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Oto resigns as Lightning CEO

Lightning CEO and president Steve Oto, who oversaw construction of the Ice Palace and ran the franchise for 3{ years, resigned Sunday night.

In a statement released by the Lightning, Oto resigned to "pursue other opportunities outside the Lightning organization."

Chuck Hasegawa, an international business adviser for Okubo International since 1996, will serve as interim president and chief executive officer "while the search for new ownership is completed," the Lightning said. Okubo International is run by Takashi Okubo and includes Kokusai Green, the company that owns the Lightning.

Oto is in Japan and was unavailable for comment. He is expected to return to Tampa this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday. He is expected to remain with Okubo International.

Hasegawa, 36, was born in Tokyo but is a U.S. citizen. Recently, he has been involved in Lightning activities.

"Chuck's extensive management experience with our organization made him a natural choice to fill this interim vacancy," said Yoshiyuki Sugioka, president of Kokusai Green. "We believe appointing a person with Chuck's background is critical to the team at this time."

In the release, Hasegawa said, "My objective is to ensure the administrative and operational systems are properly attuned for a transition in management of the team."

Lightning officials would not comment on whether Oto's resignation and Hasegawa's appointment meant the team was close to being sold.

As many as four suitors _ an unidentified local group, the Charles Felix-David Berkman group from Atlanta, William Davidson from Michigan and a fourth group that has not been identified _ have talked extensively with the Lightning in recent weeks. Tom Wilson, Davidson's assistant, said if any group was going to buy the Lightning, it likely would in the next 60 days.

Sunday's announcement ended an era for the Lightning. Oto had been at the helm for the best and worst in Lightning history. While Oto was CEO and president, the team made the playoffs, financed and constructed the Ice Palace, signed general manager Phil Esposito and former coach Terry Crisp to long-term deals and made a successful bid to host the 1999 All-Star Game. But during the same span, the team finished with the worst record in the NHL, fell into debt that some estimate at about $100-million and fired Crisp.

In a recent question-and-answer written letter with the Times, Okubo was asked what he thought of the job done by Oto.

"Steve Oto is doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances," he said. "I have faith in Mr. Oto, and believe his job will be easier when the Lightning start winning."