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Florida Panthers players celebrate their overtime win over the New York Islanders with center Denis Malgin (62) who scored the winning goal in an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. (Joe Skipper/AP)
Florida Panthers players celebrate their overtime win over the New York Islanders with center Denis Malgin (62) who scored the winning goal in an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Sunrise, Fla. (Joe Skipper/AP)

Wall Street trader and his ex-army friends help Florida to be all it can be Add to ...

One of the first things Vinnie Viola did after becoming a billionaire was buy a hockey team.

It wasn’t just any team. It was the Florida Panthers – at the time one of the biggest basket-case franchises in professional sports, after bleeding red ink for decades and making the playoffs just once in the previous 12 seasons.

The son of a truck driver, Viola grew up modestly in Brooklyn. At 18, he enrolled at West Point, joined the U.S. Army and became an officer in the elite 101st Airborne Division.

When he returned to civilian life in the early 1980s, Viola dived into the trading pits on Wall Street. From there, it was a rags-to-riches rise.

He went from a fledgling assistant to a high-frequency trading mogul. His revolutionary electronic market making firm Virtu Financial did so well that it drew the ire of critics and regulators who said it was skewing the market by assuming almost no risk.

Virtu made Viola one of the richest men in the world, to the point he could upgrade from New York Rangers season-ticket holder to NHL owner. And he was part of a trend.

The flood of money from the high-tech, hedge-fund and financial sectors into pro sports has been relentless in recent years. In the NBA, most ownership changes since 2010 have ushered in these new-money billionaires, who have brought with them a different way of doing things. Sometimes it has worked (the Golden State Warriors) and sometimes it hasn’t (the Philadelphia 76ers).

The shift is less pronounced in hockey, but it is coming. In addition to Viola, there is now Jeff Vinik in Tampa, Josh Harris in New Jersey and Andrew Barroway in Arizona.

All four NHL franchises have had considerable lows: bankruptcies, playoff misses and front-office turmoil. But their failings also made them ready targets for calculated risk takers looking to buy a turnaround project.

What this new cadre of owners has in common is an out-of-the-box approach to building an NHL team, one that is open to reliance on non-hockey people and unusual ideas.

No one has gone as far in this new, uncertain direction as the Panthers.

When Viola and minority partner Doug Cifu bought the Panthers three years ago, they knew the team was a distressed asset. The franchise was in financial ruin, losing tens of millions of dollars a year, and its arena was in a distant suburb, on the edge of a swamp.

But few realized how bad the situation was.

Giveaways were everywhere. Sales staff were dumping tickets at gas stations and restaurants. Opposing teams were offered free Panthers tickets at a steakhouse the night before a game. At various points, the team allowed free entry to games with a valid Florida driver’s licence or $10 in used scratch tickets.

“You can basically get Florida Panthers tickets for pieces of scrap paper now,” Yahoo Sports wrote of the lottery promotion, in early 2014. “No word on whether they will also take buttons, feathers, shoelaces, hugs or cut-up bits of sponge.”

Some of the Panthers most outrageous deals were corporate discounts. Incoming management was floored to learn of one such agreement with a nearby timeshare called Vacation Village, on the edge of the Everglades, where new players and employees could stay when they first arrived in town.

Some abused it, living there rent-free for years. In exchange, Vacation Village received tickets or sponsorships.

“They’re all true,” Matt Caldwell, the Panthers new president and chief executive officer, said of the stories. “They’re not just rumours. I’m telling you I lived it. Tickets at Subway. At a steakhouse. You’d walk up to the host, and there’d be like 100 tickets laying there. It looked terrible. But we ripped all that out.”

“The team was almost functionally irrelevant in the marketplace,” Cifu said.

Caldwell is a good example of Viola’s new-school approach to running an NHL team. He is 36 years old. He is an overachiever: a charismatic, all-American type from Staten Island who quarterbacked his high-school football team and has a law degree and an MBA. He spent five years as a captain with the U.S. Army fighting in Iraq and Kosovo, then became a vice-president at Goldman Sachs.

Viola met him on Wall Street, and he quickly became part of his inner circle. So when Viola realized that the Panthers were an unmitigated disaster, he asked Caldwell to hop on a plane to join two other young interlopers named Eric Joyce and Steve Werier who were already on the ground.

Caldwell didn’t hesitate.

“He’s very inspirational,” he said of his billionaire boss. “I left a great job at Goldman Sachs because I believe in what he’s doing.”

Many in the hockey world remain skeptical of the Panthers front office. One term floating around NHL circles about the newcomers is “the army guys,” a reference to those who came from the outside the sport and were elevated to key roles in a controversial shakeup in May.

Caldwell became CEO. Joyce, who has a West Point degree in systems engineering and a master’s from Harvard, was named assistant GM. So was Werier, a 33-year-old, hockey-obsessed lawyer from Winnipeg who is a Viola family friend.

While the organization has obvious military influences thanks to Caldwell, Joyce – also a former U.S. Army captain – and other Viola hires, the team’s fundamental ethos has become one of Wall Street.

Joyce and Werier are using analytics to help drive hockey decisions, something that resonates with Viola and Cifu, who made their fortunes finding inefficiencies in the stock market using technology. A year before they bought the team, Joyce – then teaching at West Point – had explained to Viola how the NHL lagged behind other leagues in analytics.

That led to one of his first hires: Brian MacDonald – a bright young math professor Joyce knew from the military academy – as the team’s director of analytics. The Panthers also added two Vancouver-based analytics writers, Cam Lawrence and Josh Weissbock, as consultants.

The impact on the roster has been considerable. Florida dealt away many of its players who didn’t rank well in new stats like Corsi, which measure puck possession. Gone are Dave Bolland, Jimmy Hayes, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson, among others. Incoming were Jaromir Jagr, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle.

Sixteen games into the season, the Panthers are the best possession team in the league.

Behind closed doors, however, the new approach caused upheaval.

Florida fired long-time amateur scouting director Scott Luce in May after conflicts with the new regime. Dozens of other staff were also shown the door. The move that stunned hockey people was shifting Dale Tallon from general manager to a president role, less than a month after the Panthers set a franchise record with 103 points.

Six months later, Cifu argues that the unorthodox decisions were part of bringing a Wall Street approach to hockey.

“People went crazy,” Cifu said. “They didn’t understand what we did. We’re trying to take all the functions of a great hockey team and give them to people who can do a great job with them. That’s the organization we wanted to create. It’s the way we run Virtu. We’re not really big on titles.”

The Panthers’ new owners also believe that disharmony can be a plus.

“That’s one of the things Vinnie encourages more than anything,” Joyce explained. “He calls it positive friction. He doesn’t want people to sit around and hold hands at the Florida Panthers.”

While the Panthers have improved on the ice, Viola has lost more than $100-million in his first three years.

Attendance plummeted when Caldwell nixed freebies, falling to an NHL low of 11,000 fans a game. Meanwhile, Viola poured money into changing the franchise’s cheapskate reputation, investing in the team plane, workout facilities and the number of staff available to players.

“My wife was very worried at first,” Cifu admitted. “We were writing pretty massive cheques to stabilize the franchise. That’s not a lot of fun.”

But players have noticed. Yandle, for example, spurned more lucrative offers to sign a huge deal last summer in free agency. And Viola quickly won the Panthers over during the playoffs last spring by going wild in the stands when his team faced the New York Islanders.

“Vinnie is our seventh man on the ice,” team captain Derek MacKenzie said. “You can tell he’s passionate. I think that’s what makes him who he is.”

The Panthers had the NHL’s biggest attendance increase last season, thanks to tripling their season-ticket holder base under Viola. They also boosted their payroll significantly, something unheard of under previous regimes.

They have tried to do their homework on how NHL teams have risen from the ashes in the past. Cifu met with Vinik and the Lightning to discuss that franchise’s rebirth. Caldwell read in-depth business studies on the Chicago Blackhawks – winners of three of the past six Stanley Cups – and lists Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille as a particularly helpful ally.

While old-school types around the league still grumble about what happened to Tallon and Luce, Cifu believes that his team is built to try to win a Stanley Cup.

“We didn’t do this recklessly,” he said. “It’s not like we hired a bunch of PhDs from Moneyball land and replaced all the old-school hockey guys. We tried to mix it up and put the best people in the best spots. … I think a new approach is a good thing for the sport. I really do.”

“Something had to change,” Caldwell added. “We couldn’t continue on the path the Panthers were going down – the franchise would have been bankrupt. It clearly needed something different.”

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