A Critical Turning Point in the Blues Ownership Saga?

By Jeff Quirin
NHL Hot Stove Associate Editor & St. Louis Blues Correspondent

Over a year has passed since the initial news that majority investor TowerBrook Capital Partners (TCP) was greatly reducing, or pulling out entirely, their stake in the St. Louis Blues. Nearly a year has passed since Chairman Dave Checketts announced that a deal solidifying the ownership structure would be in place by the end of the 2010 calendar year. Almost four months have passed since Checketts declared his intention to put the entire franchise on the market.

As of July 13th, 2011, the Blues, their AHL affiliate in Peoria and the lease to the Scottrade Center remain for sale.

A fact that may be no longer by the start of the 2011-12 NHL season.

TSN was first on the scene Tuesday. Reporting that at least four potential buyers have been identified. As reported by Dan O’Neill of the St. Louis Post Dispatch Wednesday, there are at least five serious bidders to purchase the the whole kit and kaboodle.

Robert Caporale, chairman of Game Plan LLC, the company retained to handle the sale of the team, said there has been a spike in activity over the past 10 days. Game Plan has identified five “very interested parties” in acquiring the National Hockey League team, potential buyers that are prepared to submit binding bids.

“Things are definitely heating up,” said Caporale, who said he expects the sale to take place before the start of the season. The Blues open the season Oct. 8 against Nashville at Scottrade Center.

Two suitors are easily identified.

Tom Stillman, a current minority owner, was the first to throw his hat in the ring earlier this year. Submitting an offer at a speculated value of $110 million directly to the NHL. This offer was rejected as it was around 50% below the Forbes estimated value of the franchise, $165 million, and even further below the rumored $180-$200 million Checketts and TCP are seeking.

Matthew Hulsizer, of the Phoenix Coyotes saga fame, recently withdrew his interest in the desert quagmire and has reportedly set his sights to the Blues according to Dave Shoalts of the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The remaining three are currently anyone’s best guess. Names may not be the point to key on, but rather the sudden increase in interest.

Jeremy Rutherford, the Blues beat writer for the Post Dispatch, reported last week that Checketts received an extension on a $120 million loan, used to purchase the team in 2006 from Bill Laurie, to allow for the sale process to develop and finalize. At that time Rutherford reference a Bloomberg.com article indicating there were three potential suitors.

1. Stillman
2. Unkown as of the July 6th article, now known to be Hulsizer.
3. Unknown

Two additional prospects have appeared in less than a weeks time. Were they there all along but kept on the down-low to see how other ventures played out? The Dallas Stars are close to closing out their own ownership instability chapter per posts from The Sporting News and the Stars SB Nation blog, Defending Big D.

According to Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, there is an interesting group of four players in the mix.

Two sources have confirmed that Chuck Greenberg has been approved as a potential buyer for the Stars.

While Vancouver businessman Tom Gaglardi is in an exclusive negotiating window and hopes to put in a signed purchase agreement soon, the process still will allow for anyone else to bid above Gaglardi’s price.

It is believed that other groups who have been approved to look at the books _ a group that includes local businessman Billy Quinn teaming with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a group led by Allen Americans owner Doug Miller and a group led by Detroit businessman Christopher T. Charlton _ could also put forth a bid that would be above that of Gaglardi’s.

Since Gaglardi has an exclusive window and could end up being the new owner in Dallas, are those on the outside now looking north?

Could Cuban be looking to work with locals like Stillman and his cohorts? If Hulsizer is interested in keeping Checketts around as a minority interest, would Cuban to work with those more familiar with St. Louis? Could the Detroit group make a bid? Miller is the Chairman and CEO of EXCO Resources, Inc. An oil and natural gas company who has been a contributor to Houston youth hockey for almost 20 years?

While many Blues fans would gravitate to Cuban (and rightfully so), the one to watch for may be Miller. His venture in to the Central Hockey League’s Allen Americans is owned by Top Shelf, LLC. A company Miller owns and operates with former Blues defenseman Steve Duchense.

Yes, its ok to start reaching for tinfoil hats. The connection may be far from conclusive evidence that Miller and Duchense may be one of the two unnamed bidders for the Blues, but there is certainly reason to assume there would be some interest. At least enough to kick the tires before getting in for a test drive.

The type of person or persons wanting to get involved in being a NHL owner don’t give up easily. If they want in the club, they’re going to work at getting in the club. Many have a passion and desire for the game, like Hulsizer or have stayed around the game after playing like Duchense. It is in their blood. If one door closes, they’re searching for the next.

Is there another cause for the sudden rush of interest beyond developments in Dallas?

As Andy Strickland of KFNS 590 and TrueHockey.com advised over the weekend, the asking price has been to high to bring “seal” close to “the deal”. Has TowerBrook finally put their foot down to lower expectations? Has Checketts come down closer to the Forbes evaluation or has interest from other buyers driven the value range up? The TSN report from Tuesday states “the source said the sale is expected to fetch in excess of the US$190 million paid by Terry Pegula for the Buffalo Sabres this past season.”

Either scenario is believable.

Given that O’Neill reported that the sale will be finalized before the home opener on October 8th, a critical turning point may been reached. A highly interested and motivated ownership group with a more flexible checkbook appears to be on the horizon and is ready to buy. But Blues fans will wait to see the outcome materialize in to solid fact before taking Carpole’s words to heart. It was about one year ago they we’re given 95% assurance that come the start of 2011 a replacement for TowerBrook would be in house. The ETA based on the latest developments puts Checketts original estimate roughly up to 10 months behind schedule.

Believe it when you see it.

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Thanks for reading. As always you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter: @618_STLBlues.