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Lightning gets investor with link to royalty

The Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise no longer has to worry about where the money is going to come from, team president Phil Esposito said Tuesday. At noon, the Lightning announced that Link International Ltd. _ a private investment company with its headquarters on Buckingham Palace Row in London _ had signed an agreement to invest in the NHL franchise.

In the process, the Lightning gets some royalty. Link International's chairman is the 12th Duke of Manchester, Angus Charles Drogo Montagu.

"This is a very big day in franchise history because we no longer have any debt _ and that is most important," Esposito said. "I think the National Hockey League will be very, very happy with us."

Esposito and Link International officials declined to provide details of the agreement. However, Esposito did say the investment would provide the balance of the $50-million franchise fee the team needs to pay the NHL.

"Financially, it's no secret, this makes us stable," said Tony Esposito, the Lightning's director of hockey operations. "We are debt-free now."

The Lightning paid the NHL its first payment of $5-million on Jan. 14. The second payment of $22.5-million is due June 15, and the final payment, also $22.5-million, is due Dec. 15.

The Lightning secured the first 50 percent of its financing from four Japanese companies _ Tokyo Tower Development Ltd., Kokusai Green Ltd., Nippon Meat Packers Inc. and Amseco International.

Phil Esposito said the team has no local financing.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "We would have liked to have one unit be a local investor. We still would like that."

Phil Esposito said he had possible "backup investors" lined up in case the deal with Link International fell through. Although the team has raised the $50-million franchise fee, he said the team might raise another $10-million through investors to be used for operating expenses and to "steal a few players" through free-agency.

With the financing in place, Phil Esposito said he has two major concerns:

To sell 10,000 season tickets before the Dec. 31 deadline (the team is currently at about 3,100).

To have the new Tampa Coliseum built in time for the Lightning's first game in October 1992.

"Boy, oh boy, bring on the building, Jimmy," Phil Esposito said, referring to Jim Cusack, president of Tampa Coliseum Inc., which is developing the $97.5-million facility on public land adjacent to Tampa Stadium.

"If the bulldozers aren't there to break the ground soon, I know they'll be there to bury me," Cusack said with a big smile.

Cusack said groundbreaking possibly could begin within two weeks and certainly by the end of June.

Before the groundbreaking can begin, the Coliseum must finalize its construction contract, financing contract, and lease agreement with the Lightning.

"The lease better be signed by Friday or else there's going to be some heavy-duty news," Phil Esposito said, also with a smile. "They better be able to swim because I'll throw them in the bay.

"I know they've been working around the clock. All the business points are done. It's just the little stupid things like verbiage that are holding things up."

The original purpose of the news conference Tuesday was to unveil the Lightning's uniforms. Phil and Tony Esposito had planned to roller-skate into the ballroom at the Sheraton Grand Hotel to personally model the home and away uniforms.

"But because of our guests, we thought better of it," said Phil Esposito, referring to the Duke of Manchester, Carl Tessier (Link's vice chairman and major share-holder) and Michael Whitear (Link's chief financial officer).

The unique feature of the uniforms is a striped patch that is only visible when a person raises his arms. Esposito hopes the fans see the patch a lot because players "like to raise their arms when they score."

Talks between Link International and the Lightning started months ago. A mutual friend introduced Phil Esposito and Tessier, who was raised in Canada where he played junior hockey.

"It started on a very small note," Tessier said. "But as I began to investigate, I became more and more confident about the future of the franchise and how it was going to be handled. We became more and more interested to become involved."

Tessier said the company, which has an office in Orlando and plans to put one in Tampa by the end of the month, decided to invest in the project a month ago.

"It's a very, very substantial investment for us," Tessier said. "We did our homework first."

The duke became chairman of the company on May 1. He said he's also involved in the financing of two golf courses in the United States, but the hockey team is his first investment in a sports franchise.

When Tessier first told Phil Esposito about the Duke of Manchester's interest, Esposito said he thought Tessier was joking.

"I said, "Where's Lord Stanley? We want the Cup here," Esposito said.

The Espositos gave Tessier and the duke team jerseys. Tessier got No. 29, his favorite number, and the duke got No. 1, with "The Duke" on the back.

The duke said he plans to return to the area in September, when the Tampa Bay Lightning will play host to two NHL exhibition games at St. Petersburg's Florida Suncoast Dome.

On Sept. 27, the Boston Bruins will face the New York Islanders. Two days later, the Bruins will take on the St. Louis Blues.

The Lightning also announced that it will help sponsor the Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning, a youth hockey program that was formerly called Clearwater Youth Hockey.

The summer program, for players of all levels, takes place Mondays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Sun Blades Ice Skating Academy in Clearwater.

Around the NHL

Maple Leafs: Cliff Fletcher, who helped build the Calgary Flames into one of the NHL's strongest franchises, received a five-year contract as president, general manager and chief operating officer of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., the parent company of the Maple Leafs.

"I want you to know I'll do everything possible to bring exciting hockey back to Toronto," said the 55-year-old Fletcher, who will take command of the day-to-day operations of the team and Maple Leaf Gardens on July 1.

The Leafs finished 20th in the 21-team league last season.

Bruins: Rick Bowness, coach of the minor-league Maine Mariners, was named coach, replacing Mike Milbury.

Milbury relinquished his coaching chores last week to become the team's assistant general manager.

Bowness, 36, coached theBruin's AHL affiliate for the past two years. Twenty-one of the 39 Bruins who played this season also played under Bowness in Maine.

Islanders: Al Arbour, the third-winningest coach in NHL history, announced that he will be back with the team next season.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.