Luke DeCock

With sale agreement in place, Hurricanes can finally look to future

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

December 07, 2017 06:35 PM

Let’s make this most important point first: Peter Karmanos should have and deserves the fervent and genuine appreciation of Carolina Hurricanes fans for bringing the team here and keeping it here. None of this, the good times and the bad, would have happened without him.

Karmanos took a leap of faith coming to the Triangle, jumping into a building that was only weeks away from starting construction, navigating all of the conflicts and issues with N.C. State, and doing his best in recent years to fund a struggling team in an increasingly expensive league while losing his silent partner.

And he was amply rewarded for his troubles with a Stanley Cup, a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame and a lovely return on his initial $47.5 million investment, even if the reported $500 million purchase price apparently includes the assumption of some of the millions of dollars in debt Karmanos ran up over the last few years.

All that said, this is a glorious day. He finally has an agreement in place to sell the team, even if there are still more hurdles to clear, and he’ll still be a minority partner. And to someone who isn’t Quebecor. Pardon, Quebec.

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Dallas businessman Thomas Dundon, who made his money in subprime auto loans, has pledged to keep the team here, although such promises are always fungible. Karmanos himself promised when he bought the Hartford Whalers in 1994 to keep the team in Connecticut for four years. He moved them here after three.

The indecision and uncertainty surrounding Karmanos’ increasingly tenuous personal finances held this franchise hostage for far too long. His absentee ownership – for almost 20 years, he promised to move himself or his business to Raleigh in some capacity and never did – kept the Hurricanes from making the inroads in the community they should have long ago. And the force of his personality and penchant for pile-driving his foot into his mouth always made for interesting times for those who had to work for him and deal with him on a daily basis.

It’s the latter part of this that makes the fact that he’s staying on in some capacity so compelling. He’s used to being in charge, to say the least. In 2013, when Karmanos finally retired from Compuware, the software company he founded, the breakup was far from amicable. He publicly feuded with the company’s new management team, which eventually terminated his $600,000 per year consulting job and $4.1 million in stock options. Karmanos sued over the loss of his severance and won a $16.5 million settlement in arbitration, but the whole affair was sordid and ugly, played out in Detroit’s society pages.

In Chuck Greenberg’s failed bid to buy the team, ownership would have transferred completely to Greenberg’s group. What role Karmanos will play under Dundon’s majority ownership remains the most fascinating of the unanswered questions surrounding the sale.

Regardless, Dundon brings two attributes to the franchise which Karmanos could not: Money and a new perspective.

The payroll ranks 30th out of 31 teams – less, even, than the expansion Vegas Golden Knights – and would be 27th even if the massive contract extensions for Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce already had taken effect. While the Hurricanes have upgraded in some areas, like scouting, so much of the operation is in desperate need of investment, from the roster to a new practice rink to game presentation and other fan amenities. Dundon can provide that.

As for the perspective, Dundon, like Karmanos, is used to running his own business and doing things his way. What exactly that is, we’ll have to find out. He is at least willing to say all the right things about keeping the team here, but no professional franchise is sustainable at these levels of attendance and corporate support. (Greenberg’s failure to attract more local investment, one of the reasons his bid fell apart, is worrisome on a general level.) Some of that has to do with the team’s dismal performance over the past nine years, but the uncertainty about its future has certainly played a part.

So what Dundon brings, most of all, is a fresh start. The for-sale sign can come down. Dundon’s management team, whoever that ends up being, can start to plan for the next 20 years instead of the next seven months. And fans will have to get to know a new owner and figure out what that means for the future of hockey in the Triangle and see where things go from there.

At the moment, all we have is a name and an agreement and a lot of questions. But that’s better than the way things have been with the Hurricanes, and for the first time in a long time, there’s reason to look forward with optimism.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock