We’re back after a brief hiatus, but I have a lot of inside information to share.
As I mentioned in my last column, our initial targets for NHL partners (player supply), were the Red Wings, Islanders, Lightning and Quebec Nordiques. Now, it’s important to remember that in 1993, the international Hockey League (IHL) still existed and there were some who believed that league would continue to grow and that the AHL might not make it.
After all, there were only so many NHL teams and players and you had real competition among the leagues as to who would land them.
We were always committed to buying an AHL franchise. Syracuse was smack in the middle of Rochester, Binghamton, Albany and Adirondack. We believed in the developmental model featuring future stars over the IHL rosters, which were laden with former NHLers on the downside of their careers. And it was no secret that with terrible travel and much too high payrolls that the IHL teams were bleeding money.
Two of the teams on our hit list – Tampa and the Islanders – had placed their players with IHL teams in Cleveland and Salt Lake City, respectively. It made sense to us, common sense at the very least, for the Islanders to at least consider a move to a market in their home state.
At the time the Islanders were a team trending down, which proved to be the case for the next several seasons, and our communication with them was fairly brief. They didn’t care about the New York connection and were content putting a dozen or so players in Utah. So that went nowhere fast – and in hindsight, I’m glad it did. Plus, I was a long time Rangers fan, so I’d have a real tough time explaining the partnership to all my buddies.
Quebec owned the AHL team in Cornwall and although the fan support there was pretty weak, they didn’t appear ready to sell their franchise or leave Canada.
My next stop was a face-to-face visit in Detroit with the Red Wings.They owned the franchise in Adirondack, but the arena was aging and attendance dwindling, so they were interested in at least exploring a sale. Well, we didn’t get a deal done, but I did get a great education and met a person who would become, and remain to this day, a close friend in the hockey world. And someone we would eventually do business with.
That someone was Doug MacLean, who at the time was assistant general manager of the Red Wings and would eventually become President and GM of the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets. The Crunch would become their first AHL affiliate in 2000, a partnership that would last for 10 seasons.
Last up was Tampa, which, obviously, had a totally different management and ownership team than the one they have today. Actually, I really couldn’t tell who was in charge, but decided it was worth making the trip and having a discussion.
I remember meeting, and then going to lunch, with Phil Esposito (who was responsible for landing the franchise), his late brother Tony and a guy named Mel (I don’t remember his last name) who had worked with Phil at Madison Square Garden.
I believed the meeting went well, they asked for a detailed proposal including information about the market, travel distances to other AHL cities and a recommended affiliation fee. Other AHL independent owners had been kind enough to share parts of their agreements with us, so we had a pretty good idea what was a fair number.
We mailed the proposal (this was the pre-email era) and waited for a response. About a week later the receptionist at our agency called to tell me I had a fax at the front desk. It was from the Lightning.
I left my office, went to the front desk and grabbed the fax. It simply said the following: “The Tampa Bay Lightning will affiliate with Syracuse for a yearly fee of . . .”
I’ve intentionally left out the number because to this day I’m still shocked by it. It was more than double what we had proposed and considerably more than any other AHL team was paying.
We really wanted a franchise in Syracuse. But not one that could easily go belly up after one season.
We politely declined the offer. But, ironically, we would hear back from Tampa months later. But by that time it was too late.
Enter the Vancouver Canucks.