Several former Whalers are signed to long-term deals with the Hurricanes. Paul Ranheim signs for $2 million over the next three seasons; defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn signs a three-year, $5 million deal; defenseman Glen Wesley signs a five-year deal worth $12.5 million; and right wing Robert Kron signs a four-year extension valued at $5.5 million.
June 22: the NHL releases the names of players available to the Nashville Predators in the upcoming expansion draft. The Hurricanes expose former Whalers Jeff Daniels, Kevin Dineen, Kent Manderville, Paul Ranheim, Steven Rice, Kevin Smyth, Marek Malik and Manny Legace. Around the league, there are so many former Whalers exposed you could build an entire team out of them. Sean Burke, Peter Sidorkiewicz, Jason Muzzatti, Kay Whitmore, Randy Cunneyworth, Mark Janssens, Jocelyn Lemieux, Robert Petrovicky, James Patrick, Patrick Poulin, Darren Turcotte, Zarley Zalapski, Nick Kypreos, Jeff Brown, Ted Drury, Derek King...it could be 1995 all over again. The Predators surprise analysts by taking Jeff Daniels, who played 10 games for Hartford in 1996-97.
Rumblings about arena delays and cost overruns in Raleigh escalate into full-scale clamorings. The building is behind schedule, according to the News and Observer, because of design changes and a severely wet spring. "According to architects, the arena can be done on time. But with so many variables -- including potential weather problems, unforeseen construction delays and the continued squabbling over funding -- no one can say when it will be done, a scary prospect for the Canes."
Local editorials criticize the Centennial Authority, the committee that operates the arena, for "inexcusably" conducting back-room negotiations with the Hurricanes. The Canes, who have already put $20 million into the arena, now say they'll put up another $20 million for overruns, with a few conditions: they want additional control over naming rights and other arena revenue streams, currently held by North Carolina State, which initiated the project as a home for the Wolfpack basketball team. The Canes also want land outside the building for a practice facility and a larger say on the arena committee. Authority members have balked at giving the Canes more control over the building, no matter how much money the team contributes. However, they also don't want to go back to taxpayers -- who have contributed $90 million toward the $152 million cost already -- for more cash. The cost of the arena was originally pegged at $66 million.
"This much is absolute," says the News and Observer: "All negotiations with the Hurricanes from now on should be held in public. Let the building's major investors, the people of this region and state, see just what the team is demanding. Let them see what the authority that is supposed to serve them is willing to give up. Let the public thereby review the deal and be given a chance to offer their views. Because, if the authority's past performance is any indication, it can use all the help it can get."
"I will say for everybody's sake, we're at the point that it's not time to posture on the building, whether it's the construction company, the architects, the Centennial Authority, the Hurricanes, N.C. State -- whoever is involved," says general manager Jim Rutherford. "Now is the time to make a deal, or this building will not be done on time."
June 25: the NHL board of governors meets in executive session, and word emerges that it is primarily to chastise Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos for what they perceive as an "outrageous" offer to restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov (see: January, 1998). But Karmanos claims that the front-end loaded offer made perfect sense for his franchise, which has vast room for improvement in revenue (apparently from the early retail sales they were willing to give up; see: June, 1997), and that it made no sense at all for Detroit to match the offer because they have virtually maximized their revenue.
The Hurricanes make news -- and further chagrin Whalers fans -- by signing unrestricted free agent Ron Francis to a four-year, $20.8 million deal. Francis, one of the most underrated -- and underpaid -- players in the NHL, was, in many ways, the heart of the Hartford Whalers. From 1981-91, "Ronnie Franchise" was their on-ice leader, top center and fan favorite. But the Whalers traded him, along with Ulf Samuelsson and defenseman Grant Jennings, to Pittsburgh in March, 1991, for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker, a move engineered by former Hartford general manager Ed Johnston and then team-owner Richard Gordon. Many still believe that the trade was the beginning of the end for the Whalers, and the faithful are outraged, feeling Francis, whom many consider the greatest Whaler in history, has betrayed them. The Hurricanes hope that Francis -- still the franchise's all-time leader in games, goals, assists, points and hat tricks -- can help rebuild the franchise that drafted him in 1981.
Reaction in the press is surprisingly mixed, criticism largely focused on the belief that Karmanos has overpaid for a player who will be 39 at the end of his contract. Even general manager Jim Rutherford is quoted saying that the Hurricanes are overpaying Francis, mostly by giving him the fourth year. The Buffalo Sabres, the only other team in serious contention for Francis, stopped at $15 million for three years. But "with unrestricted free agents, either overpay and get them or you just don't get them," Rutherford says.
"This is not a 'commitment to winning,' as teams try to portray big-splash free agent signings," says Dane Huffman in the News and Observer. "This is a commitment to mediocrity. Spending money isn't the way to field a good team; spending money intelligently is. And this move just screams of a short-sighted approach targeted at adding a few wins -- and a few fans -- over the coming years at the price of long-term success....The Hurricanes simply took a puck to the head on this one."
"No, he is not worth $5 million a season," writes Steve Politi in the News and Observer. "But is it your money? Owner Peter Karmanos is worth about a billion dollars. Hockey is his hobby, and if he wants to spend millions on a team that's already losing $30 million, that's his business."
One day after signing Francis, the Hurricanes dip into the free agent market again and land injury-plagued defenseman Al Iafrate. The 32-year-old Iafrate is a four-time All-Star plagued by back and knee problems. Traded by Boston to the Sharks after missing the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons due to knee injuries, Iafrate played just 59 games spanning two seasons in San Jose, tallying eight goals and 16 assists for the Sharks. Iafrate's base salary will be $300,000 with incentives for games played and level of production.
Arena woes continue, as reports emerge that the project is $20 million over budget and five months behind schedule. The Centennial Authority, which is building the facility, points to a redesign that took six months but was necessary to upgrade the building for the NHL team, which arrived in Raleigh after construction had begun. The original opening date was to coincide with the Special Olympics World Games in the summer of 1999 -- a goal the authority has since abandoned. "The Carolina Hurricanes are probably the best thing that has happened to this building," Ray Rouse, chairman of the authority's design and construction committee, says. "The problem is when they came along. We changed the shape, the size, the design, everything." Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer claims the authority has lost its credibility and should scale back the basketball and hockey arena instead of asking for more money. An offer by the Hurricanes to contribute another $5 million and to lend the authority up to $20 million more, to be repaid out of arena revenue, is tabled by the authority, which feels that the hockey team, in exchange for its contribution, is asking for too much control over the arena authority.
WTCK, the Canes' Greensboro radio affiliate, announces that it will not carry the team's games in 1998-99. The station says that it informed the team in June that it would be dropping its sports-talk format and would no longer broadcast the games; the program director for the station says "We never heard back from anybody." Representatives of the team claim to be "in discussions" with the station, but it appears that the team's games will not be carried on radio in their home city.
Stu Grimson, the team's enforcer and a fan favorite in Hartford as well as Carolina, asks the Hurricanes to trade him or to renegotiate his contract. Grimson has two years left on his current deal, which would pay him $500,000 a season. General manager Jim Rutherford says he will not renegotiate the deal, citing team policy to reopen deals only when the player has one year remaining. The following day, Grimson, along with defenseman Kevin Haller, is traded to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for defenseman David Karpa and a fourth-round pick in 2000. Karpa will make $900,000 in 1998-99, but Rutherford also announces that the team will probably buy out the contract of right wing Steve Rice; combined with moving Grimson's and Haller's salaries, the moves will save about $1 million in payroll.
Dean Jordan, the new president of the Canes' holding company, announces several policy changes for the coming season. The team will no longer release season ticket numbers and will not set goals for packages sold. As previously announced, the black curtains, lowered over the ends of the upper deck of the Greensboro Coliseum to cut capacity, will now block out the entire upper deck, cutting seating to 10-12,000; the new twist is that the curtains will not go back up, even if the team could sell more tickets. Jordan claims this is an operational decision; you can't provide quality service in the arena if you don't know whether the crowd will be 19,000 or fewer than 10,000. But most surprising to fans, Jordan says the team will no longer give away free tickets. In 1997-98, the team handed out free ducats as fast as they could print them; speculation ran that Peter Karmanos had changed the name of his company from Compuware to "Comp You"-ware. The rationale was that if they could expose people to the sport, they would eventually shell out money for tickets. But Jordan says it is better to have 5,000 paying spectators. "As far as I'm concerned, there will be zero tickets given away," he says. "At some point in time, you've got to start establishing value. We might as well start establishing it sooner than later." Which of course is what Jim Rutherford said in May, 1997, in announcing ticket prices and saying they would not discount their product.
With delays and costs on the new Raleigh arena spiraling, a strange game of brinksmanship begins. Negotiators for the authority tell the Hurricanes that the arena will not be completed in time for the team's 1999-2000 season unless the Canes agree to pay an additional $14 million toward the cost overruns, which members of the group blame primarily on a costly redesign of the project demanded by the hockey team. Further, the authority gives the Hurricanes just 10 days to pony up the cash. Canes President Dean Jordan says the team might decide it makes more financial sense to remain in Greensboro for another season rather than pay the extra $14 million to the authority. "It's terrifying to try to figure out how to come up with $14 million," Jordan said. "It paints a totally different picture of our business plan when you've got to come up with that kind of money, and not only that, carry interest on it." Jordan admits, however, that the Hurricanes are running out of options and could be forced to pay the additional money to the authority.
Terrible thing, when you think you have a deal and the conditions keep changing...
September 1: Al Iafrate, signed as a free agent in July, announces his retirement. Iafrate had hoped to resurrect his all-star career in Carolina, but he tells the Canes that his injured knees were not holding up.
Faced with a deadline, the Canes and North Carolina State University boost their contributions to the new arena's $26 million overrun. The Canes offer $8 million more, in return for significant concessions, to help get the behind-schedule arena open in September, 1999. NCSU increases its pledge from $5 million to $6 million, and the arena authority plans to seek an additional $7 million in bank loans. But the team's contribution is contingent on the city bridging the gap. And some city leaders question the wisdom of the authority's decision to grant the team's 10 conditions--which range from reduced rent on land for a practice rink to the authority's agreement to take a basement office and give up control of two luxury suites--for giving the $8 million. "I want to get the arena done, but I don't want to give it away to the Hurricanes," Raleigh council member John Odom says. "They come up with a laundry list to do--and they're the problem. That doesn't sit well with me. We're building this for them." If the city and county agree to chip in $5 million more for the project, their joint contribution would total about $75 million-- by far the biggest investment in the arena.
September 2: As expected, the Hurricanes buy out the final year of the contract of right wing Steven Rice, who had played the last four years with the franchise. Rice totaled two goals and four assists in 47 games for the Canes in 1997-98, missing six games because of injury and 29 games as a healthy scratch. He signed with the Whalers as a free agent in 1994 and had his best season in 1996-97, when he recorded career highs of 78 games, 21 goals and 35 points.
Arturs Irbe, the Latvian goalie who played in the 1994 NHL All-Star Game, signs a one-year contract with the Hurricanes. Irbe, 31, spent the 1997-98 season with Vancouver, going 14-11-6 with 2.23 goals-against average. Irbe claims his only reservation about signing with the Canes had to do with their jerseys. "I've never been a big fan of communists or red jerseys," he says. "It's nothing personal toward Carolina, but I never thought I'd come back to red. It was pretty tough to get away from CCCP. My country suffered so much under Soviet rule."
By a 5-2 vote, the Raleigh city council approves what is hoped will be the last financing piece for the new arena. The council agrees to let the arena authority use up to $5.2 million from a construction-bond debt reserve fund to round out a financing package to cover the arena's $26 million budget shortfall. The reserve will have to be replenished with future county hotel tax revenue, boosting Raleigh and Wake County's joint contribution to the project to $75 million. Voting no were mayor Tom Fetzer and councilor Julie Shea Graw, a former Wolfpack track star who calls the arena financing "a fleecing" that was "reminiscent of carpetbagging days." The deal must receive the Wake County commissioners' approval to become final.
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