Poor decisions ruined St. Petersburg's NHL bid

December 12, 1990|By Keith Gave | Keith Gave,Knight-Ridder News Service

DETROIT -- The Compuware folks were so confident of winning a National Hockey League expansion franchise last week that company chairman Peter Karmanos said it would be anticlimactic when the board of governors finally made it official.

So, what happened?

"They talked their way out of it," said one governor, a member of the expansion committee. "We all figured they were the top choice, but they made some dumb decisions."

Compuware, seeking to win a franchise for St. Petersburg, Fla., wanted to rearrange the way the $50 million franchise fee would be paid.

Another governor said Compuware was warned rather bluntly during its official presentation. "They were told, 'You realize you could blow it,'" the governor said. "They said, 'Yes, we realize it.' "

So instead, to the surprise of many, the governors awarded a team to nearby Tampa Bay whose point man was Phil Esposito, a fast-talking former player, coach and general manager who offered the NHL an $80 million letter of credit from Japanese investors.

How did Esposito talk the Japanese into sinking so much money in a sport that is as foreign in Japan as it is in Tampa Bay?

"The more we drank," Esposito said in jest, "the more it made sense."

Later, he added jokingly that the Japanese were astounded to learn that they had invested in hockey. "They thought we said saki," he said.

One of the most frustrated men among the expansion groups was Godfrey Wood, the point man for the Miami group. The bid seemed dead months ago when Wood's financing fell through. He called NHL executive vice president Brian O'Neill seeking advice on how to change his luck.

"Bryan told me to get someone to put his John Henry on a $50 million check," Wood said.

So he did. He found a Boca Raton (Fla.) millionaire named John Henry to finance the bid. It nearly worked, except that Henry wanted to put up $30 million immediately and finance the remaining $20 million. The NHL wants all the money by next December.

Henry wasn't too disappointed. "Maybe if I would have met all their terms," he said, "I would have been unfortunate enough to get a franchise."

Now the governors are faced with the more emotional task of realigning the divisions. It seems everyone has a different proposal.

"We probably went through 100 different scenarios," O'Neill said. "We took poll after poll after poll before reaching the least disruptive situation."

That was to put San Jose in the Smythe Division and keep arguing until next December, when the governors should announce where Ottawa and Tampa will fit.

It shouldn't be that difficult. With the Smythe and the Patrick Divisions having six teams each, throw Ottawa in the Adams Division, where it would be geographically convenient, and put Tampa in the Norris Division. Then if things aren't going well for the Detroit Red Wings, they could at least work on their tans four times a season.

* Quebec Nordiques radio color man and former Red Wings coach Jacques Demers, who is nervous about his homecoming at Joe Louis Arena tomorrow, has been linked to coaching jobs in Tampa Bay and Ottawa.

Esposito said he will be looking for someone to sell the game and get the most from marginal players, who will saturate expansion lineups for a few years. Demers would be perfect; he did it in Detroit in his first two seasons and in St. Louis before that.

He might be a better fit in Ottawa, where Scotty Bowman is said to be the leading candidate to run the Senators as general manager. Then again, Bowman has been quoted as saying he wouldn't mind returning to coaching.

On his return to Detroit, Demers said it began weighing heavily on his mind early last week.

"I'm very nervous about it," he said. "I have such mixed feelings. You know how I think of Detroit. I just can't shake that organization out of my mind."

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