If professional hockey returns to Baltimore next season, it might be without Tom Ebright.
The Skipjacks owner, who will move his American Hockey League franchise to Portland, Maine, after this season, has agreed to step aside as the Baltimore Hockey Advocates explore other ownership options for an East Coast Hockey League team here, members of the advocates said yesterday.
Ebright's credibility with local fans became an issue with the advocates when he signed a lease last Friday to relocate the team -- exactly five weeks after he announced plans to stay in Baltimore.
The advocates are a group of local businessmen who own minority interest in Ebright's AHL franchise. Included in that group are John Haas, an original investor in the team, and Dennis Franks, a plastic surgeon. Ebright holds 93 percent of the team's interest.
Several of the advocates met with Ebright for breakfast Monday and recommended he focus his attention on one team -- either the Portland-bound Skipjacks or Baltimore's potential ECHL team.
"Under mutually agreeable circumstances, we felt Tom not being involved here probably would be in everybody's best interests, only because of Tom being painted the villain in the whole thing," Franks said.
Franks, though, was not critical of Ebright, who saved professional hockey in Baltimore when the Pittsburgh Penguins ended their affiliation here in 1987.
"Here's a guy who came in and worked tirelessly, put in a lot of his own money, lost a lot of his own money," Franks said. "He made mistakes, but everybody who's been here [with a hockey team] has made mistakes."
Ebright was unavailable for comment. After meeting with the advocates Monday, he left immediately on a vacation, according to a team spokesperson.
Haas, a past president of the club, did not preclude Ebright's participation with a new team in Baltimore, albeit a minor one. "It's too premature to say [whether Ebright will be involved]," Haas said. "Right now, he is the majority owner of the Baltimore franchise. . . . He's welcome to continue with us."
The advocates began preliminary discussions this week with Ed Anderson, owner of the Providence Bruins in the AHL, about possible ownership of an ECHL team here. Anderson met with Franks Monday night, then with Haas and city councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi on Tuesday. He toured the Arena, home of the Skipjacks, on Tuesday and made a lease proposal to Centre Management, which operates the building.
Gary Handleman, vice president for facilities at Centre Management, said he has not responded to Anderson's proposal, but did speak with Ebright on Wednesday.
"Tom indicated to me he will be happy to step aside if Ed Anderson is able to do this," Handleman said. "He did say he is still pursuing it until he finds out whether Ed will be able to do it."
Asked if an ECHL team with Anderson at the head was more feasible than one with Ebright, Handleman said, "Not necessarily."
Anderson was unavailable yesterday.
"Ed is looking to buy a franchise at this point," Franks said. "My impression is there would still be a local group [in the ownership]. As to where the monetary funds come from, I can't answer that yet. It hasn't been worked out. I don't know if it's Ed's money and our presence, or not. No question, he wants a strong local presence. I think that'd be appropriate."
Haas said the advocates were exploring all opportunities, and those opportunities weren't necessarily limited to Anderson or to the ECHL.
Bud Gingher, owner of the Dayton Bombers and chairman of the board of the ECHL governors, said the league hasn't received an application for expansion from anyone in Baltimore. He said the Johnstown, Pa., franchise was sold this week and that Roanoke (Va.) Valley Rampage owner Larry Revo should have no difficulty getting permission to relocate in Huntsville, Ala. Gingher also said the league has granted the Knoxville, Tenn., franchise a 30-day extension to resolve its problems there.
"Our commitment in Knoxville is to the existing ownership," Gingher said. "There are people who are interested in going there. We need [a team in] Knoxville, with its proximity to Birmingham [Ala.] and Nashville [Tenn.]."