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Bickering Tampa Bay Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie on track for a messy divorce

Turns out, the Lightning's troubles did not end with another lost season.

This morning, the woes grow deeper. Perhaps, by this evening, they will turn uglier.

There is unrest in the ownership group. There is dissension in the ranks. And, almost one year to the day after OK Hockey took control of the franchise, the possibility of a messy divorce between bickering owners is a real possibility.

Oren Koules and Len Barrie are scheduled to have a meeting today with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to determine which one of them will have the authority to make decisions for the franchise. In essence, the commissioner is determining custody of a hockey team.

And so the humiliation of an ownership group reaches a new crescendo. If you thought it was bad when Dan Boyle called them liars, or John Tortorella described them as cowboys or Barry Melrose accused them of being meddlers, then this is worse.

This makes them look like complete incompetents.

Which, hopefully, is the message Bettman delivers.

For months, there have been whispers of a rift between Koules and Barrie. Of differences of opinion on payroll, on Vinny Lecavalier, and on general manager Brian Lawton. And that is fine. Reasonable people disagree all of the time.

But these guys rarely seem to reach the level of reasonable. They do not understand compromise, and they do not grasp the concept of cooperation. Or, for that matter, honesty.

You see, Koules and Barrie have long denied any hint of boardroom brawling. They have talked and acted as if they are moving in unison, and dismiss anyone who suggests otherwise as a misguided critic.

Yet numerous people inside the organization and around the Tampa Bay business community have painted a much different portrait of the ownership group during recent interviews with Times beat writer Damian Cristodero.

They tell stories of various indiscretions, some minor and some serious, in the offices of the St. Pete Times Forum. They hint at money woes and personality clashes. They suggest this is a franchise in disarray, and one whose brand is being devalued in the eyes of fans and sponsors.

And so, as embarrassing as it might seem to have the commissioner of the league playing peacemaker between millionaires, the time is right. This is an opportunity to get turned back in a proper direction.

This should be the moment that Bettman hands control to Barrie.

Please, do not misconstrue that as a vote of confidence in Barrie. This is, after all, the guy who predicted the Lightning would win the division when, in reality, Tampa Bay won fewer games than any team in the NHL. He is the guy who has had public squabbles with Tortorella and Melrose. And he has, along with Koules, fibbed every step of the way.

But his shortcomings as the day-to-day boss are only suspected.

Koules' have been confirmed.

Too many people have said too many unkind things to not wonder about Koules' management style. To say there is unrest in the front office is to put it mildly. Koules has made the majority of the day-to-day decisions for the past year, and it's getting harder than ever to have any faith when he stands before you now.

Admittedly, this is nasty business, trying to figure out who should be in control. Both men have heavy financial investments in the team, and both obviously want to see the Lightning succeed.

But, today, the fissure seems wide. The talk is that Koules wants to keep Lawton as GM, wants to trade Lecavalier to get out from under his $85 million contract and wants to pare the payroll to the low $40 million range. Barrie is not as solidly behind Lawton, wants to build around Lecavalier and is in favor of signing some free agents to get the payroll closer to $50 million.

The point is these differences must be resolved immediately. The draft is days away, and Lecavalier's no-trade clause kicks in on July 1. It is no exaggeration to say the fate of this franchise, for years to come, could very well be decided in the next 10 days.

And so it is time for Bettman to fix this. To lay down the law before this franchise is broken beyond repair.

The irony is this team has a long history with quirky ownership. It had the guys from Japan who weren't sure where or how their money was invested, it had the guy from Palm Beach who settled for the NHL because he couldn't afford the NFL and it had the guys from Detroit who were more enthusiastic about the real estate around the arena than the hockey team inside it.

When Barrie and Koules took over, it was the first time the team was to be run by hockey fans. By people who understood the game, and would have a passion for what happened on the ice.

And now, a year later, the disappointment is greater than ever.

So, yes, it is time to stop the embarrassment.

It is time to fix this ownership group.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Bickering Tampa Bay Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie on track for a messy divorce 06/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:16am]
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