How's this for quick thinking You're the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a debt-plagued NHL franchise fighting for its very existence, and your most charismatic asset, the sizzling young talent who's the future of your organization-bruising 6'4", 218-pound center Chris Gratton—has just received a five-year, $16.5 million free-agent offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers. If you're Tampa Bay general manager Phil Esposito, you know you can't afford to match the offer, so you come up with a brainstorm. As Esposito later explained to arbitrator John Sands during a hearing on the Gratton matter, he couldn't figure out Philly's proposal to the 22-year-old Gratton because some of the numbers on the sheet that was faxed to him were, uh, smudged.
Even for Tampa Bay, a team with an inglorious history of bumbling, this was rich—the equivalent of saying the dog ate my homework. But when it comes to the Lightning, slapstick has always ranked higher than slap shots. An article in Forbes last year called Tampa Bay pro sports' most leveraged team. You could also make the case that the Lightning, which at week's end had already gone through three coaches this season and had the poorest record in the NHL (16-43-9), is the worst franchise in sports.
Tampa Bay's seven-year history is full of episodes just as ridiculous as that August 1997 smudged-fax claim, which, no surprise, didn't dissuade Sands from ruling that the Flyers' offer sheet was valid. (Gratton ultimately ended up in Philly as the result of a trade with Tampa Bay.) The Lightning has been for sale since the fall of '96, and nobody seems interested in buying it. Lightning Partners, Ltd., as the franchise is formally known, has a mystery owner from Japan named Takashi Okubo, who bought a limited stake in the team in '90 through his Tokyo golf resorts company, Kokusai Green, and is identified by a source in one lawsuit as being a "gangster." The Lightning's two Japanese-born top executives, president Saburo (Steve) Oto and executive vice president Chris Phillips, blame much of Tampa Bay's financial woes on Okubo's accuser, Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based developer who failed in his efforts to build the Lightning an arena in time for Tampa Bay's 1992 NHL debut.
The franchise is more than $100 million in debt, and NHL sources say that bankruptcy or a league takeover isn't out of the question, an assertion that Oto and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman deny. Through the years Tampa Bay's ownership has tried to save money in many ways, some of them counterproductive. Example: NHL teams usually employ as many as five pro scouts to do advance work on trades or to stay current on rival clubs, but the Lightning didn't have a pro scout until it hired Peter Mahovlich before last June's entry draft. Esposito's explanation? "We don't need a pro scout. We have our satellite dishes," he said.
Tampa Bay's front office has often aired its dirty laundry in public. In mid-December, Oto and Esposito engaged in an exchange in the St. Petersburg Times about the Lightning's faltering fortunes. Oto said he didn't want "Band-Aid" or "Mickey Mouse" trades and said Esposito's job wasn't in jeopardy "yet." Esposito countered by saying, "I'd like to make the final decision, but I don't, and that's the truth." The Times reported that Oto was vetoing trades, and Oto admitted he killed one, a swap that would've sent a minor leaguer to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for journeyman center Kevin Todd. "To me, that's a Band-Aid trade," Oto said.
What does Okubo, the first non-American or non-Canadian owner of a North American major league sports franchise, think of the sorry spectacle his team has become? Who knows? He has never attended a Lightning game, never been to Tampa and never granted an interview to a member of the North American media. (Okubo didn't respond to an interview request for this story.) Among Lightning players and top management, only Oto and Phillips have met Okubo, and no one at the NHL offices has met him—not former league president John Ziegler, who approved Kokusai Green's acquiring a stake in the Lightning, and not Bettman, who has had to live with the aftereffects of that investment.
Since Kokusai Green became involved with Tampa Bay, the NHL has mediated disputes involving the Lightning on at least three occasions and has advanced the franchise money or investigated Tampa Bay management for conduct at least once. Though Bettman is loath to admit it, he has been kept in the dark about Okubo as much as anyone. When he went to Nagano in February for the Winter Olympics, he scheduled a meeting with Okubo—only to receive a note when he arrived stating that Okubo was sorry, but he had been pulled away by a business emergency in China. "He sent me a tie clasp," Bettman says.
Esposito and Tak Kojima, a former investor in the Lightning, tell similar stories of last-minute cancellations by Okubo. Tony Guanci, a consultant for the Las Vegas-based Maloof family, which considered buying Tampa Bay last summer and later purchased the NBA Sacramento Kings, says jokingly, "Not only did I never speak to Okubo in our eight months [of pursuing Tampa Bay], I began to wonder if he exists."
Why the shroud of secrecy? In a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa federal court by Ganis against Lightning ownership, management and former team lawyer David LeFevre, Okubo is described by one potential Japanese source of financing for Tampa Bay as a "gangster." In Japan there is a mob organization called yakuza, which has been known to enter the sports world, most notably to launder money through such enterprises as golf courses. Stephen Wayne, the New York lawyer who has handled Tampa Bay's search for a buyer for the last 14 months, contends that any implication that Okubo is involved in organized crime is "entirely unfounded." Adds Phillips, "We deny the charge tenfold."
Regardless of the veracity of the "gangster" allegation, questions remain about the Lightning's tangled finances, about Kokusai Green's business practices and about whether the NHL sooner or later will feel compelled to do something about the Tampa Bay ownership—or will just keep praying mat the Lightning will get sold and the problem will go away.