Lightning will enter new territory with hands-on owner

Frank Wren has been fired once in his career as a major-league baseball executive. You might think it was devastating. His dream job, his first as a general manager, was over after one season.

What a glorious day it was.

"Oh, yes, I was fired," the St. Petersburg native said of parting with the Orioles after the 1999 season. "Happily fired."

Wren said he went to the Orioles with owner Peter Angelos' assurance that his province would be the daily matters of running the team. Wren could build the team in the manner that, as an assistant GM, he had helped build the expansion Marlins into world champions. He knew decisions would not be final until he made a phone call to an office down a few floors from his in the B&O Warehouse that overlooked Camden Yards. But he would run the team.

Never happened.

Wren became yet another executive whose job was co-opted by an owner interested in the minutia of running a major-league franchise.

Jay Feaster soon could know how Wren felt.

Even if Oren Koules, whose purchase of the Lightning the National Hockey League is expected to approve Wednesday, turns out to be less interested than Angelos, Tampa Bay's general manager expects his leash to be shortened considerably.

Owners, as Wren asserts, have the prerogative to do whatever they want. They pay the bills. They have the right to interject, to oversee, to meddle.

Sometimes it works despite the strain on employees. The Cowboys' Jerry Jones has torn through coaches, including old college buddy Jimmy Johnson, but won three Super Bowls. The Yankees' George Steinbrenner kept his human resources department humming by making 17 managerial changes over his first 17 seasons. But he has won six World Series.

Sometimes hands-on doesn't work. Al Davis' front-office handi­work, which built the Raiders dynasty in the 1970s, has led to decay.

Hands-on or hands-off? Neither is necessarily better, just different.

Since 1999, the Lightning has been owned much like a Florida time-share by the Bill Davidson-run Palace Sports & Entertainment empire composed mostly of Detroit-area properties: the NBA's Pistons, the WBNA's Shock, the Palace of Auburn Hills and a concert venue.

Though the Lightning has won a Stanley Cup on his watch, Davidson has rarely been seen here. With the its sale, things are about to change drastically on Channelside Drive, specifically for Feaster, whom Davidson hired seven years ago.

Koules already has had input in personnel decisions — pushing to re-sign Vinny Lecavalier and approving Brad Richards' trade and coach John Tortorella's sacking — despite commissioner Gary Bettman telling him not to act like an owner until the deal is approved.

And though Koules, who played junior hockey and is the producer behind the grizzly Saw movies, is likely more knowledgeable than Davidson — as is fellow investor Len Barrie, who played in the NHL — that won't make Feaster's job easier.

Not expecting to learn what his role will be until meeting with Koules this week, Feaster could be a major part of decision-making, a sounding board or Koules' and Barrie's tutor until his contract expires in three years.

"I've had many conversations with Oren where he has told me I am his GM and he wants me to be GM," Feaster said during the June 3 news conference announcing Tortorella's dismissal. "What I said to Oren is, 'I think the most important thing is, we need to sit down and define the role because the role is going to be very different.'

"There's no secret Mr. Davidson was not a hands-on owner. I reported to (team president) Ron Campbell and he to (CEO) Tom Wilson. We kept Mr. Davidson informed. There was never a time when Mr. D weighed in on, 'Why'd you move that guy?' or 'Why'd you pick up that guy?' "

Peter Angelos always asked Frank Wren. He attacked the process of building a team with high payroll and higher demand. His zeal was at first appreciated by fans, then deemed misguided as losses mounted and fired managers and GMs piled high.

One victim was Davey Johnson, who resigned on the day he was named American League manager of the year after a season of public flogging by Angelos for his handling of Roberto Alomar's disciplinary issues.

"There were a couple of situations (when) players that scouts and myself and the manager had a lot of interest in … I was pursuing," said Wren, now the Braves' GM. "And I'd get a call from Peter or one of (his) sons saying, 'We've decided we don't have any interest in him.' Obviously, that's their right, but it changed our whole direction of what we were trying to accomplish putting the team together."

The Angelos-driven signing of troubled slugger Albert Belle — who had two productive years before retiring after the 2000 season because of a degenerative hip condition — taught Wren how life would be under an extremely interested owner.

With the NHL's free-agency period beginning July 1, Feaster is eager for the specifics of his role. He already knows one thing: "It's going to be a lot different around here."

Different strokes
HANDS-ON
OwnerTeamNotable
Roman AbramovichChelsea (English soccer)Sacked coach Avram Grant for finishing second in the Premier League and losing the Champions League final to Manchester United when one of his players missed a potential winning penalty kick.
Al DavisRaiders (NFL)Firebrand drew the designs for a silver-and-black dynasty that his apparently diminishing personnel skills have since eroded.
Vince NaimoliRays (MLB)Tenure included threatening to revoke the credentials of a reporter who brought a concession-stand pizza into the press box and ejecting a Mets scout who used Naimoli's personal bathroom.
George

Steinbrenner
Yankees (MLB)Paid immense sums for players and demanded excellence, making a record 17 managerial changes over his first 17 seasons; won six world championships since 1973.
HANDS-OFF
OwnerTeamNotable
Bill DavidsonLightning (NHL),

Pistons (NBA)
With most holdings in Detroit, delegated authority to his Tampa executives; won a Stanley Cup but finished last this year.
Paul AllenSeahawks (NFL), Blazers (NBA)Computer software billionaire inputs lots of money but not his opinions on roster matters.
Stuart

Sternberg
Rays (MLB)Gives his consortium of front-officer power brokers a mandate and lets it operate.
Malcolm GlazerBucs (NFL)Though he did interject himself in some issues, he was mostly content to write checks and smile awkwardly.
Teresa

Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt Inc. (NASCAR)Has delegated most of the daily decision-making as she nurtures the lucrative image of her late husband.

Lightning will enter new territory with hands-on owner 06/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 6:06pm]

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