Panthers' sale offers needed fresh start  

If approved, Viola needs to bring stability and money

The fact that Tim Thomas began practicing with the Panthers is as good a place to start as any. Thomas is 39. He spent a year out of hockey. He still brings a championship ring and veteran goaltending help to a team needing both.

But Thomas isn't the story today. Why he arrived is. Vincent Viola, the Panthers' new owner-in-waiting, allowed general manager Dale Tallon to spend some minimal money to bring in Thomas and a couple of other free agents.

That doesn't mean Viola, a Wall Street power broker, will be the owner the Panthers need to really bring this franchise back from hockey oblivion. But it offers an opening glimmer of hope. It represents a small change in a good way.

All you want as a Panthers fan is what all the players, coaches and front office types who have kept revolving through the arena in distressing fashion over the years have wanted.

You want a chance to win. You want an owner who hires the right people, spends the necessary money and offers the internal stability to give a franchise that chance. And it's never come.

The prime reason this franchise has failed so miserably doesn't start on the ice, the draft or with any attendance count. It starts in the owner's suite. This is the fifth owner for the team in the past 13 years.

No franchise can overcome that instability at the top, especially when no owner since H. Wayne Huizenga had the deep pockets or necessary conviction to make hockey work here.

The telling point for Cliff Viner, the latest owner heading out the door, came after the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in a decade in 2012. They lost to New Jersey in seven games that perked up South Florida. There was a window to be relevant again.

So what did the Panthers do that off-season?

Nothing.

They threw a couple of players overboard. They didn't sign any significant player to keep things going. Nor did they sign anyone again this off-season until the wheels of ownership change began of late.

That doesn't make Viner a bad person. It just means he didn't have the money or desire to be the owner this invisible team needs.

Does Viola? Who knows?

All we know about Viola is quick-sketch stuff: A native New Yorker, a West Point graduate, a minority owner in the Brooklyn Nets who made his money on Wall Street.

One Internet website put his net worth at $35 million. If true, that's not nearly enough for a sports owner. If true, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would nix any deal in the making.

A Panthers source said the league is expected to approve the team's sale to Viola before the Oct. 3 season opener. The team won't be moving, either. Put that to rest. Phoenix sat in bankruptcy for three years and the NHL didn't move it.

No one thinks owning the Panthers is a dream set-up or guarantees success. It will bleed money for a while. It demands smarts and the kind of check-writing stamina no one in the seat has wanted lately.

The most important commodity in any team has two opposite examples in South Florida. Heat owner Micky Arison's first move was to hire Pat Riley to make that a first-class team. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria continues to make his franchise a comic disaster.

We'll find out about Viola soon enough. All you know so far is his small loosening of purse strings for a few free agents still available was met with smiles inside the team.

Brad Boyes scored 35 points in 48 games with the Islanders last year. Veteran Tom Gilbert might offer depth to the defense. Thomas brings a veteran presence in goal to pair with youngster Jakob Markstrom.

"Reborn," Thomas said he felt upon arriving.

The Panthers are again in some manner, too. They've been through ownership changes too much in recent years. They need smarts, stability and money at the top. Let's hope they got that in Viola.

 

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