Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg wants to buy the locally owned Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League.

The 27-year-old Versteeg, who is a Lethbridge native and Hurricanes alumni, wrote an open letter on why he wants to be a part of the major junior franchise with a group of partners to the Lethbridge Herald.

Career-wise, I have two goals: I want to win the Stanley Cup with the Florida Panthers; I want to be a part of the Lethbridge Hurricanes organization and help move the franchise to the next level. The 1997 Hurricanes hockey team, which went to the Memorial Cup final in Hull, Que., brought a lot of promise and excitement to all Lethbridge hockey fans, including myself. After so many years, fans deserve that feeling again. I am not here to make any guarantees or predictions but with my experience as a professional hockey player, combined with the successful business people that are dedicated with me, I have confidence that we as a group will work hard to bring that same excitement back. My heart is with this team, as many people in Lethbridge know. My partners and I 100 per cent guarantee that we would keep this team in Lethbridge. We want to make it a place for families and hockey fans to enjoy the game and have fun on a nightly basis.

The Hurricanes need to look at every option thrown their way to get out of the red. They have been in serious financial trouble for a while – announcing a loss of $602,000 for the 2011-12 season and a combined loss of $1.25 million from 2009-10 to 2011-12.

The obvious reason for the Hurricanes’ financial woes is that they have struggled to ice a competitive team in recent years. Since 2008-09 when they made it to the Eastern Conference semi-final, Lethbridge has missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons, finishing either last or second last in the Central Division. This lack of on-ice success has ultimately taken a hit on their ticket sales. They sat fifth last in attendance the last two years, averaging 3,650 in 2012-13 and 3,283 the year before. The average between the two years equals out to more than 600-less people a game than in their successful 2008-09 season.

Besides attendance problems, the Hurricanes had a failed marketing campaign in 2011, which included selling season tickets at a 25 per cent discount, and their arena, the Enmax Centre, went through renovations during this time.

In terms of fixing the on-ice product, the Hurricanes board of directors made changes in the hockey operations last offseason. They fired head coach-GM Rich Preston, who held those roles during Lethbridge’s four-year playoff drought, and assigned his general manager duties to Brad Robison, who was formerly the assistant GM. Shortly after, Robison hired former NHL defenceman Drake Berehowsky as the team’s head coach.

Albeit it’s very early and too soon to judge Robison and Berehowsky, the Hurricanes’ on-ice performance hasn’t turned around yet. They have started the year off with an abysmal 2-11-1-1 record.

The powerhouse clubs in the WHL tend to have thick wallets behind them with private owners, just look to Bill Gallacher’s Portland Winterhawks for proof of that. But locally owned organizations can still thrive in the WHL. The locally owned Moose Jaw Warriors showed that last year with a profit of $343,888, which is believed to be a better profit margin than some nearby privately owned clubs.

All that being said, there’s precedents that suggest if the Hurricanes can turn around their on-ice woes, they could get the franchise back on track in the financial books as a locally owned team.

However, selling the franchise to Versteeg and his partners has a lot of merit. The organization would be going to a group of owners that wants to keep the team in Lethbridge and likely has deep pockets (Versteeg is on his second year of a four-year contract that pays him $17.6 million). This change could be exactly what the city of Lethbridge, which has a population of roughly 89,000 people, needs to revitalize their interest in the Hurricanes.

The sale of the Hurricanes would bring in a large chunk of change to the city. Although the Saskatoon Blades aren’t a fair comparable because they were a profitable business under former owner Jack Brodsky, their recent sale to Mike Priestner of roughly $9 million seems to put a ballpark value on the Hurricanes somewhere in between $7-8 million.

Update: Hurricanes president Brian McNaughton tells the Lethbridge Herald that the team isn't for sale.

The rumoured efforts to purchase the team have resulted in little more than rumours, Versteeg’s letter is the first time in years that anyone has made a public attempt to persuade the community-owned team’s board of directors to sell.
But it doesn’t sound like the team is for sale.
“Well, the board’s position is that the team is not for sale,” said president Brian McNaughton. “And that’s been our position for a long, long time. We believe that the board is committed to running the hockey team and keeping the hockey team in Lethbridge and we believe that’s the most viable option.”
McNaughton added that it isn’t anything personal, but the board as it sits, has little interest to entertain an offer, although they hope they can work with Versteeg.
“We believe everybody that’s expressed these interests are legitimate, well intentioned people,” he said. “And we would love to have them involved with the Lethbridge Hurricanes but their condition of involvement is if they owned the team.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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