Boca Raton businessmen Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel officially took over as majority owners of the Florida Panthers this afternoon. They were introduced at a news conference on BankAtlantic Center's club level attended by Panthers employees and Sunrise city officials.
They become the third majority owners in the hockey team’s history and perhaps most important to fans, wrest control of team decision-making from Alan Cohen. Viner and Siegel, who become chairman and CEO respectively, have increased their investment in the team. Here's a letter Viner and Siegel wrote to fans about the purchase.
Cohen's stake shrinks, but he still retains a sizable portion -- just not the decision making. The transaction still needs NHL approval.
Cohen led the group that bought the Panthers for $101 million in 2001. The group was introduced with much fanfare, too, in the lobby of BankAtlantic Center. Cohen and his partners spoke about how they'd decided over some neighborhood barbecues to rescue a community asset and build the Panthers into a winning team.
But during Cohen's tenure, the team missed the playoffs every year, endured coaching and general manager changes and traded some of its best players. Even the group of partners grew fractious. So by this year, Cohen was ready, some say, to move on.
His attempts to merge the Panthers with a public company this summer fell through, but he'd clearly grown tired of the losing both financially and on the ice. He told me in an email last week when Viner and Siegel proposed taking control, he happily accepted. Here's what he said in a statement today:
"I want to thank Stu and Cliff for taking up this challenge. This is a great market and they deserve a winner. The team will be very successful when that happens. I had a lot of fun and I know I leave the organization in much better shape than it was when I took it over."
In fact, everyone was as gracious as could be about Cohen's tenure, however, they didn't hesitate to talk about a new era, an historic day for the franchise, a new way of doing business, accountability, discipline, accessibility and defending your actions.
"The guy's heart was always in the right place," Siegel said of Cohen. "He put a lot of devotion into this organization and still is a major partner here. We really want to thank him. Whether you view it as a success or not, obviously it wasn't a success on the ice. But we look to move forward."
When I spoke with Viner and Siegel last week they stressed they're changing the culture of the franchise, holding the coach, general manager and all employees accountable.
"We really have not unfortunately had a winning culture here for quite a while, just evidenced by the success of the team on the ice," Siegel said. "And I think the biggest thing we're going to through that professionalism and organization is really try to build a culture of winning here that we can sustain over a long period of time. It's not going to be easy, but we need to create that here."
Siegel added, "As much as we like to think we've been the ultimate professional organization, I think that in some ways, from a leadership standpoint we may have failed in that."
And this: "I think Alan had the right intentions. He put a lot of money into this thing, a lot of heart and soul into this," Siegel said. "In the end, obviously, we didn't have a winning culture here."
Siegel said where Cohen's reticence hurt him was that fans made assumptions about him.
"He wasn't out here accessible to fans, so they made their own judgments," Siegel said. "If you can only judge a team by what it's doing on the ice, and we're not doing well on the ice, then you have to judge how the organization is."
Viner and Siegel vowed change, accessibility and accountability.
"There is one thing that will change" Viner said. "Communication. There was very little communication between hockey ops and management, the president and ownership. There was very little communication. Now the lines of communication and are wide open and going to be open."
Viner and Siegel said they will be available to talk with fans and listen to their concerns. They also vowed to explain their actions.
"If we make moves that appear irrational, at least we'll explain to them why we did it as best we can," Siegel said.
You can watch the Panthers press conference introducing the new owners here: