So sad: First Jon and Kate, now Koules and Barrie in Tampa

Guess we can add "divorce court judge" to the many jobs of Gary Bettman.

Tampa Bay Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie are scheduled to meet with Bettman today, and the St. Pete Times reports that the intent is for the commissioner to "determine which one of them will have the authority to make decisions for the franchise."

Koules and Barrie will no doubt sit on separate couches, claim they want to do what's best for the kids, and ensure everyone that they don't hate each other, over the deafening sound of grinding teeth ...

From the Times:

Koules and Barrie have long denied any hint of boardroom brawling. They have talked and acted as if they are moving in unison, and dismiss anyone who suggests otherwise as a misguided critic. Yet numerous people inside the organization and around the Tampa Bay business community have painted a much different portrait of the ownership group during recent interviews with Times beat writer Damian Cristodero.

They tell stories of various indiscretions, some minor and some serious, in the offices of the St. Pete Times Forum. They hint at money woes and personality clashes. They suggest this is a franchise in disarray, and one whose brand is being devalued in the eyes of fans and sponsors.

And so, as embarrassing as it might seem to have the commissioner of the league playing peacemaker between millionaires, the time is right. This is an opportunity to get turned back in a proper direction.

This should be the moment that Bettman hands control to Barrie.

Barrie's the logical choice; and, in the end, this is all a positive move for the franchise.

The real pisser in this situation is the apparent failure of Koules, whom I have respect for as a marketer and whose out-of-the-box thinking was something I felt could benefit the League.

For whatever the reason, he went from the man behind "Saw" to a horror show in the owner's suite.

The way John Romano of the Times puts it, Koules is the man responsible for the smoldering mess that is the Lightning, having made more of the day-to-day decisions than his estranged partner. His rumored plans for the team, from the Times:

The talk is that Koules wants to keep Lawton as GM, wants to trade Lecavalier to get out from under his $85 million contract and wants to pare the payroll to the low $40 million range. Barrie is not as solidly behind Lawton, wants to build around Lecavalier and is in favor of signing some free agents to get the payroll closer to $50 million.

Of the two courses, Barrie's plan is the one with the best chance of rescuing the team in the long run. Vincent Lecavalier is a remarkable player, a franchise cornerstone; unless the franchise is now destitute (and lord knows that's a rumor flying around the hockey world right now), Lecavalier is the guy who build around and not the guy you trade for building blocks.

Unless, of course, he wants out ...

Mirtle smelled a rat with this ownership group before a single game was played, and we had our usual back-and-forth about it. My take at the time wasn't that Koules and Barrie were a surefire success, but rather that prejudging their ownership was unfair: "Let's give Koules and Barrie a chance to flop before we kick sand in their face."

That said, Mirtle went to the beach this morning:

Now the team's ridiculous owners are headed to the principal's office to sort out their differences, and the outcome of that business will determine the Lightning's course in the near term. But you have to worry about the franchise's financial health given we've heard so much about how underfunded it is even with both Koules and Barrie at the helm, and on the ice, there's little reason for optimism depending on how free agency goes.

Regardless of Bettman's decision, this very well could be the next NHL franchise put into bankruptcy - and not in the distant future - and it could also very well be the fourth target for Jim Balsillie's crack legal team.

It's been a textbook example of how not to run a sports franchise, and there aren't a lot of positives for the few, proud remaining fans. It could get uglier before it gets better, and we've already seen a heavy dose of ugly in Tampa Bay.

This story triggered the Balsillie Reflex for both Mirtle and the Toronto Sun, which is expected. It's also a separate issue from another point Mirtle makes, which is that this franchise could very well end up in bankruptcy. It's possible, based on several rumblings we've heard.

The sad truth is that these morons have managed to ruin the brand in the span of a year, to the point where attendance has plummeted and a Canadian financial planner is calling the market "a disaster" ... as well as contraction bait.

It shouldn't come to that. Tampa Bay isn't Phoenix in any way, shape or form. It isn't a failing market based on demographics, consumer base or other factors like location of the arena.

It's a hockey town with dedicated fans that have been unfortunately jaded by blundering ownership. You know, sort of like Chicago was for a while.

Like Jon and Kate said last night on their train-wreck of a reality show: You just have to do what's best for the family. With this divorce in Tampa, the Lightning may be able to let the healing begin.

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