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Panthers' minority owners toss a lifeline just in time

When Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel moved up from minority owners to co-general partners of the Florida Panthers, they inherited an $80-million (U.S.) debt from the previous majority owner, Alan Cohen.

Sound familiar? It should, because that is the same amount owed to the same investment firm, MSD Capital, by the Phoenix Coyotes, a debt that helped send the club, owner Jerry Moyes and the NHL into a long ugly fight in bankruptcy court.

The Panthers, sources in the banking and hockey communities say, were headed in the same direction until Viner, 61, and Siegel, 46, were convinced to rescue the club after a sale to an investment fund, Sports Properties Acquisition Corp., was rejected by the NHL because its rules prohibit sales to such entities.

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Viner and Siegel, who were introduced to the public yesterday, are taking over a little more than half of Cohen's 43-per-cent interest in the Panthers, leaving him with 20 per cent, but most importantly they are taking responsibility for the club's annual losses and its debts, saving it, for now, from the same fate as the Coyotes.

Several sources said Cohen, like Moyes, grew tired of writing cheques to cover the losses. The club has not been profitable since he bought it in June, 2001 as the leader of a group of eight investors. The losses grew to $20-million a year, sources say, and Cohen told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman he would no longer pay for the losses starting Jan. 1.

Unlike Moyes, who said at one point he was "broke," Cohen still has a great deal of money. But those who know him say he wanted to get rid of the Panthers before his fortune vanished.

Viner and Siegel, two Boca Raton businessmen who describe themselves as "passionate hockey fans" are not inheriting a situation as bad as the Coyotes, but the Panthers are considered the second-worst financial basket case in the NHL. Their revenue is consistently among the bottom five teams in the NHL.

Not even the fact their arena, BankAtlantic Center, is profitable because of a bustling concert business, can erase the losses due to terrible attendance.

In Cohen's eight years as general partner, the Panthers never made the playoffs. He went through six general managers, six coaches and lots more players without success, which was deadly in one of the league's Sun Belt markets.

As the Panthers became known more for their increasingly desperate ticket giveaways, the vast spaces of empty seats ate away at the players' morale. Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, once the centrepiece of the team's efforts to convince fans a youth movement would bring success, was traded last spring when it became clear he would leave as a free agent for a more competitive team.

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Bouwmeester, 26, who now plays for the Calgary Flames, was reluctant to knock his former home. But he admitted it is a difficult place to play.

"Your job is to play hockey, so it shouldn't matter who's in the crowd or what's going on around you," he said. "Having said that, when you play in buildings like Toronto's, Montreal's or Philadelphia's, there's an atmosphere there and it's fun.

"With Florida, a lot of rinks, that's not the case. But we didn't have any success so we didn't give people a lot of reasons to show up."

Ownership's refusal to spend money on players was often put forward as the main reason for the constant failure. Under the mercurial Cohen, the Panthers' payroll grew but so did the constant turnover in management.

"Every time someone new comes in, you're starting from scratch," Bouwmeester said. "I guess it snowballs to a certain extent where there are a lot of changes. Sometimes at the start of the year, that's not a bad thing. It gives you some optimism.

"Other years where it was just predictable, and we weren't going to be there, then that was hard to take."

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Rick Dudley and Doug MacLean are among that large group of former Panthers GMs and head coaches. Both of them believe a team can be successful in South Florida despite the evidence to the contrary. But that will only happen, both men say, if the Panthers become a consistent playoff team that can contend for the Stanley Cup.

"I know a lot of people will say no but I believe you can sell there," said Dudley, who was the Panthers' GM from 2002 to 2004 and is now associate GM of the Atlanta Thrashers. "You have to bring back the fans by showing them you can win but that takes time."

Dudley says the new owners have to give the general manager, in this case former Ottawa Senators GM Randy Sexton, who was promoted from assistant GM last August, enough time to build a good organization.

"The biggest mistake is to want to do it all in one summer," Dudley said. "They have to say, 'It's your team and we'll give you five years and we won't question you.'"

One thing the Panthers do have is a good young coach in Pete DeBoer, who was hired by former GM Jacques Martin. They ran up 93 points last season but just missed the playoffs. This season, without Bouwmeester, they are struggling with a 7-9-1 record before last night's games.

Viner has been a Panthers owner for almost seven years and is a familiar face at NHL governors' meetings. Siegel has been part of the ownership group for about 18 months and regularly plays recreational hockey.

Both men made it clear they want to reach out to the fans.

"We need to reconnect with our fans," Viner said. "[Siegel]and I are very passionate owners."

Dudley thinks the Panthers organization is on the right track and success is not far away as long as the owners are patient. However, there were ominous signs neither Viner nor Siegel is willing to give Sexton a lot of time to build a winner.

Both owners talked a lot about accountability during yesterday's news conference and how quickly they want to win.

"We want to win badly; we want to win as soon as possible," Viner said, words that were echoed a few minutes later by Siegel: "Our No. 1 goal is winning right now."

As one source in the banking community noted, the winning had better arrive before Viner and Siegel get tired of writing those $20-million cheques every year.


Facts and figures from Alan Cohen's years (2001-09) as Florida Panthers general partner. (All currency U.S.)

Largest creditor MSD Capital, $80-million

General managers Six

Coaches Six, including Mike Keenan twice.

Playoff appearances Zero

2009-10 payroll $55.5-million

Last annual revenue figure available $20.1-million, 2007-08 season, 29th of 30 teams.

Average announced attendance 2009-10 14,826 a game after eight games, 24th of 30 teams.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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