A year after movie and television producer Oren Koules and former NHL player Len Barrie teamed to purchase the Tampa Bay Lightning, their relationship is on the rocks.
Amid whispers that were circulated for weeks about an irreparable division between the Lightning owners, Barrie and Koules found themselves before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the league's New York headquarters yesterday, for a hearing to determine whether both would carry on in Tampa Bay or whether one would be forced out.
The NHL, however, would not say when the matter is expected to be resolved.
"Unfortunately, it's not something I can comment on," deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an e-mail. "Strict confidentiality order in place."
A source close to the issue expects Koules to persevere as the Lightning owner and Barrie to fade from the scene as the summer goes on.
But if Barrie prevails, another source indicated he has interest in hiring former Molson Coors Brewing Co. chief executive officer Dan O'Neill to help him run the struggling franchise that finished 29th in the 30-team league last season.
When asked if O'Neill's hiring is a possibility, Koules replied via e-mail yesterday: "Who knows?"
When he was with Molson, O'Neill was part of the Montreal Canadiens board of directors from 2002 to 2008, and also was a board member with the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said that even though the Lightning ownership situation is in flux, he continues to deal with Tampa Bay general manager Brian Lawton on possible trade discussions.
"I've read the stories, but when I want to talk to him about trades I talk to him, not their ownership," Burke said.
Both Koules and Barrie have denied there is a rift between the two. But according to the Tampa Tribune, the pair, who formed OK Hockey to purchase the Lightning a year ago, was less visible as the 2008-09 season developed, and that at a town hall meeting with the Lightning fans last month, only Koules and Lawton addressed the gathering, as Barrie did not attend.
The newspaper also suggested Koules was in favour of trading Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier, whose 11-year, $85-million (U.S.) contract extension kicks in on July 1, but Barrie wanted the star centre to remain with the Lightning.
Koules told The Globe and Mail yesterday that neither owner desires to deal Lecavalier.
Tampa Bay has the second-overall selection in the NHL entry draft in Montreal on Friday.