Art Williams owned the Tampa Bay Lightning for exactly nine
months. The former insurance magnate, who purchased the
Lightning for a reported $117 million, sold the team and the
rights to the Ice Palace to Detroit Pistons owner William
Davidson on March 3 for $115 million. Williams said that he has
lost $20 million on the Lightning this season.
Davidson owns an entertainment empire which includes the NBA's
Detroit Pistons and the IHL's Detroit Vipers, as well as the
Palace of Auburn Hills arena in suburban Detroit.
"We're in it for the long haul," said Tom Wilson, president of
the Pistons and the Davidson-owned Palace Entertainment Group.
"We're not coming in to fail. We're coming in to make this team
a thing Tampa can be proud of, and a benchmark franchise in the
Fans in Tampa will remember that Williams said almost the same
thing when he took over ownership from Kokusai Green, a Japanese
holding company less than a year ago.
"I haven't been coming to games recently for a simple reason -
this team broke my heart," said Williams in early February to the
Tampa Tribune. "I couldn't have been happier the first month of
the season...then the bottom fell out. I've been more upset with
the constant losing than all the money coming out of my wallet.
This has been a painful experience for me."
As for now, no changes are planned in the hockey operations where
Jacques Demers is in his second season as coach and first season
as general manager. He has three years remaining on a contract
that he signed last October.
The Lightning currently hold the worst record in the National
Hockey League. The average attendance is 10,894 which is barely
more than half of the Ice Palace searing capacity.
"I had an amount in my mind that I could afford to lose over
four, five seasons," said Williams to the St. Petersburg Times.
"I lost that amount in less than one season."
The question remains: Can hockey survive in Florida? Wilson
believes it can - and will. "You've got a core of about 8,000 or
9,000 hockey fans here and that's much better than what we had in
Detroit with the Pistons," said Wilson to the Tampa Bay Tribune.
"There were times when we were winning just 16 or 18 games a year
and getting 1,500 people out to watch us, and we were wondering
why they came. We had one of the worst basketball teams in
captivity, but 10 years later we were hanging banners. It just
took time to get it right."
As for the on-ice product, Williams and Demers are in agreement
of how this franchise should be built - with young players. "You
start with a corps of young players and then you want to start
building around them," he said. "It takes time, sort of like
when you're building a baseball team, but eventually, after two
or three years, you hopefully get to the point where you can add
a couple of big-name players to put you where you want to be.
That's the philosophy anyway."
For now, Billy McGehee will remain as president, but Wilson
reiterated that he will spend the next few months evaluating all
facets of the Lightning operation.