Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lightning electricuted by own stupidity

By Rick Morris

As a native Clevelander and somebody who grew up through the horrible mismanagement of Ted Stepien (God rest his soul – can I say that without being a hypocrite as I criticize his ownership harshly?), references to him bring a sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome out in me. His reign in Cleveland was the feces sandwich that bracketed the fun “Miracle of Richfield” days of the mid-to-late 1970s and the Price-Daugherty-Nance-Hot Rod Cavs of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. He’s pretty much unique in the history of major professional sports in that a rule was created as a result of his failures that is designed to protect owners from themselves. I would need years of therapy to recount in full what this man put me through in my youth. World B. Free will never have to pay for a beer in this town simply because he offered us a glimmer of hope and entertainment amidst the smelly wreckage of the Stepien days.

So SI hockey writer Allen Muir couldn’t have lightly dropped the Stepien reference when he compared the new owners of the Tampa Bay NHL franchise to the old Cavaliers owner. That comparison is pretty much reserved for the bottom of the barrel in terms of effectiveness. But darned if these Oren Koules and Len Barrie aren’t doing their best to emulate the laughingstock of pro sports from a quarter-century ago.

The firing of Barry Melrose will take its excrable place on a short list of the most cowardly moves in the history of pro sports. To bring in this longtime TV figure, long removed from his stint on the Kings’ bench – highlighted by a 1993 run to the Stanley Cup Finals – and hand him the keys to a fragile yet valuable ship only to blow him out not a fifth of the way through his maiden season is pathetic in the extreme.

Previous ownership had overseen disastrous drafting over the course of the last decade, which left this team ill-suited to build on the success of the 2004 Stanley Cup title. Left in place after the start of rebuilding was one of the greatest players of this generation, Vincent Lecavalier and one of the best of the next generation in super-rookie Steve Stamkos. Promising young goalie Mike Smith and explosive scorer Martin St. Louis were some of the other main pieces on what is still a very top-heavy team.

Mix in a coach who had not worked in that role in well over a decade and needed time to adjust to the modern game on the bench and this front office had an obligation to all involved to give him the time to turn around what was truly a doormat operation last season. But instead he gets fired at 5-7-4, a record that proved they were what Dennis Green thought they were. As our good friend Russ Cohen at Hockeyology pointed out, they may have been on their way to getting things moving in the right direction – but the pencil-necked dweebs in ownership had other thoughts.

With the dramatic success of the Rays this past season, the Lightning are now firmly entrenched in a distant fourth place in that market behind the American League Champions, the Bucs and Magic (who, despite being based in Orlando, have a significant following in Tampa-St. Pete). The Lightning have completely undone the progress they made in building a significant following in the Sun Belt, no easy task. By their own moves, they are accelerating a death spiral that will inevitably end with (first) Lecavalier ending his career in another uniform, (second) Stamkos reaching his potential in another uniform and (third) the remaining team eventually wearing other uniforms under a new identity in a new city. Then the jerks who own this team will be the problem of Kansas City or Hamilton. Enjoy!

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