete Times Forum, busy and by making appropriate use of the team's land in downtown Tampa.
The primary investors, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, are still unknowns. But Koules, a 47-year-old Hollywood producer, and Barrie, 39, a developer, who will run the team in tandem, have burst out of the gate with excitement and ambition. Koules vowed the team would be "shockingly aggressive" in pursuing free agency. The pair dismissed (again) any talk of moving the team, saying, flatly, "it's not even an option." They agreed the first need is to put scoring players on the ice and suggested that spending next year could be significantly higher than last season's $44-million payroll.
Of course, no owner is going to come in and torpedo his investment by running down the team or the community. Still, OK Hockey showed persistence in closing a $200-million deal for the team, the arena lease and 51/2 acres of nearby land in downtown's channel district. (The Times has a long-term deal for naming rights to the Forum.) That commitment to buy the Tampa Bay franchise, the presence of local investors in the ownership group and OK Hockey's stated desire to be responsive to fans and the public suggest the makings of a good community partner.
OK Hockey will be a major force shaping tourism, downtown development and the image the Tampa Bay region projects here and abroad through its multifaceted and visible roles as a professional sports team owner, venue manager and player in how the city looks and grows. Fans may want a winner on the ice. But residents also need a corporate partner who can find a way to marry what's best for the team with what's best for the region. If that's the tone these owners set, the community will respond in kind.