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NHL observers offer stark options for resolution of Tampa Bay Lightning's ownership battle

MONTREAL — Lightning coach Rick Tocchet did not want to say much about the squabbles between co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie.

"All teams go through stuff," he said while watching the draft from the Bell Centre floor.

That said, it was noteworthy Tocchet mentioned conversations in which his bosses admitted failing to provide promised stability at the top. "They've apologized to me," Tocchet said.

Making peace with the coach is one thing. Making peace with each other is another.

The league has given Koules and Barrie a timetable, perhaps as short as three weeks, to start working out the philosophical and financial problems that caused commissioner Gary Bettman to last week call them to his New York office, and both have permission from the NHL to solicit new investors.

Ultimately, though, the question may be as simple as this: Is the front office big enough for both of them?

"At some point, if they don't see eye to eye and there's too many differences, you'll have to have only one owner," former Lightning general manager Jacques Demers said. "You can't have two egos, and you have two egos here."

"Somebody," ex-NHL player Nick Kypreos said, "has to go."


General manager Brian Lawton knows it's tough to find a positive in all the bad publicity that has given the organization and league a black eye, but he asked rubberneckers to remember:

"At the end of the day, you have two pretty good guys who love the game, and all they want is the team to win. Sometimes you have parents who disagree on how to raise their children."

In that sense, consider the meeting with Bettman as parenting class. The commissioner made sure each side knows its place while the reconciliation, or breakup, moves forward. Koules is the CEO and governor. Barrie, like Koules, signs off on all major transactions. Lawton, as head of hockey operations, is the point man on deals.

So important is that directive, Bettman instructed Lawton to e-mail agents and his fellow GMs to let them know he is the go-to guy. It is especially critical with free agency beginning Wednesday and considering Lawton's description of last season as the "chaos" of "too many voices" as all three made personnel decisions.

"It's so unfair to Brian Lawton," Demers said. "Let him run the team. Stay out of it."

That sentiment is so dear to Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who watched Toronto's board of governors micromanage previous GM John Ferguson, that he had language written into his contract that gives him decisionmaking power.

"I want two hands to be on the steering wheel, and those have to be mine," Burke said Saturday. "If they don't like that, that's fine. I will give them a list of candidates who might be able to do the alternative. But in my case, that's just the way I have to operate.

"The key for any GM in any sport is the scope of the power he has. Everybody has a boss, but the line of approval must be streamlined."


When it is not streamlined, and those at the top work at cross purposes, as with Koules and Barrie, "it paralyzes the organization," said Kypreos, a TV analyst for Canada's Rogers Sportsnet.

"You can't have two or three different camps. You can't have, 'Are you with him, or are you with me? We're going to try to get him out.' Now you have to pick an island to jump on. You can't win that way."

Worse for Demers is that the disagreements are public. "When you start going public and everybody knows your business, it's unfair for Brian Lawton, and it's childish," he said.

Lawton said it is passion:

"(Koules and Barrie) love the game. They love winning. People should make no mistake about that. They just have to direct their energies in the same way. That would benefit all of us."

Even so, Demers said, "It's time for the ownership in Tampa, for the best of the city and the fans and players, to get on the same wavelength. If they don't, then it's like a marriage. Argue in the damn kitchen."

Or, he didn't have to say, get a divorce.

NHL observers offer stark options for resolution of Tampa Bay Lightning's ownership battle 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 9:51pm]
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