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The Globe and Mail

Silence surrounds Lightning sale

File photo:The embattled head of Fidelity Investments of Boston's Magellan Fund, Jeff Vinik, shown during a a July 1992 interview at his Boston office, quit Thursday, May 23, 1996 to form his own investment company. (AP Photo Charles Krupa)

Charles Kruppa

The potential saviour of the Tampa Bay Lightning is a money manager who has one known investment in sports and an enviable track record among his peers.

"I don't know about this deal, but he is a heavy hitter," one banking source said of Jeffrey Vinik, who runs Vinik Asset Management LP in Boston, and who is reportedly being courted by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to buy a majority interest in the financially ailing Lightning.

According to a report by The Hockey News, Vinik is negotiating with Bettman to buy the Lightning, the lease to the St. Pete Times Forum and five acres of land around the arena for $170-million (U.S.). It is not clear what role Oren Koules, the team's current co-owner who has been looking for partners, will play if the sale goes through.

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NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declined to comment.

Koules, who has been trying to run the team alone after a falling-out with co-owner Len Barrie, also did not respond to comment.

Sources say it is unlikely Barrie, who has his own financial problems with the Bear Mountain golf resort near Victoria, will have a role in the team if it is sold.

Vinik, 50, is a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox and used to manage the Fidelity Magellan Fund, one of the largest in the world, before he quit in 1996 to create his own hedge fund. In 2000, Vinik returned most of his investors' money (about $4.2-billion) and limited his company to managing the money of some friends, family and a few long-time clients.

By March of 2008, reports filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission showed Vinik's company had $9.5-billion invested in stocks.

However, a series of large sales that correctly foresaw the recession in late 2008 brought a huge windfall to Vinik Asset Management, although how much is not known. In early 2008, Vinik sold most of his stock holdings before the markets crashed. When the markets recovered in 2009, he started buying again, and SEC reports showed Vinik's fund grew to $6.8-billion by June 30, 2009. But by last Sept. 30, Vinik sold all but $1.6-billion of his holdings - a sign he expects the market to dip again early this year and leaving him with a large amount of cash.

A banking source familiar with the Tampa market said $170-million sounds like the right price for the NHL team. The source said it would be a good investment, despite fan support for the team dwindling away as the Bolts declined after their Stanley Cup win in 2004.

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While the hockey team has been losing millions of dollars for years, the arena is one of the busiest in the United States and brings in a lot of revenue. Last year, it was the second-most active arena to New York's Madison Square Garden.

Once among the NHL's top 10 in attendance, the Lightning are now averaging 14,994 fans per game, before last night's action. However, those close to the team say the actual average turnstile count is around 10,500.

If the team is sold for $170-million, it is not clear how much money will be left for Koules and Barrie.

Palace Sports and Entertainment, the former owner, which financed most of the sale to Koules and Barrie in 2008, is owed more than $100-million. It is thought the team's other major lender, Galatioto Sports Partners of New York, is owed about $30-million.

Several sources say the Lightning needed an advance on its revenue-sharing money from the NHL, plus an advance from its television broadcaster, to pay January's bills. The next payroll is due Feb. 15, which some say is a key date for selling the team.

However, one source said if the deal with Vinik is close to happening, the NHL will not have a problem advancing more money to make February payroll.

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