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Tampa Bay Lightning fans deserve honest answers from team management

Tonight, they talk. Which is good because these Lightning folks do it well. Based on how the past 12 months have gone, you might even wonder whether they are better at running their mouths than running a hockey team.

Okay, maybe that's a little unfair. Maybe it's a tad premature. After all, they inherited a mess when they took over the franchise around this time last year, and it is not easy to turn a team's fortunes in such a short amount of time.

Then again, that was part of the problem. From its first days on the job, the new management team acted as if it had this hockey thing licked and the Lightning would be knee-deep in the playoffs by now.

It's not that confidence is bad, or that optimism is wrong, but it has to be backed up by some kind of reality. And the reality is the Lightning was in more trouble than a handful of flashy moves could correct.

Of course, you know all this. You just watched the Lightning follow up a 71-point season with a 66-point season. And that is not easily done. It is the rare team that can finish 30th, and last, in the standings one season and win even less the next. In other words, this has been a historically bad two-year stretch.

Which brings us to this evening.

Coach Rick Tocchet, general manager Brian Lawton and co-owner Oren Koules will be part of a "Town Hall Meeting" at the St. Pete Times Forum beginning at 6 p.m. There will be a used equipment sale, there will be autographs, there will be tours.

But mostly there will be talk. Fans will get questions and microphones, and management, we hope, will bring answers and honesty.

For a lot of uncertainty still surrounds this franchise. Forget the puny 24 wins and the nine consecutive losses to end the season. That's obvious enough. But there is also legitimate concern about the team's finances. There are questions about the future ownership structure. There are reasons to worry about hockey's future in struggling markets.

Now, I would not expect these Lightning officials to start confessing their woes like they're on Oprah's couch. Let's face it: This is a private business, and a team is not required to open its financial books for the rest of us to see.

On the other hand, a sports franchise and a community share a certain symbiotic relationship. A team can not survive without ample public support, and the fans do not give their love generously when there are trust issues.

So that is what tonight should be about for the Lightning. Fans do not want to hear platitudes. They do not want to be fed a line of hooey. They need as much of the truth as a team can offer.

In one sense, the Lightning has a head start. For all the mistakes made, these are love-at-first-sight kind of guys. A year in, there is much to like about the people running the Lightning. For instance:

They are passionate about the team.

They are not afraid to be bold.

And they have been willing to spend money.

When you're writing a blueprint for favorable ownership, that's an exceptional start. But naturally, it is not enough. You can't spend money you don't have, and bold gets old when the moves do not work.

So it'd be nice to hear an open discussion about the economic climate. Co-owner Len Barrie downplayed the team's financial problems when I talked to him last week, but the signs do not add up.

This team is carrying close to $100 million in loans, which means considerable debt payments. It also has seen its attendance drop dramatically, which means less revenue.

Considering the previous owner, Palace Sports and Entertainment, claimed it was losing a ton of money with less debt and more attendance, it would stand to reason the new owners are drowning in losses. Unless Palace Sports was fibbing. (Possible.) Or unless Koules and Barrie are trying to hide their problems. (Also possible.)

These are not just random issues for a single offseason. At worst, there are concerns about the viability of the Lightning in Tampa Bay. The Phoenix Coyotes filed for bankruptcy last week, and the Lightning has had similar revenue problems for years.

But even if the situation is not that drastic, there are other ownership-related concerns. The Lightning has been searching for additional investors. Does that mean Barrie and Koules would cede some of their authority? Does it mean one or the other is looking to bail out? Does it mean Vinny Lecavalier and his big contract could be dealt if more investors are not found?

"Oren and I are both working together to survive," Barrie said when asked about the possibility of ownership changes. "I wasn't there enough last year. That's the one thing I felt badly about, not being there to help Oren. Unfortunately, the whole (economic) world blows up right after we take control, and like everyone else, we're working through the various challenges."

Losses on the scoreboard are bad enough. What has made the past couple of seasons intolerable is not knowing the franchise's direction. That's what would be nice to hear tonight.

Not just that the team is close. Not just that the Lightning is a defenseman and a forward away from contention. Just simple and honest answers about where the franchise is going and what needs to be done to get there.

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

Tonight

Lightning
Fan Forum

What: Used equipment sale, autographs, tours; expected announcement of three-year deal for coach Rick Tocchet and loss of "interim" from his title; Tocchet, co-owner Oren Koules and GM Brian Lawton will take questions.

When: 6-9 p.m.; Q&A around 7

Where: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa

Tampa Bay Lightning fans deserve honest answers from team management 05/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 2:09pm]

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