Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ ownership uncertainty looms over team

Players are already skating at Raleigh Center Ice, training camp is only a few weeks away, and there’s still a lot of old business left for the Carolina Hurricanes before the new season.

Neither Eric Staal nor Cam Ward has a new contract, which leaves both in limbo heading into the final season of their deals. Talks between general manager Ron Francis and Rick Curran, the agent for both, have been amicable but without resolution.

“We’re comfortable letting this go down the road a little bit,” Francis said Tuesday.

While Francis denied the uncertainty surrounding the team’s ownership is hampering negotiations, the fact remains the Hurricanes have done very little this summer while owner Peter Karmanos continues to seek a buyer for the franchise.

Since Karmanos approved the mega-millions buyout of Alexander Semin’s contract in June – admittedly, no small decision – everything else has been quiet, with no free-agent reinforcements added. The Hurricanes didn’t have to re-sign (or trade) Staal and Ward this summer, but it was the easiest time to do it. Now, Staal’s situation in particular hangs over the season like a cloud – just like the potential sale of the team has for a year.

Karmanos announced last September he would like to sell some or all of his majority interest in the team but wanted to continue to run the franchise – to sell his cake and eat it too.

At least one group of local investors was considering putting together a bid, but apparently lost interest because of Karmanos’ insistence on retaining control. Team president Don Waddell confirmed Karmanos and Hurricanes executives have met with other potential buyers who went as far as signing non-disclosure agreements, but obviously nothing has come of it so far. Nor is anything expected anytime soon.

“We’ve entertained some people here, but as we sit here right now, there’s nobody I can identify and say it’s a strong group to buy the team or a piece of it from Mr. Karmanos,” Waddell said Tuesday.

It is Karmanos’ prerogative to get the best deal for the franchise but the longer this drags on, the more danger it presents for the team’s future here.

There remains a bright future. Waddell said that even though suite sales and corporate sponsorships are essentially flat, he expects revenue to grow this season and the season-ticket base to increase for the first time in six years, thanks to a ticket sales staff that grew from nine to 32 people since Waddell was hired last year.

That’s tangible and laudable progress after a 23 percent drop in season tickets a year ago, but it comes against a backdrop of on-ice inaction and, perhaps more troubling, persistent rumors linking the Hurricanes with expansion candidate Quebec City.

Even though the NHL has been steadfastly against franchise relocation, and it seems short-sighted and self-defeating to allow a team to move in the middle of an expansion process that could generate $1 billion for the owners, Karmanos included, there’s a worst-case scenario for Hurricanes fans.

That would involve the league giving an expansion team only to Las Vegas, allowing Quebec to purchase and relocate an Eastern Conference team and going with 31 teams until Seattle or another western city gets its act together, thereby avoiding the conference imbalance adding an expansion team in Quebec would create, with 14 teams in the Western Conference and 16 in the East currently.

The Hurricanes aren’t the only candidate to move, but they’re the only team with a for-sale sign in the yard at the moment, and Quebec would likely pay a premium for the franchise. While it’s unlikely, it’s not impossible as long as the team remains unsold.

“It’s a process,” Waddell said. “Ideally, as (Karmanos) has said, he’d like to start an exit strategy but it’s not a desperation sale. He doesn’t need to sell it. He’s 72 years old and he wants to have a succession plan.”

The longer Karmanos is searching for a buyer – one willing to meet the odd precondition that he remain in control – the more the uncertainty will impact not just Staal’s contract but every aspect of the team as time goes on.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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