On May 1, 1990, Phil Esposito announced he wanted to bring hockey to Florida. No one knows why, and Esposito has since gone senile, so I cannot ask him. But later that year, he secured the rights to the NHL’s newest (at the time) hockey franchise. Early in 1991, the partnership was restructured implanting Esposito as General Manager, and a company named Kokusai Green, Limited, as managing partner and owner. Kokusai Green, along with Nippon Television and Nippon Meat Packing. The curiousity of a meat packing plant also owning a television station is for another column.
In the summer of `98, amid debt, lawsuits, and federal indictments, the team was sold to a motivational speaker named Art Williams.
Join me after the jump as I profile not one, but two owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning, both deserving of a Profile in Douchebaggery.
The Kokusai Green partnership, which supposedly only dealt in golf courses here and in Japan, were hailed as conquering heroes in 1991, bringing a new sport to Tampa, along with a new deal to build the Tampa Coliseum. The Tampa Coliseum was to be a huge indoor arena which would be built on a stretch of land near the old Tampa Stadium. Coincidentally, what was to be the land for the Tampa Coliseum later became what is now Raymond James Stadium (The More You Know….). Of course, that stadium wouldn’t build itself. So Kokusai Green formed a partnership with a group of investors who wanted to build the Tampa Coliseum to get the stadium financed by the taxpayers.
How many Floridians do you think voted to build a hockey arena six months after the franchise was founded? Yeah. Think lower. (Ladies…)
So the Tampa Coliseum group got screwed and lost their investment, the Lightning were playing at the Florida State Fairgrounds, in a building with Air Conditioning that went down to a whopping 40 degrees. Five games had to be rescheduled because the ice melted before the game could start. The Lightning moved to the Thunderdome, now Tropicana Field, and played in front of more fans than the Devil Rays currently draw. That made Kokusai Green and partners a heap of money, all while plans for the City-Financed Ice Palace was being built.
Of course, the Coliseum Group was furious that Kokusai had cashed in their chips and gotten a deal done without them. A lawsuit was filed, and as depositions were taken and documents were produced, some shady things began to pop up. Words like “Money Laundering” and “Front Company” and “Yakuza” were thrown about. The man behind the scenes at Kokusai, Takashi Okubo, was brought into the lawsuit. He was a highly respected Japanese businessman, but once questions starting popping up about his organized crime ties in 1998, the team was quickly put up for sale. Yeah, that’s him on the right. Can you make out who is sitting next to him? He sucked back then, too.
With the IRS investigating the team for not paying its taxes, debts mounting up from not paying vendors, Kokusai bolted town quickly, leaving the team in debt up to its eyeballs. Forbes estimated the debt of the team was at–get this–236% of its actual value. Of COURSE it took a motivational speaker to take this team on.
Enter Art Williams. Art Williams, insurance magnate and motivational guru, bought the team and started pumping money into the payroll to boost revenue. Williams inherited a mountain of debt, but also the rights to the Tampa Ice Palace, and all the concerts/events/bake sales therein.
Williams fired Phil Esposito three games into the season, and promoted coach Jaques Demers to GM, but kept him on as coach. Always a good plan. Ask Mike Holmgren. They brought in some high priced free agents well past their prime (Bill Houlder, I’m looking at you), and failed miserably, finishing dead last in the division.
Williams lasted ten months as owner of the team, selling it to Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson. Davidson installed a new coach (Steve Ludzig) and a new GM (Rick Dudley). Unfortunately, they couldn’t overcome the mediocrity forced upon them by Kokusai’s still prevalent mismanaging of the franchise.
John Tortorella and Jay Feaster took over the franchise and led it to respectability and a Stanley Cup, but the ten years of awful that began the Tampa Bay Lightning’s history, particularly with the now-disappeared Okubo, and his yakuza-kinship, were good enough to merit everyone involved a special place in the Hall of Douchebags here at MYFO.