Buffalo Sabres owner B. Tom Golisano is actively looking to sell the team he has owned since 2003.
A source with knowledge of the situation said talks are still in the exploratory stage, but the source said the Sabres owner is listening and price points are being discussed.
"The Sabres are definitely in play," a source said, adding there is a very active group "with National Hockey League expertise" involved and that the group is in discussions about the price.
The NHL is aware of the talks and is concerned that the sale price might be lower than recently concluded franchise deals that saw teams sold for about $200 million. A source in New York said that’s a situation that has raised alarm flags in the NHL office as a price lower than $200 million would send the wrong signal about the relative worth of NHL franchises.
Most recently, the Tampa Bay Lightning were purchased for a reported $206 million in 2007. Golisano bought the Sabres out of bankruptcy in 2003 for a reported $20 million US and assumed debt for a total of $92 million.
Sources also say that Sabres minority partner Larry Quinn has engaged in separate preliminary solicitations to find a buyer and either Quinn or a representative working on his behalf has approached Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie about a possible majority stake in Sabres ownership. Balsillie is co-founder of Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry telephone and internet device.
The source said Quinn or his representative included a suggestion that the Sabres could play a portion of their home schedule in Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum. Balsillie has been attempting to purchase an NHL team and move it into Southern Ontario and has an agreement for management rights to Copps.
"We’re not shopping for a buyer – at all," Quinn told Sportsnet.ca’s Mark Spector from the NHL’s board of governors meetings in Florida. Quinn heard about the report while playing golf Monday morning and issued a quick statement denying the organization was in negotiations to sell the team.
But by Monday afternoon, Quinn wouldn’t rule out an eventual deal if the right offer comes along.
"We listen to things that people say to us, so I would say that over the course of the last, oh, three years since the lockout, there’s been a number of times where people call and say ‘I have this idea’ or ‘I want to buy it’, etc., etc.," He said. "We always listen, but we are not shopping the team and right now we’re not selling it.
"We have had, since the lockout … people have come to us, because let’s face it, we’re a club that’s done pretty well, we’re cash-flow positive, we’ve been I think a financial success, we’re in a medium-range market, where if someone were interested in joining the league, that would be a team they might be interested in.
"We have never sought out anybody, but I’m not going to lie and say we’ve never talked to anybody, because as I’ve said people have approached us from time to time, and we’re not shopping it."
A spokesman for Balsillie would not comment. However it’s known that the Balsillie group looked at purchasing the Sabres last season and walked away, presumably because terms of the Sabres lease made it difficult to move the team. Around that time the Sabres posted a statement on their web site acknowledging there had been an expression of interest regarding a possible sale of the team but did not disclose the interested party.
It’s been reported that there are now several well-financed groups looking into purchasing an existing NHL franchise and moving it into southern Ontario. While the league has not endorsed the proposal, its stance has not been so harsh as to totally rule it out as an option. Balsillie has been attempting to do it without compensating either the Sabres or the Toronto Maple Leafs with a territorial fee. Others are said to be interested in making some sort of compensatory effort to the Leafs. Obtaining the Sabres would obviously relieve a group of paying a territorial fee to Buffalo.
The two-pronged sales approach is a strong indication that Golisano is more than willing to move on.
A separate source not connected with the sales talks said that Golisano is among a handful of owners upset at the financial ramifications of owning an NHL franchise since the lockout.
"The lockout was supposed to control costs and raise the value of the franchises for all the owners," the source said. "The problem is a lot of teams are spending more now than before the lockout and with guaranteed contracts and a failing economy, the cost of doing business keeps rising. Couple that to the crashing economy and owning a sports franchise, especially an NHL franchise isn’t as good as (commissioner Gary) Bettman had led them to believe.
Golisano is the founder of the payroll management company Paychex and a native of Rochester.
Jim Kelley also writes for Western New York Hockey magazine.